Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Describe the perfect writer’s retreat. (11/15/07)

Featured writer: Jordan E. Rosenfeld

Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Bonnie Bruinsslot
Brenda Bellinger
Charles Markee
Christine Falcone
Gregory Gerard
Guy Anthony De Marco
Lakin Khan
Maggie Manning
Patricia Harrelson
Serena Spinello
Susan Bono

Ideal Writer's Retreat

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

I envision dozens of writers walking green paths shrouded in dripping greens—willows or ivy, it doesn't matter. The writers don't speak as they pass, but they nod and smile and their thoughts are so palpable they can almost be seen like clouds of flies around each head. I see writers sitting side by side on a great green lawn, the sprawling kind at home in a Victorian novel, sipping drinks that fizz and pressing open well-loved books with one thumb and forefinger, stopping to listen to the far-off buzz of a conversation that erupts like a quick and tender shoot of grass.

Everywhere I look in this vision of mine, there is something green and blooming, sprouting no delicate buds but bold, fertile flowers—the kind that seem to shout at you that it's spring if you haven't noticed! And the writers—these writers in whose quiet company I am joined—we are part of that nature. We are together in silence, our pens and notepads our constant companions. Why I would not want to be alone I cannot tell you, exactly. Perhaps I thrive best when I am among a likeminded circle, and such a circle would want to be in nature, in springtime, when the sun warms, but doesn't burn, somewhere where we can move among and around each other like busy pollinating bees, gathering ideas and weaving thoughts.

Oh yeah—and someone else is cooking the food.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of the book Make a Scene (Writer's Digest Books) and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life (BeijaFlor Books). She's a contributing editor to Writer's Digest magazine, and a freelance writer whose articles and essays have appeared in such publications as the St. Petersburg Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Writer. Her book reviews are regularly featured on KQED Radio's "The California Report."

Betty Winslow

The perfect writer's retreat would be a week in early summer at a secluded manor house nestled in lovely gardens, with maid service, great meals (and room service, if desired), other writers to network with, a few things to do during breaks (like taking walks, riding bikes, reading, and crocheting), a well-stocked writer's library (so I don't have to haul along tons of my own books), and several editors eager to talk to me about possible articles I could write for them. Oh, and this retreat would be fully paid for by an anonymous supporter.

Betty Winslow, trying to keep writing in Bowling Green despite no at-home working computer or Internet access, and very little peace and quiet.

My Ideal Retreat

  by Bonnie Bruinsslot

I'm planning my ideal retreat - yes, in my dreams, but - dreams do come true sometimes, don't they? And my memory fans the fog that brings up these dreams.

Italy, twenty years ago, stirred my muse. I wrote journals, stories, jokes and riddles. The secret is having time and space - which I did - in fact, more than I desired.

And now there's a job in Rome. For me work is the way to get there this time. But work in Italy is at a pace where there is time to meander in my mind and unveil the muse. I will have the atmosphere of delight in the small things, like the rhythm of the Italian language I might hear through the window where I'm working on my masterpiece.

Bonnie Bruinsslot dreams of Italy as she writes in Santa Rosa, CA.

No Motel for a Muse

  by Brenda Bellinger

Sometimes, I think a room at the Motel 6 in Modesto would work. Although I have a small dedicated space at home, I don't have what I crave most, a long string of hours of uninterrupted peace to immerse myself in my current writing project. But wait. You've asked me to describe the perfect writer's retreat, not a desperate refuge. Closing my eyes, I'm picturing a secluded cabin near a lake at an elevation above the smog layer. The rustic, wood-framed cabin would be oriented to take advantage of natural light and catch the afternoon breeze coming off the water. Not far from the water's edge would be a large rock or log and a short distance away, a dirt path would lead to a carpeted grove of brooding redwoods that would make Annie Dillard green with envy. Inside the cabin, you'd find the most meager furnishings, a table, chair, bookshelf and bed. Conveniences, if any, would be primitive. There would be a place to build a fire, either inside or out, to invite images to dance in the flames and memories to be offered in smoke.

For a week's stay at this retreat, I'd pack notebooks, pens, candles, comfortable clothes I could write all day in and my favorite walking shoes. My cell phone would be deliberately and defiantly left home. In it's place, I would slide a slim Moleskine notebook and pen in my pocket when I step outside to stretch my legs and let nature untangle my thoughts and provide fresh inspiration. To my mind, a retreat should provide a cocoon of solitude away from the familiar - a protective, nurturing environment for a writer's spirit and of course, her muse.

