Friday Favorites: Interviews That Inspire

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Why are we addicted to hearing about other writers at work? We read interviews to try to glean the magic formula for "how it's done." Even knowing that everyone's creative process is different, we search for inspiration, craft knowledge, ideas, and practices we can use for ourselves. There are plenty of places online that offer interviews with authors, but some curated collections are worth going back to again and again.

One interview collection has come out recently: Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, by Joe Fassler. He interviews contemporary writers like George Saunders, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others. He asks “What inspires you?” and elicits a passage from something they read that was life-changing. Because he interviews an eclectic group, the answers come from a wide range of literary influences.


Of course, there are the classic volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton et al., which feature a more literary bent, with the added bonus of writers being interviewed by writers. These are culled from years of such interviews, so you can read interviews with people like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other  acclaimed writers. These have been around a while, but are worth going back to for their discussion of craft, influences, and literary history.

One of my favorite interview collections is The Wand in the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, ed. If you love fantasy, this is a wonderful series of interviews with people like Nancy Farmer, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander - some writers I grew up reading, others I discovered later. They discuss their inspirations, writing rituals and advice for aspiring authors. If like me, you grew up reading fantasy, you’ll love this book (although there were some surprising omissions - I guess you can't include everyone's favorites). Note that it was published in 2006, so omits some of the more modern writers who might be interesting to talk with if a volume II comes out. There is a dearth of writers of color, for example - common when there were relatively few who were well-known, but able, thankfully, to be remedied now. Leonard Marcus? Time for another collection?

Do you have any interview collections you find inspiring? Share them with us in the comments.

The Long Game of Overnight Success

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Why are we addicted to hearing about other writers at work? We read interviews to try to glean the magic formula for "how it's done." Even knowing that everyone's creative process is different, we search for inspiration, craft knowledge, ideas, and practices we can use for ourselves. There are plenty of places online that offer interviews with authors, but some curated collections are worth going back to again and again.

One interview collection has come out recently: Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, by Joe Fassler. He interviews contemporary writers like George Saunders, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others. He asks “What inspires you?” and elicits a passage from something they read that was life-changing. Because he interviews an eclectic group, the answers come from a wide range of literary influences.


Of course, there are the classic volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton et al., which feature a more literary bent, with the added bonus of writers being interviewed by writers. These are culled from years of such interviews, so you can read interviews with people like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other  acclaimed writers. These have been around a while, but are worth going back to for their discussion of craft, influences, and literary history.

One of my favorite interview collections is The Wand in the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, ed. If you love fantasy, this is a wonderful series of interviews with people like Nancy Farmer, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander - some writers I grew up reading, others I discovered later. They discuss their inspirations, writing rituals and advice for aspiring authors. If like me, you grew up reading fantasy, you’ll love this book (although there were some surprising omissions - I guess you can't include everyone's favorites). Note that it was published in 2006, so omits some of the more modern writers who might be interesting to talk with if a volume II comes out. There is a dearth of writers of color, for example - common when there were relatively few who were well-known, but able, thankfully, to be remedied now. Leonard Marcus? Time for another collection?

Do you have any interview collections you find inspiring? Share them with us in the comments.

Mental Mastery: The Art of Dealing With No

janav Creativity, Productivity, Writing Leave a Comment

Why are we addicted to hearing about other writers at work? We read interviews to try to glean the magic formula for "how it's done." Even knowing that everyone's creative process is different, we search for inspiration, craft knowledge, ideas, and practices we can use for ourselves. There are plenty of places online that offer interviews with authors, but some curated collections are worth going back to again and again.

One interview collection has come out recently: Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, by Joe Fassler. He interviews contemporary writers like George Saunders, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others. He asks “What inspires you?” and elicits a passage from something they read that was life-changing. Because he interviews an eclectic group, the answers come from a wide range of literary influences.


Of course, there are the classic volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton et al., which feature a more literary bent, with the added bonus of writers being interviewed by writers. These are culled from years of such interviews, so you can read interviews with people like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other  acclaimed writers. These have been around a while, but are worth going back to for their discussion of craft, influences, and literary history.

