Why I Love Writing Marathons

I’m doing it again. Hosting another Summer Writing Marathon. I can’t help myself. These gatherings have been a summer staple for two decades and I can’t imagine a summer going by without one anymore than I can imagine owning a car that isn’t a ragtop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting Marathons are among my favorite ways to spend a day with other writers. We gather around a big table, or in a grassy park, or once, at the home of one of us where we roamed the property all day, responding to prompts and trailing rose blossoms into the stream (me, ever the romantic). We’ve marathoned at crowded cafes and in spacious art studios, and in the rooms at various writing centers. This summer, on Saturday, August 23, we’ll meet at Inspirations Gallery, at Liberty Station, an ex-Navy Training Center that has been transformed into an arts and culture center with beautiful grounds and creative mojo.

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Writing Marathon Style

Who wants to write for four hours straight? Six hours? Eight hours? More? I know plenty of writers who do and I’ve done it with them many times.

I ran my first writing marathon nearly twenty years ago. I’d read about writing marathons in Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, and added my own variations to her basic idea. I rounded up a bunch of writers who gathered for a day-long writing practice-style session using prompts and props and exercises in a free-wheeling, anything-goes, surprise-yourself endurance run. Since then I’ve led dozens of such events— happy-hour marathons, late-night marathons and pizza parties, outdoor marathons, café marathons; we held a New Year’s Eve event one year and wrote until two in the morning. Even after all these years, I still love doing them.


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“If I could just get away . . . “

Our Mountain Retreat

Definition of irony: I am taking time away from my time away to write about getting away. That is, I have holed myself up in a mountain cabin in Idyllwild with my friend Dian for a month-long writing retreat. No Internet or cell-phone service unless I go “down the hill” as the local say, to a café, and no television only my Rodney Yee yoga DVDs and my laptop, a few of my notebooks and a firm commitment to finish the third draft of my novel.

You might say I’m in heaven.

Though by far my longest “time away,” this isn’t the only writing retreat I’ve created for myself this year. At least once a month my friend Jill and I make a date for three or four hours at her house or mine to devote to our writing, in May she invited me to her ranch for a glorious and productive three-day retreat. I also consider my monthly Saturday Series gatherings with a dozen or so other writers a retreat; I even include “retreat” in the title of the series, and certainly the twice-yearly, day-long writing marathons at The Ink Spot are a time-out-of-time, rowdy and rambunctious as they can sometimes be.

Fellow Retreater

To my mind, a writing retreat is the time I take out of my ordinary day-in and day-out routine, when I set everything aside and give myself over to my writing. It’s where I go when I remove myself from the ordinary and move into the extraordinary. So, in this sense, the hour-long Thursday Writers sessions and Tuesday Brown Bag group I participate in could be called mini-retreats. Even my daily writing practice can be turned into a retreat when I create the right container for it—that is, setting aside time, creating space (for me, that means lighting a candle) and entering the time and space with intention.

Much as I believe that the idea of a writing retreat will always include “getting away” (I expect secluded mountain cabins or private, distant seashores will forever remain in my writer’s mind’s eye), I also believe it’s important to create other, less extensive writing retreats that can refill and restore us, open us to creative expression and allow us to dip into the solitude we need. Consider this:

• that a writing retreat is not necessarily a place, but a concept.

• that the word retreat is both a noun and a verb.

• that time can be measured not just in length, but in depth.

• that the idea of being alone isn’t about being distant from people but not allowing others to intrude on your solitude.

When was the last time you gave yourself the gift of “getting away”?

*some of the material was previously published in my kit, The Writer’s Retreat Kit, a Guide for Creative Expression & Personal Exploration.