Finding Inspiration in the Company of Others

I’m jet lagged and suffering the after effects of accepting too many cups of wine from the uber-cheery flight attendants of KLM’s transatlantic service.  We ‘re halfway through a return trip from Vienna, where the family and I spent a couple of weeks celebrating my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. (I just hope I’m able to tromp all over cobblestone streets like Mama Cheng does when I’m 90. The woman is amazing.)

I fell madly in love with Vienna. Every corner we turned revealed some medieval-era nook that begged to be explored. There was one bad moment when my wallet got pick pocketed (shame on me for letting my tourist’s guard down), but even that misfortune turned positive. We wound up meeting a charming member of the Austrian Polizei; the officer called the credit card companies for me, offered insights about crime and police work in the city, and invited us to tour an amazing military history museum. Our encounter was (almost) worth the pain of losing my driver’s license.

Mama Cheng is a huge Mozart fan, so of course we made a pilgrammage to the composer’s haunts. The home where he lived during his most successful years is now a museum; its walls are inscribed with his sayings. In one quote, Mozart describes being surrounded by neighbors who included a music teacher, a violinist, and a singer. To paraphrase Mozart: “Being surrounded by the music of other artists gives me many useful ideas for my own work.”

As writer-artists, I think we’ve all experienced the creative boost that comes from the company of other writers. I always return from a writer’s conference with new perspectives and a renewed enthusiasm for writing. And of course, TKZ’s mission is to provide a virtual watering hole where we share experiences with the craft, hoping to inspire and be inspired.


But Mozart’s quote got me thinking that it might be good to seek out even more intensive interaction, such as a writing retreat. I’ve never been on a retreat, but I visualize it as being peopled with the kind of folk you find at the bar at conferences. Only instead of a bar, we’ll be hanging out at a cozy lodge overlooking some sylvan scene. There has to be a fireplace, of course, and great discussions. Other than that, I’m open to suggestions. Have any of you ever been on a writing retreat? How was the experience?

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23 thoughts on “Finding Inspiration in the Company of Others

  1. When I lived in Oklahoma, my writers group held 1-2 retreats a year. Getting out of town and away from distractions was great. You somehow get to know your fellow writers better on a road trip too. Our agendas were solid, but sometimes it was all the impromptu yet focused discussions that really resonated with good takeaway. I’ve never been to a bad writer retreat. Knock wood.

    A retreat I’d love to participate in–and never have–is on plotting. I missed the one they did. The idea was to come with a vague book idea, but work in small brainstorming groups where you could come away with your book nailed down on key plot movements.

    Welcome back. Your trip sounds fabulous.

  2. I have not been to a writer’s retreat but being at a conference is comparable. There you are with like-minded individuals as well. I loved Vienna when I was there years ago. The food especially was memorable, those wonderful pastries and coffee houses.

  3. The Cafe Centrale was the best, where Freud (and Hitler, ugh) hung out. Our party did finally burn out on wienerschnitzle (sp?) andsome of the traditional specialties, however!

  4. I’m not really interested in writers’ retreats but I do get inspiration from the actions of others. Walking or driving around unfamiliar areas can reveal a wealth of stories. People laughed when Yogi Berra said “You can observe a lot just by watching” but it’s true.”

    Sorry to hear about your wallet, Kathryn, but thanks for sharing your story as a reminder for the rest of us to be careful. However: it’s not a shame on you. Shame on the waste of skin who stole your wallet. You are the victim here.

    • Thanks Joe, but the same thing happened to me in Chicago, so I think i’m way too easy pickin’s. i need to develop more situational awareness, I think!

  5. I’m actually organizing and attending my first writers’ retreat this summer and looking forward to it. Since I typically write nonfiction, I sometimes feel a little out-of-sync with other writers working on novel-length fiction, but I’m hoping the creative spirit will be contagious.