One of my favorite interview collections is The Wand in the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, ed. If you love fantasy, this is a wonderful series of interviews with people like Nancy Farmer, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander - some writers I grew up reading, others I discovered later. They discuss their inspirations, writing rituals and advice for aspiring authors. If like me, you grew up reading fantasy, you’ll love this book (although there were some surprising omissions - I guess you can't include everyone's favorites). Note that it was published in 2006, so omits some of the more modern writers who might be interesting to talk with if a volume II comes out. There is a dearth of writers of color, for example - common when there were relatively few who were well-known, but able, thankfully, to be remedied now. Leonard Marcus? Time for another collection?

Do you have any interview collections you find inspiring? Share them with us in the comments.

Do You Spend Your Time Mindfully?

janav Creativity, Productivity, Time Management, Writing Leave a Comment

Why are we addicted to hearing about other writers at work? We read interviews to try to glean the magic formula for "how it's done." Even knowing that everyone's creative process is different, we search for inspiration, craft knowledge, ideas, and practices we can use for ourselves. There are plenty of places online that offer interviews with authors, but some curated collections are worth going back to again and again.

One interview collection has come out recently: Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, by Joe Fassler. He interviews contemporary writers like George Saunders, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Gilbert, and others. He asks “What inspires you?” and elicits a passage from something they read that was life-changing. Because he interviews an eclectic group, the answers come from a wide range of literary influences.


Of course, there are the classic volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton et al., which feature a more literary bent, with the added bonus of writers being interviewed by writers. These are culled from years of such interviews, so you can read interviews with people like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and other  acclaimed writers. These have been around a while, but are worth going back to for their discussion of craft, influences, and literary history.

One of my favorite interview collections is The Wand in the Word: Conversations With Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus, ed. If you love fantasy, this is a wonderful series of interviews with people like Nancy Farmer, Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, and Lloyd Alexander - some writers I grew up reading, others I discovered later. They discuss their inspirations, writing rituals and advice for aspiring authors. If like me, you grew up reading fantasy, you’ll love this book (although there were some surprising omissions - I guess you can't include everyone's favorites). Note that it was published in 2006, so omits some of the more modern writers who might be interesting to talk with if a volume II comes out. There is a dearth of writers of color, for example - common when there were relatively few who were well-known, but able, thankfully, to be remedied now. Leonard Marcus? Time for another collection?

Do you have any interview collections you find inspiring? Share them with us in the comments.

Try This: A Week Without Technology

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In Week 4: Recovering a Sense of Integrity in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, she asks people to refrain from reading for one week. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, and I find most people who come to that task of that chapter don’t try very hard, or at all, to do it.

However, reading this article in The Guardian: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia,” made me think again about the power of technology and social media in our lives, and how ubiquitous – and addictive – it is.

When Julia Cameron originally wrote The Artist’s Way, the internet as we know it didn’t exist. Social media didn’t exist. Smartphones (cell phones) didn’t exist. Sure, there were computer and video games, but they didn’t exist in the amount or quality they do now. In other words, we operated in a world of fewer distractions based on instant gratification and ultra-connectivity. Plenty of people have written about the Age of Distraction and what it might be doing to our brains, our intelligence, and our creativity (I wrote about it back in July) but I imagine most of us nod, sigh, and click to the next thing. What are you gonna do?

Well, in the spirit of Julia, I’m going to propose A Week Without Technology. Well, within some guidelines: you can use a computer if you need it to work a paid job, and you only use it for the designated tasks of that job. You can use a cell phone if you don’t have a landline, or if you only use it for a specific call/text connection (i.e. to set up a time to meet someone). That’s it. If you’re a writer, write longhand, using pen and paper. (Yep, even if you’re editing. Just try it.) No social media, no email not directly related to your paid employment, no web surfing or blog-checking, no video games (not even computer solitaire). If you read, try making it an actual printed book. Do whatever you have to do to make it happen, using whatever blocking apps you need to. If you can shut your home computer down and put it out of sight, do so. Same with your cell phone, your IPad, or other devices that lure you into the endless time-wasting, addictive labyrinth.

Journal about how you feel. Is it difficult? In what ways, specifically? What are you doing instead? Do you suddenly have more time on your hands? Do you have more energy? More anxiety, or less? How do you feel, physically and mentally? Most importantly, did you spend more time on your writing, or other creative pursuits?