Brenda Bellinger of Petaluma, CA, writes from her roost on an old chicken farm, where she has a distant view of the Industrial Park from her back door.

email address: E-Mail Brenda

The [Delete] Writer’s Retreat

  by Charles Markee

A dark cave with pencil, paper and candle? Seated on a cushion of leaves beneath a friendly, massive oak on a sunny fall day? A cabin in the mountains with snow on the roof and a fire for warmth? A beach in a quiet cove on Hawaii with white sand and clear water working its endless erosion? Or my corner room, Aeron chair, computer and the smell of surrounding books?

Of course, the answer is yes! I write always: walking, mowing, trimming and chipping trees branches, skiing, swimming, cooking and then when it all congeals into sense, my fingers seek a keyboard and it appears on the screen in a draft. It's all part of the joyful process we call "writing" and I think I've responded until I look again carefully at the title where the hideous word "perfect" pops out and I experience a mental paroxysm.

I hate "perfect." It's the secret weapon of my critic. Immediately, I feel defensive. That word isn't perfect. Look at that imperfect sentence. Oh, my, that entire paragraph is all wrong and certainly imperfect. Why can't I do anything perfectly? Involuntarily, my cursor zips up to the offending word, selects it, clicks DELETE and I sigh, lean back and relax. It almost got me … again.

Yet I don't feel done. An incipient thought lurks in me, a secret I don't want to divulge, a truth more basic than the cosmetic, physical places where I sit down to write or where I do things that allow my creative thoughts to churn in my unconscious as Ray Bradbury described. There is a "perfect" place I didn't want to reveal and it's a dream state that exists in own my personal cerebral thought clouds. I go there to achieve sartori and when that happens, I've found the perfect retreat for writing.

Charles Markee, middle-grade novel writer
Santa Rosa, California

My Perfect Writer’s Retreat

  by Christine Falcone

I don't know if it's the end of Daylight Savings Time or the diminishing hours of sunlight, but I've been feeling a sense of turning inward, getting quiet, ready for winter and the inner hush it brings. At these times, most especially, I yearn for time away from my family and friends, time away from the day-to-day existence of a stay-at-home mother. I've been dreaming about taking another writing retreat - maybe to Wellspring Renewal Center in Philo, or out to Stinson Beach to the same cozy cottage I spent a week alone last February. Whatever it is that's causing this hunger for solitude also has the wheels of my imagination spinning: what would my perfect writing retreat look like?

It would definitely require at least a week away by myself, nestled in some sweet spot between the redwoods and the ocean; the rhythm of the sea has always helped draw things out of me. I'd like to have a full-time staff who would cater to my every whim, bring me clean sheets, blank notebooks, delicious gourmet food -- all organic, of course. I'd have a bright sunny room in which to write (there would be no coastal fog at my perfect writer's retreat), preferably with at least one gigantic picture window in front of which I could stand or sit, staring out at the lapping waves of the mighty Pacific. The view would let my mind relax into itself, allowing the words to come. I'd have a comfortable bed, a fireplace with lots of starter logs, and a library of books to read when I needed a break: a mix of novels and collections of short stories and poetry.

If I felt the need for a little companionship, a short walk up the road would take me to a main house peopled by other writers. There would be friendly, smiling dogs with tails wagging as they walked up to greet and sniff me, horses with long, lustrous manes, sleepy cats curled up on themselves like snakes. Maybe an aviary full of colorful birds, too, whose song would herald my arrival as I wound my way along the coastal bluff paths through the woods toward the main house.

I'd wake before dawn, put on the kettle for tea and sidle up to my laptop to write for five or six hours. Then I would take a much-deserved walk through the towering, centuries-old trees, or a run on the beach collecting sea glass and sand dollars as I spotted them in the sand. I'd return to my comfortable chair and my desk that looked out on the sea and write another couple of hours before calling it a day.

Now that I think about it, maybe I'll start planning for real!

Christine Falcone writes and dreams about taking writing retreats from her home in Novato. Her recently completed novel, This Is What I Know, was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans, which hosted her at a writer's conference in the Big Easy last month.

Withdrawal In Moderation

  by Gregory Gerard

Retreat (n): To withdraw.
I'd guess that many writers draw on serene lakes set against shimmering sunlight as the key to prolific inspiration. For me, this only makes up one third in the trinity of retreat:

•A serene lake (with shimmering sunlight), to draw my wandering gaze between thoughts of consistent character and believable dialogue

•A three-prong electrical socket, to propel my laptop beyond its battery's dying gasps

•And, of no less importance, a pizza parlor within driving distance; one that has a thick, chewy crust, endlessly stretchable cheese, and a crimson sauce that is spicy and rich - with just a hint of something forgotten and sweet

Gregory Gerard searches for ways to moderate middle-life in Rochester, N.Y.
Visit him online at

Beat a Retreat

  by Guy Anthony De Marco

The setting sun casts a blood-red shadow over the graveyard. My Kawasaki Ninja is vibrating underneath me. It always seems to tremble more as the headstones fly by, looking like pre-historic Burma-Shave advertisements for passing motorists.

