A Return to Retreats

Warning: This is nothing more than self-indulgent, overly-long musings, peppered with random photos, that meander through the author’s grey matter after returning from his first in-person writers’ retreat since 2019. It borders on a humble-brag and you wouldn’t be blamed for skipping it.

Looking west to the Olympic Mountain range. Someone asked me, “how big is that bird, I can’t tell.” I told her, it is crow size.

The pandemic has robbed us of a lot of things. I’d argue the number one thing was the opportunity to engage with other living, breathing human beings. At least in any tangible or tactile way. Whether at work, family gatherings, restaurants, concerts, (goodgawd, I cannot wait for live music!), or any number of industry events. It was all kiboshed. 

10:07 am, walking up to the main building for coffee. The moon is all mixed up.

Sure, we’ve had a number of ways of communicating with each other where we could actually see each other’s mug, if not what they are wearing waist down. With conferences and book launches* and classes all going virtual, the opportunity to attend things opened up dramatically. With no airfare, no hotel costs, and cheaper registration fees, attending events all over the world became a (virtual) reality. And the number of folks who could partake was not limited by the fire code. I’ve attended quite a number of them.

But…that got tiresome quickly. Zoom burnout became a real thing. I do not want to take Zoom for granted—it really is an amazing tool that was available for everyone and for free (mostly) during a time we really needed it. Like the other video communication tools available, Zoom soon revealed its limitations. You couldn’t banter with one or two or three friends before a meeting starts, and then once it did, the pauses and freezes and inability for spontaneous comments and the natural kind of communication we are used to fall to the side. It became kind of a tease at times, too. Showing us that there were indeed people out there in the world, but we couldn’t be with them, or laugh with them, or hug them. Yeah, I know, there are non-huggers out there that were delighted by this, but I’m a hugger and I missed it terribly.

My writing place at the retreat. And yes, that is a a bottle of Makers’ Mark 46. It was for emergencies.

After months (or has it been years?) of isolating in my home, with cautious trips out for groceries and/or vodka, meeting with folks on Zoom, I finally got to see (other than a handful of folks in my “circle”) people in a close up and intimate way.

I just got home from a week-long, in-person writers’ retreat. It was set on a beautiful island on the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest, and with fairly good weather (I could have used another 10 degrees or so.) It was magnificent. There were about 16 of us, each had our own rooms or cabins, the meals were all provided by an incredible chef. I didn’t even mind the meals that were all vegetarian. In fact truly I enjoyed them. (But kept thinking to myself how much a little bit of sausage might take it up yet another notch.)

Some of the grounds. The sun finally chased the moon away.

We were all fully vaccinated but still wore masks inside when we were all together for sessions of any kind. Though honestly, by the end of the week most of us were forgetting to mask up at times. Also, worth noting—and this is huge—there was hugging. There. Was. Hugging. Because I’m a hugger, I knew I missed it, just not how much. 

The mandatory fire photo. I think there is a law—or at least a policy—that you have to post a campfire photo if you go to a retreat.

The retreat schedule provided a lot of white time with an opportunity to create. I brought tools to write as well as my art supplies. I didn’t know what I was going to work on for the week—I had several manuscripts in the works that I could have brought, but I really felt like doing something from scratch.

At the suggestion from my agent earlier this year, I decided to try my hand at a graphic novel for the very young. She convinced me it was something that I could do and something I might be good at. 

A beach on the island. And some driftwood. And a bunch of leashless dogs. I always say, there is no greater example of freedom than a dog on a beach without a leash.

I’ve spent time (and money) reading a lot of graphic novels for the very young over the past couple of months. Yeah, it did seem like something I could do, something I might have fun doing. So, with little more than a character, no story, and no idea how to structure the actual writing of a graphic novel, I began Tuesday morning winging it. It flowed. It just seemed to come out and it all was making sense. By Friday morning I had an actual story made up of six chapters. By the time I got home Monday afternoon, I had written the whole thing. Granted, like most things, it is going to need some serious rewrites. But still…

I had not written anything of consequence the last sixteen months. I had not drawn anything of note other than on the projects I had contracted for. I, like many others in this industry, have been tired and stuck. Imposed isolation is draining and depressing, making for poor creative output. Being at the retreat kind of shook everything up. Whether we were working alone in our rooms or among each other in common areas or working directly with someone else, just knowing there were others close by, working toward the same end, juiced my creative output. I’m still in some kind of awe of what I did during that week. Writing is hard. Agonizingly hard for me. But look what I got done surrounded by other creatives!

I am inspired and motivated by those inspired and motivated. 

I cannot wait until next year.

Leaving the island was melancholic.

* Another Zoom note: I have a book I illustrated, written by Liz Garton Scanlon, I Want a Boat, coming out on June 22. Liz and I are having a Book Launch on Zoom, June 24 with BookPeople in Austin. You can click the link to see the details and register to attend! Hope you can make it! https://tinyurl.com/ju4pwwj4



  1. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    So lovely. Eagerly awaiting to travel to conferences when they open and yes, I’m in huge need of a retreat! This looked perfect.

  2. So soothing for the soul.

  3. The Pacific NW is such a beautiful part of the country. It is exciting to realize that retreats, conferences and in person critique groups will soon be available again! Hugs for everyone (who wants to)!!

  4. Gorgeous retreat photos! And congrats on I Want a Boat!

  5. Live the Maker’s Mark! Definitely helps with the lack of 19 degrees ?

  6. Okay…now besides wanting I Want A Boat, I want to know what retreat this was. It looks fabulous! Looking forward to that graphic novel now too. Be well, Kevan!

  7. Thanks, Donna! It was Kindling Words West.

  8. Even fully vaccinated, I’m still a bit wary about hugging this year. But for sure next year! Those are gorgeous photos…I miss the PNW sooo much. I also am looking forward to your graphic novel! I just sent the first draft of one to my editor an hour ago and it’s been a fun learning experience.

  9. Kevan, how wonderful you were able to go on a true retreat! You accomplished a lot and I can’t wait to see what you’ve cooked up. Btw, I checked out Arlo and Pip upon your recommendation and loved it. Great voice. I think you’d be good at GNs for the younger crowd too. Wonderful pictures! And with summer just around the corner, it’ll get warmer…

    I’ve missed meeting with my regular critique group, but there’s a small subset that’s been coming over to share stories and snacks on my back porch every month, so I’ve not been completely isolated from my writing peeps. I’m hoping we can start meeting at the library again with everybody.

  10. Sounds idyllic, Kevan. Congratulations on the first draft of your GN and your forthcoming title!

  11. Just your “indulgent” retreat photos soothed me. And the campfire. And the Makers Mark 46! Congrats on new work, a GN! Thank you for your email for sharing your retreat with us, Kevan. Huzzah, on I Want a Boat!

  12. This has been a lost year for me. Thanks for bringing me out of hibernation with your retreat story and beautiful pictures. I’ve not been to the PNW!

  13. I totally relate to the lack of productivity last year (hmm, not sure I should be saying that as if it’s over). This sounds heavenly. Thanks for sharing, Kevan. And I’m vaccinated and very happy to be hugging again!

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