Remember this isn’t a punishment, it’s an experiment: how addicted are you? How many hours do you typically spend on devices? It’s only a week: can you get through it? What changes might you decide to make in your life? Join me, Monday Oct. 9 through Sunday Oct. 15. I’ll write my notes in my journal, and post them here when we’re done. I’ve done this before, but only in places where I didn’t have internet access or cell service. When I got back home, I always jumped right back into my old habits. This time I want to be more mindful of technology’s impact on my everyday life – especially my creative life. If you want to join me, let me know in the comments or at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com!

Writing From the Heart

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First of all, apologies for the long hiatus – I was moving my mother, and that meant also having to clean out all of her stuff and sort it into donations, storage, sell, or move. I’m pretty ruthless and unsentimental about “stuff,” my own or anyone else’s, which is a good thing since it all had to be cleared within the month. Add this to the start of the semester with classes, events, etc. and September was a very full month indeed. There is still a lot to be done – it looks like a moving truck exploded in my house right now – but mom is settled in her new place and we’re slowly taking care of all the other hundred details.

To be honest, writing hasn’t been on my top list of priorities this month either. I’ve managed to do a little by spending 15-30 minutes per day on it, just to keep my head in the story. It’s yet another rewrite of a book I thought was done. I like the new angle, but we’ll see if it is really better than the old one.

As I’m engaged in this rewrite, I found this article by my friend and mentor, David Elliott*. He is definitely a writer who writes from the heart (as well as the funny bone) and I love and admire his work. He is a children’s book writer who thinks of the children first, not the adults who give awards or review books, and yet his books have won awards and garnered much critical praise. I wanted to link it here since what he says is so important. Especially when we’re just starting out, we can be tempted to write “to the market.” What’s hot? What’s trending? What do agents and editors want, anyway? On the one hand, marketplace considerations are real. On the other hand, we have to write the stories we feel passionately about telling. We have to find the story that doesn’t let us go, that speaks to us (and hopefully our readers) in an irresistible siren’s voice. I love that kid in the article who knows to ask the important question, who isn’t afraid to ask, even when he doesn’t get a satisfactory response. Like David, I hope that kid grows up and never loses that curiosity or sense of what’s really important. And we should all ask ourselves, when we’re working on a project, Am I writing from the heart? And be open to hear the answer, and to letting those stories that come from the heart flow through us onto the page.

*For more about David and his books, check out: https://www.davidelliottbooks.com/

You’ve Got to Move It, Move It

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I spent last weekend at the Barrowman Writing workshop, which was a ton of fun and different from other workshops I’ve attended. I wanted to do something fun, to step away from post-MFA seriousness and agent/editor pitch workshops where I get ten conflicting opinions on my work and a lot of “I really like it, but…” (I’m not going to take it). That is a part of being a writer, but this weekend reminded me that taking writing seriously doesn’t have to be a slog of: draft, edit, submission, rejection, repeat.

About all I did know of it was that it probably would be fun, with John and Carole Barrowman involved. The workshop was small – only 16 of us – so I felt very fortunate to end up with a group of people who were both fun to hang out with, and good writers (and yes, I realize I’m using the word fun a lot here – where’s my thesaurus? – but hey, sometimes the description fits, so let’s wear it).

As hard as we worked on our writing (and Carole had a ton of energy, and many challenging and yes, fun exercises for us), the intensive workshop sessions were interspersed with John doing more theater-game exercises (and if anyone has seen John on a panel or in an interview, yes, they were as silly and crazy as you’d expect). They enabled us to rev up our energy before and between sessions, and just take ourselves a little less seriously.*

They also reminded me how necessary it is to integrate intense mental activity with movement. When we’re writing, it’s easy to get caught up in our heads. At some conferences I’ve been to, where craft sessions and panels and keynotes follow each other bam bam bam with hardly a break in between, I’ve ended up exhausted at the end of the day, brain overflowing, and hardly able to integrate all I’ve learned (or even remember what sessions I attended).

Making time to be silly and move around allowed me to refocus. Just when I was feeling tired and tapped out, we’d do something completely different. Most writers I know are serious about their writing. The mantra is: Butt in chair. Write every day. Do the work. And yes, if you’re going to improve as a writer, if you’re going to have a body of work, you need to sit down and write on a regular basis. But we also need to remember to have fun, and that simply moving the body can work miracles on inspiration and motivation.

