Writers who retreat together

Last Friday, I crammed a duffle bag full of crap I probably wasn’t going to need, stopped at LA Union Station to pick up one of my favorite fantasy-writing gurus Emily Warren, and drove us a hundred miles south to the Ranch.

And we ended up here.

And we ended up here.

It was a few months ago at a café in the Arts District when I first suggested that the three of us—Emily, me, and our friend and fellow writer Spandana Myneni—go on a writers’ retreat. I’d only known them for a couple months, after meeting up throughout the year (including at YALLWEST).

But, y’know, it seemed like a good idea. YOLO and whatnot.

Then, at the beginning of August, we got a group email from Spandana, inviting us to her home in San Diego. After some back and forth, Emily and I found ourselves on the road, but not before making a quick pit stop at a suburban grocery store with the best customer service ever, complete with a kindly deli employee who forced us to sample every slaw and salad they had.

“If I buy a giant jug of Goldfish, will you help me eat it?” I asked Emily in the junk food aisle.

She looked at me very seriously. “Yes.”

And that’s how I ended up eating a gallon-sized carton of Goldfish alone (JK, mostly).

The view. You can't beat it.

Dat view doe. You can’t beat it.

On the first morning, I woke up at 6am, out of habit.

I then remembered that it was Saturday and ain’t nobody got time for that, so I promptly returned to sweet, sweet sleep.

I woke up again at 7:30, at which point both Emily and Spandana were up, too, and we ended up sitting out on the terrace (writing retreats with Emily consist of intense discussions on the difference between “terrace,” “porch,” and “veranda” and then me, losing all confidence in my diction) watching the sun slowly burn away the fog that had settled into the valley overnight.

If there’s a better view for writing a Halloween fairytale, I don’t know what it is.

Meanwhile, we all had goals. Actually, I had goals and I forced everyone else to have goals, because I am that guy. Emily decided she was going to finish her draft during the weekend, and Spandana said she wanted to essentially beat the living crap out of the invisible evil gremlins that were keeping her from writing the chapters she was rewriting. So because everyone was going big or going home, I set a weekend wordcount goal of 6,000 words.

Emily finished her novel.

Spandana destroyed her gremlins.

I wrote 8,000 words.

We also made this pizza. Well, Emily made it. I watched and made encouraging noises.

We also made this pizza. Well, Emily made it. I watched and made encouraging noises.

Just to get away from the city for a while was perfect.

To have two other writers with me all weekend to talk about books we love, movies we hate, the sheer perfection of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted and The Justice League cartoon, fan art, future agent speculation, and our own novels’ convoluted plots—was oddly energizing and relaxing at the same time.

These are my people. My tribe. I’ll never let you go, Jack.

Also, when we weren’t slowly melting our brains writing as many words as humanly possible, we jumped in the pool (mostly me, admittedly) and watched The Road to El Dorado, which is a severely underrated movie.

Poolside Pool party

I made Emily and Spandana very uncomfortable as I lip-synced the entire El Dorado theme song with Elton John. A grand time was had by all. Mostly me.

El Dorado

Spandana’s family also keeps a garden that is both gorgeous and seemingly impossible in on their strange and beautiful desert-mountain. We went basil-tasting for our (Emily’s) pizza, though I ended up spitting a lot of it out when no one was looking, as I am the soul of culture.

I also took this photo of Emily posing next to a rock sculpture made by Spandana’s dad.

Too...many...rock jokes...can't...choose...

Too…many…rock jokes…can’t…choose…

And this photo of a melon-y squash thing I found.

It was quite large.

It was quite large.

By the end of the weekend, we had decided that if we were ever on an author panel together, Emily would be the greatest moderator of all time, and Spandana would probably be that writer spoiling every twist in her book, and I would be secretly throwing things at both of them under the table.

We ended up on the roof at the end of the second day, and watched the sunset over the valley. The fog rolled in from the ocean and a few hot air balloons lit up the horizon, rising out of the mist every once in a while to disappear above the clouds.

Is it obvious that I miss this? No?

I miss this.

Every once in a while, you have those moments when you realize that nothing is a solitary sport. I used to think that writing was, but I’ve found more and more that actually, it’s one of the least solitary things you can do. Nobody pulls a story out of thin air (except for maybe Spandana, whose brain is a flash fiction factory). I think we make stories out of our experiences, the bits of ideas we’ve plucked here and there from other people and things we’ve read or seen; we make stories out of things other people have seen and done, and we desperately want to see or do. Then we share them, and with luck, more people get to be a part of it.

And this is the beauty of books. And of the Internet.

Because sometimes, you just need somebody to nod encouragingly while you flail around, crying, “I am feeling so emotional about this scene I’m writing with a 400-year-old owl-lady and a girl who has nightmares about fire.”

Sometimes, you just need to be there to eat caramelized bananas pan-fried in butter with someone who has just finished writing a sequel (a sequel, you guys).

Sometimes, everybody just needs to belt “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Somebody to Love” at the top of their lungs while sitting in traffic on Interstate 5 because adulthood is looming and we hates it, precious.

Books and the Internet (+ Spandana’s very gracious and lovely family) made that possible for a trio of nerds this weekend. I hope you get to do it some day soon. It’s worth it. If not for the words, then for the nerds. The wordy nerds.

I like rhymes.

Samantha Chaffin


When was the last time you retreated? Have you been on one specifically for your work/art before? Tell me ’bout it, stud.

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