    • Julie, that’s exciting news about your first retreat! And nonfiction is definitely relsted to fiction. I wrote a screenplay based on a true story many years ago, which led to being offered a contract to do a book on the same subject. It’s all in the great Ol’ Man River we call writing!

  6. This post is incredibly timely in my life. I have decided I need to attend a retreat – or a seminar – and was going to make my mind up which one TODAY. Does anyone out there have any suggestions? I am interested in historical fiction/mystery writing.

  7. I like getting together and recharging with folks of like mind. My problem is finding folks whose mind is like mine. Believe it or not there are some, even right here in Alaska, as we mostly all know each other.

    One of the best places for me to get writing help though, is quite often not with other writers. It is with my bud’s at the shooting range, or sitting around the fire pit at one of our houses. I toss in a scenario and let them chat it up for a couple hours and next thing you know, I’ve got new names to put on the acknowledgement page for contributions to the story.

    By the way…
    What are the TKZ gang’s plans for Memorial Day Weekend? Personally I plan to do a little gardening, rake the yard, BBQ, and to cap it off I’ll be piercing my belly button with a large Aztec Skull ornament, putting colored feathers in my hair and while wearing nothing but those and a loin cloth will go to my front yard and do the special shaky stompy grunty money makey haka dance around the post box in hopes of appeasing the Publishers Clearing House spirits so they’ll send me that $10million they’ve been promising all these years.

    Any TKZers wanna join me in the stompy dance?

  8. Basil: Your PCH check is in the mail.

    A writer’s retreat sounds like a wonderful idea. It’d be like camp when you were ten. Maybe we could put on a play, where everyone gets to act out their favorite parts of speech. Whoa! Here comes a chorus line of dancing participles.

  9. One of my crit groups took a retreat some years ago. One member had an aunt with a small mansion on some land, and we got to use a portion of it for the weekend. As a home schooling mom of four with lots of other responsibilities, it was incredible to have pure quiet time for writing and sharing with other writers. I recommend it, but if you plan your own retreat with a group, spend some time planning it in advance. We did, and it was a more productive weekend because of it.

  10. Kathryn–
    For some reason, reading of your pleasure in visiting Vienna has filled me with nostalgia. I was there just once, and only for three days, but I remember it all very well. Here’s my favorite “takeaway.” My wife and I had just arrived from the States. We were exhausted but unwilling to lose an evening, so guidebook in hand, we left our hotel and quickly found the Rathaus, or city hall. In a park in front of the Rathaus, a crowd made up of all generations was gathering, drinking wine and beer. A huge movie screen had been put in place on the Rathaus wall. We knew nothing of this, only that our guidebook said a very good restaurant could be found in the city hall’s lower level.
    This turned out to be true. Wood paneling,and back-lighted leaded glass “windows” in a vine design worked to create a wine-garden atmosphere. We sat too long and ate far too much delicious, heavy food, all of it washed down with excellent beer. As we ate, a man played a harp, with heavy emphasis on the theme music from–what else?–The Third Man. As Americans, we were decidedly in the minority; most of the diners were Asians, I think Koreans.
    Stuffed, exhausted and happy, we went up into a beautiful night, hearing as we opened the outer door a booming voice. We rounded the corner, and now saw the earlier crowd seated in the dark in rows, looking up at the huge screen. It was Leonard Bernstein, speaking German, being interviewed as part of some documentary. Perhaps a thousand faces were fixed on the screen. We made our way toward the street, passing racks of dirty wine and beer glasses, stacked up to be taken away. This thing about seeing actual stemware and pilsner glasses left unattended in a public park–maybe you just have to be from Detroit to know how astonishing that was to us. But all of it got to me, the premier American conductor, a Jew, huge on a screen at City Hall, in the hometown of Hitler, the scene of Kristalnacht–
    Well, as I say, Kathryn, you pushed a button tonight.

  11. Thank you for sharing those memories of Vienna, Barry! I was really surprised by how much I loved Vienna, because I wasn’t expecting to. The city’s a perfect blend of old and new, as you described.

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