While I’m not likely run run around shouting “3 knees!” (You need at least two people) or “4 Shoulders!” (ditto), or my favorite from John – no, probably a little too naughty for a blog… I will remember that creativity is a whole-body concept, and that it’s healthier for mind and body to work in some movement and play between writing sessions.

Take a walk, dance around the living room, take a bike ride or shoot some hoops – or do the hokey pokey, if that’s what you’re all about. It clears the cobwebs, gives you energy, and when you come back to your desk, that scene or line that seemed to be so hopelessly stuck might just wiggle loose. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t going to write for the fame and wealth. We don’t have to wait for an Artist Date to let our inner creative child play. We might as well have fun, or why do it at all?

*We also spent time drinking, and swimming, and dancing, and eating. So yes, fun, in between panicked bouts of omg what am I going to read aloud in front of people on Sunday?

Questions to Ask Yourself When You’ve Lost Motivation

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When you feel unmotivated to work on a project, are procrastinating endlessly, and just can’t seem to get unstuck, it may be time to pause and reflect on what’s really blocking you, and to reconnect with feelings of possibility and accomplishment.

Try this: Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Breathe deeply several times. Allow your mind to slow down, and your body to relax.

Bring to mind a current project where you are feeling unmotivated or stuck. Keep breathing. Without judging, note how you’re feeling, emotionally and physically in your body. Then ask yourself the following questions, allowing yourself space to breathe and really feel the answers as they arise, in your mind and body:

What is my greatest hope or aspiration for this project?
Why is this project important to me?
How do I want to show up in relationship to this project?
What emotions or situations might be getting in the way of me fully engaging with this project?
If I were working on this project regularly, what would that feel like?
If this project was completed, what would that feel like?
How can I use these feelings as a source of motivation for me to engage with this project?
What is my intention toward this project going forward?

And, if it feels comfortable for you:

What can I commit to doing toward my project? (Can I commit 15 minutes to working on it today?)

Breathe in deeply. Set your intention in your mind. Allow yourself to experience whatever emotions or physical sensations that come up for you.

Open your eyes. How do you feel toward your project now? If you’d like to journal about anything that came up for you in this exercise, to explore it further, go ahead and do so.

If you feel motivated to get to work, feel free to do that too! You may choose to do this as a meditation daily, before sitting down to write. It can calm your mind and focus your intention, reconnecting your with your current project and why it is important to you.

Friday Favorites: Hitting the Third Rail

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I haven’t done a Friday Favorites post in a while, because I haven’t been reading that many books on craft. My view is that craft books are useful, in small doses. Sometimes they are good for inspiration, and sometimes they are good to help with a specific issue you are having in your work. It’s important not to get so heavily invested in reading about writing that you fail to actually do the writing.

I’ve had a couple of books kicking around for a while, and at the urging of some friends who have read them I decided to pull them off the “to be read” shelf and read them.

One is Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. The other is Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface.

Story Genius is a method book: in other words, it asks you to follow a specific set of guidelines, based on principles developed by the author, that promises to help you crack the nut of writing a great book that people will want to read. The premise is that we are all “wired for story” (the title of another book on writing, by the way) and that we can tap into certain techniques that will get a reader’s brain to experience what the protagonist experiences – to not only care about the protagonist, but to go on their own journey through the protagonist’s story. The Emotional Craft of Fiction also focuses on this idea of creating emotions in a reader’s mind that keep them engaged in the story.

I believe these books are a response to the popularity in recent years of books and courses on “structure,” which can be valuable as a way to make sense of the messiness of the novel writing process, but didn’t focus much on character development. And of course, any story that truly engages us as readers does so because of the characters, not the plot. We remember what we felt, and what we learned, not the specifics of what happened when.