Out here, there's only the three of us. Me, and those little voices in my head. The ones the doctors can't exorcise. The critic who can only be driven into submission by the thrill of motorcycle riding. The editor who wants to change my thoughts as they progress from brain matter to keyboard, silenced by the howl of wind and V-Twin power.

My mind is free to vacillate between road safety and story ideas. Nobody takes this haunted road these days; there's a parallel highway for the rushing masses. This road is for thinking, for planning, and for developing. There's symmetry between the graveyard and writing -- both rely heavily on plots. Plots for last century's deceased, and plots for the undead.

I'm a genre writer, and horror is one of my passions. The thrill of a suspenseful story is as real as riding the Ninja a little too fast for the curves near the graveyard.

This writer's retreat envelops me with the endorphins of fear and thrills. I don't have to worry about the phone ringing, the dogs pooping on the carpet, kids setting fire to the voodoo doll collection, or zombies arriving for dinner. It's just me and my silent cranial cellmates, hammering ideas into shape without the intrusion of life, or death, as the case may be.

When the front wheel hits the driveway, a story is waiting at my fingertips. By the time the bike is put away, I'm ready to solve all the little problems that cropped up during my ride. An hour later, the phone is off the hook, the poop is cleaned, the fires put out and the kids put to bed, and the zombies are driven off by a few shotgun blasts. I'm ready to write, and I allow my voices their say in the story. When they're quiet, they can listen to the ideas. When I write, they can exchange the ideas for manuscripts.

We get along well, for the most part. I just wish the voices didn't ask for blood and brains when I type.

Guy Anthony De Marco resides on a ranch surrounded by zombies and cattle. His kids enjoy burning voodoo dolls, and his wife puts up with the zombies because the view is wonderful off the back porch. Guy attempts to maintain a website at, but the ghosts keep messing things up for fun.

Recipe for Perfect Writers Retreat

  by Lakin Khan


Cabin, preferably with a wood stove
Water, rushing is best, or waves
Inclement weather for 75% of the time
Walks that are safe enough for distracted minds to navigate, strenuous enough to keep the large muscle groups oiled and long enough to freshen the brain
Excellent Mexican restaurant within walking distance
Meals shared with other writers and artists
Healthy and unhealthy food in equal proportions
Music, either self-generated or on CD
A suitably engaging project
Books and notes for reference and inspiration and just plain escape
Excellent chair and desk
Just enough electricity to power laptop and music devices


Take a rustic cabin, with wood stove inserted, and wide porch along one side. Add a dash of trees, or if available, a whole ridgeline. Place within walking distance of active water and dust with enough decent weather to get there every day (in the opposite direction will be the most excellent Mexican restaurant). Slowly stir in walks, a little bit at a time, alternating with meals shared with other artists (composed of equal portions of healthy and unhealthy food); toss in a soupçon of music as needed. Briskly mix in suitably engaging project, inspiring books and reference notes, then pour into ergonomically correct chair and desk; simmer for two weeks. Check frequently for adequate electricity. Deep conversations will bubble up in the evenings; do not mash them down. The end result is quite tasty; participants always beg for more. Have printed recipe available to hand them as they leave.

Lakin Khan recently returned from a perfect writers retreat and wishes that every writer could go on one every 6 months. They're good ...and good for you!

The perfect writer’s retreat

  by Maggie Manning

Time - it always comes down to time. There is too little time. Too little time to finish my work, to settle my mind, to focus on what I want to write. Too little time to sit, and think, and let the words come. The perfect writer's retreat would provide the time and place I need to think. I must be away from home and away from modern distractions: no TV, no radio, no iPod, cell phone, Internet; the cacophony of electronic intrusions that drown out any possibility of thought.

Ideally, I am alone in this retreat, or, perhaps, with other writers who will not bother me. Ideally, I am also in a natural setting, in a world of birds and wind and salt smells and sea sounds. Here, I can be another Thoreau, using the backdrop of the pulsing world around me to turn inward, to pull out the jumbled thoughts crowding my head, trying to get out, get onto paper, become real.

In this perfect retreat, I am not worried about my daughter, my students, my house, the bills, the Bush administration, global warming, the future, death. Instead, words come to me and become for me on the page, through my pen, into the light. And I am content.

Maggie Manning is a harried single mom and college professor who lives in western New York state.


  by Patricia Harrelson

The Perfect Writer's Retreat.

Moderately rustic accommodations is a top priority for me when it comes to a writer's retreat. I want electricity, hot water, a refrigerator, and a decent bed which can be a narrow cot if the mattress is serviceable. Beyond that I don't require much. Wood heating is fine and a simple hotplate and toaster oven would be acceptable though I wouldn't scoff at a stove. This brings me to my second criterion which is no modern conveniences (other than a lap top): i.e. no phone, Internet, TV, radio. An Ipod (or disc-man) for music is OK, but it's a bit like the stove. I can take it or leave it.

