What can a writer learn at a business retreat?

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I just came back from a magical three day retreat in the Nottinghamshire countryside (the photo above is blurry because it was taken through the window of my room – the sunrises were gorgeous). In the run-up to the retreat, I really agonized about whether I could go, whether I should take the time out of my work-schedule, whether I would gain anything from it.

And, most of all, whether I deserved it.

On the first evening, I really wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. Not because there was anything wrong with the retreat – far from it! The venue was superb, the atmosphere warm and friendly, the other participants the most lovely women, the retreat leaders Elizabeth and Emma Buckley-Goddard brilliant hosts. There was generosity and fun all around me.

The real problem was me. I was tired, out of sorts, full of stress. I couldn’t settle into the experience. I started to worry that maybe I didn’t fit in.

The next day, that all changed as we took turns talking about our businesses, learning from Elizabeth – and what’s more, from each other. I felt like a cushion or pillow that’s been flattened by pressure for too long, and then the pressure comes off and air starts to seep in and the pillow plumps up. (I was plumping up from Jo Hodson’s amazing food, but that’s another story!)

So what did I learn? So much! About myself, about how other women cope with business and how they balance business and their daily lives. Here, then are some key takeaways:

  • That diverse business-owners find they have the same issues: discoverability, impostor syndrome, deciding which direction to take next, deciding which offers to make to their clients/customers, finding the strength to jettison what doesn’t work anymore and move on to what has the potential to take their businesses to another level.

  • That there’s an extraordinary paradox at work: women who are teachers, communicators, marketers, whose lives are all about reaching out and helping others, start their hot-seat sessions with the phrase ‘I’m an introvert but…’! We agreed there are misconceptions about being an introvert. Introverts do like people and do like talking to them, but they also need to factor in the time and space to step back, be silent, refill the well. Constantly putting ourselves out there drains energy and we have to find ways to restore it. Ways like this retreat, for instance.

  • That business and creativity co-exist. You can’t run your business without creative imagination but that imagination has to work within the parameters of what is practicable in a business sense.

  • That women in a workshop space create an amazing instant bond and a vibrant energy, punctuated by delighted cries of ‘Me too!’ (not, I hasten to add, in the Hollywood sense). I’ve noticed this in my writing retreats – how quickly women meet and recognize one another and open up to one another and cheer one another on.

  • That tough love and accountability are necessary. We’re all good at dreaming, but need to be good at doing too.

If you’re a writer or want to start writing I think you can see how many of these lessons also apply to you. Find your peers, your encouragers. Find those who are experiencing what you experience. Find mentors who will give you that tough love, that shoulder to cry on, and the practical advice you need to keep soldiering on.

I’m still absorbing what I learned and I’m buzzing with new plans and intentions – but that’s a story for another day :)

In the meantime, keep dreaming. And keep doing.

Chasing squirrels: the distraction of too many ideas and why it matters to stay focused

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New writers often worry about how to find ideas. If they’ve had a good idea they worry about whether they’ll ever have another. The truth is, many of us don’t suffer from a lack of ideas. Quite the opposite: ideas pop into our heads, scream out at us from newspaper articles or history books or memories or dreams. Ideas are coming at us all the time.

I remember seeing a Facebook video of a dog leaping at soap bubbles pumped out by a bubble-gun. It was going frantic, darting and somersaulting, snapping at those floating orbs. As soon as its jaws closed, the bubble would burst. Meanwhile, other bubbles soared out of reach, leaving the poor mutt with nothing.

You may have seen the Disney/Pixar film Up, featuring another delightful hound, an inane smiley pup who craves to be loved and to be helpful to humans, but is eternally distracted – 'Squirrel!’ – and dashes off after the elusive creature. He just can’t help himself.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? When ideas come, they distract you like the darting squirrel. They arrive all shiny and unspoilt, like that iridescent soap-bubble. Your impulse is to chase it but as you reach out, another floats by. You want that one too.

Try to resist the urge, however Pavlovian it is, however conditioned by the eternal human quest for the new.

That idea, that story you’re with right now? Yes, the shine may have come off it a little. You may feel you’ve lost that first enthusiasm. But you’ve come a long way with it – don’t desert it now. Stay with it and see it through.

Disengage from the distraction of new ideas and give the old one the attention and focus it deserves. If you record your new ideas in a notebook or Evernote file, they can wait. Good ideas are not soap bubbles, after all. They will endure, if they are any good. They’ll mature and grow in your sub-consciousness. And when you turn to them, if you’ve finished your previous story-task, you’ll be able to show them the commitment they truly deserve.

No squirrels.

Here’s one of Henry Miller’s work schedule rules:

Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

Chase and catch ideas, share your work and ask me anything at this Saturday’s Creative Brainstorm workshop: visit the courses page for details!