I need a place to walk two or three times a day, preferably a trail or dirt road, but a low traffic country road would serve well. I need brief stints of simple food preparation. The act of brewing tea, cutting fruit, or washing salad vegetables is very compatible with writing for me, but I don't want to give a lot of time to food-- neither preparing nor eating it. A fridge and cupboard pre-stocked with easy-fixin food goes along with this requirement.

I'd be happy to have one or more writing buddies if a rule of silence is imposed and respected all day with only a short "talk" time allowed in early evening. Talk can be about the work but doesn't need to be. Each person would need her own dedicated writing space.

I'd like a minimum of five days in such a context and would be delighted to have up to four weeks. A lovely perk would be a library with a diverse collection, especially some poetry and classics, and a balance of female to male authors. But a library is not essential for perfect conditions.

I've had the good fortune to enjoy several writing retreats that fit my definition of perfect-- two self-designed and one awarded through application. I'm ready to pack my bag for a fourth.

Patricia Harrelson spent November deeply immersed in NaNoWriMo with 90,000 other writers world-wide writing a 50,000 word novel in a month. She writes play reviews and feature articles for the Sonora Union Democrat and is self-publishing a non-fiction book, Between Two Women, which she completed primarily because of three perfect writer retreats.

Serena Spinello

We're all there
novelists, scribes, wordsmiths, balladists-
perched upon hammocks
eager to commence our craft.
Inspiration radiates, from hand to hand
paper to paper and ink to ink.
Our passions ignite
propensity and purpose,
plots and personality.
Our creativity kindles
noble pens to produce.
Revered ink begins to provoke
pristine paper.
Immaculate sheets
now ornamented
with droplets of delight
dribbles of dexterity
dashes of dreams
and dabs of disclosure.

Amid the presence of artists
ideas manifest
and concepts are conceived.
Words run rampant
playing among punctuation
styles and genres.

Serena Spinello is 26 years old, born and raised in New York. Her recent poems have been published in Clockwise Cat, The Houston Literary Review, Conceit Magazine, 63 Channels, Sien en Werden, The Centrifugal Eye, Cause and Effect, Mississippi Crow, Lachryma: Modern Songs of Lament, Zygote in my Coffee, Hecale, Scorched Earth Publishing, The Flask Review and The Verse Marauder. Serena can be contacted via email at

Having it All

  by Susan Bono

Writers' retreats—I've had them big, I've had them small, and the results have been uniformly disappointing. Whether I'm alone or with others, on a two-week train trip across Canada or an overnight escape to a cabin or beach house, I never feel like I get enough writing done. After all the eating, sleeping and futzing around I have to do in order to adjust to a new environment, who has time to write?

I might do better locked in a windowless bunker with a package of hot dogs and a sleeve of soda crackers. Or maybe I should subject myself to a paramilitary-style writers' boot camp, hustled to the point of exhaustion by a sergeant with a buzz cut screaming, "WRITE, miserable worm, WRITE!" But I suspect even these extreme measures would leave me feeling dissatisfied, because the one thing missing from these writing retreats has been appropriate expectations.

Somehow I keep forgetting that no matter where I go, I get so stimulated by my surroundings, it's all I can do to simply experience them. I'm like the family dog with her head thrust out the car window, delirious to be going somewhere, anywhere. When I signed up for the trans-Canada train trip with 5 other writers, I fantasized about the hours I'd spend in my private compartment, tapping away on my new laptop as Manitoba and Saskatchewan rolled by.

But when I found myself in that office on wheels, I couldn't tear my eyes from the brooding tidal flats of Nova Scotia, the seemingly endless procession of Ontario's little lakes. When we were on layover, there was no way I was going to hole up in my hotel room. It wasn't just the Canadian Rockies I watched for—I was on the alert for moose or bear! And at night, there was the irresistible opportunity to slip into rhythmically rocking slumber. I told myself then, as I do on every so-called writing retreat, "I can write any time, but I'll never be here again!"

And just like that, my writing retreat becomes a vacation. Of course, once I get home, all the distractions I ran away from get me in a stranglehold, and the memories of my time away fade to little wisps of unrecorded regret. Why didn't I write more of it down?

Here's one scenario I haven't tried: a getaway that allows for both stimulation and reflection—a week touring Cornwall, perhaps, followed by a week tucked into some comfy B&B in Penzance, or maybe alternating days of discovery and solitude. The details are fuzzy, but the ideal writing retreat would give me enough time write AND retreat, so I don't always feel like I'm missing something.

And then again, there's always boot camp.

After retreating from writing, Susan Bono retreats to her office in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

Back to Searchlights & Signal Flares