Lisa Cron writes often of the protagonist’s emotional arc being the “third rail” that every aspect of the story must touch in order to resonate with readers. Her method calls for a lot of delving into the protagonist’s past, creating backstory and excavating what the source of the protagonist’s misbelief is that fuels the current story. The goal is to arrive at the beginning of your story with a fully fleshed-out protagonist, and have that background inform every decision and reaction the protagonist has during the course of the story. Her method is to write Scene Cards for every scene, making sure you not only know what happens but why it happens, and how it affects the protagonist going forward. This might seem like anathema to so-called “pantsers” – those who prefer to write their way through a story and let the characters find themselves – but it is really a middle ground between that and attempting to outline every detail of what happens in the book, which can wind up with a disconnected protagonist, and other characters, who act only as puppets in service of the plot. She takes us through the development of a story by one of her clients, Jennie, and so we are able to see how one author used the tools to develop her story.

I’m currently working my way through her method, and I have to say, I am finding it a useful tool for deepening my characters, and making sure the emotional arc of the story isn’t overwhelmed by the external, plot-driven arc. I’m taking my time, excavating who my people are, and who they were before the story started, and finding the story much richer and more interesting as a result.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction is a different type of book. It doesn’t present one particular method, but instead introduces a number of ways in which emotion can be present on the page – how it affects character development, the emotional plot, the reader’s experience, and even how the writer’s experience affects the writing itself. Each section gives examples from published novels of all kinds, to see how each principle can be effective in practice. He also gives numerous exercises to use with your own work in progress, to deepen the emotional impact. And this is what makes this book better for more advanced writers: it assumes that you are of intermediate or advanced level, that you have mastered plot and structure, point of view, and all the other basics. It also assumes that you have a work in progress so you can explore these ideas on the page. His aim is make good writers great, rather than tell beginners how to create a character.

That’s why I put these books together in a Friday Favorites post. One helps you get your story started, by focusing on the background of your protagonist and how it informs how the character views and reacts to the events of the story; the other helps you deepen the emotions on the page, to create the most compelling scenes and experience for the reader. Depending where you are in your work, you may want to read Cron’s book first, and then read Maass’ to see where you can dig deeper. Maass’ book can also be good for character-building exercises, if you are interested in trying out new techniques without being tied to a specific story.

Have any of you read these books? Utilized them in your own writing? If so, what has been your experience with them? Let us know in the comments!

Plan Your Summer Writing Retreat

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Summer can be an ideal time to plan a writing retreat. For many of us, it’s a slower time, and a time when we can make a little space to focus on our writing or other creative projects. You can plan a half day, full day, weekend, or longer if possible. You can do it solo, or with a friend (or several). You can even do it virtually, with regular email or Skype check-ins. Last summer I wrote a post on this that I will re-post here since I think it’s still a good reminder, and since we’re on the cusp of August, there is still plenty of time to plan a retreat for this summer. It doesn’t matter whether you are freewriting, exploring craft issues through exercises, or completing a project. Take this time for yourself, and your creative soul, and plan a retreat today!

(And if anyone would like to know more about an actual writing retreat in Vermont, email me at jana(at)janavanderveer(dot)com for details).

(from 8/24/16) I just returned from a fabulous weekend in Vermont, where I actually managed to get some writing done, despite the lure of friends, gorgeous hikes, great food, and lots of shopping (for birthdays and Christmas – and some goodies for myself, of course!).

The weekend was partially intended as a writing retreat, but it was somewhat ad hoc except for Saturday morning, where we had a more formal writing session using prompts, and gathered to read our work aloud or just talk about the process afterward.

I love doing mini writing retreats. If you don’t have the time or money to take yourself off to someplace more formal, designing your own retreat can be a great way to immerse yourself in your work, and can be tremendously productive.

You can do it on your own, or you can get together with friends. The advantages of a solo retreat are uninterrupted time and the ability to set your own schedule. The downside, of course, is that no one is there to stop you from turning on the tv, say, or jumping on Facebook. With friends, you have feedback and camaraderie, but if you have different ideas about what constitutes a good retreat, it can be more stressful than helpful. One way to combine both is to get a friend to decide to retreat with you, but in her separate space (if you don’t live close enough to meet up). Then, check in at the beginning, perhaps in the middle, definitely at the end.

You can do a retreat for as little as half a day, or a weekend, or a week (or longer). What makes it a retreat as opposed to just a regular writing session?

1. It’s pre-arranged, sacred time, with a beginning and an end.
2. It’s great if you can get away from your usual writing space, so you’re not sucked into the everyday “stuff” at home.
3. It’s best if you don’t have access to the internet.
4. You go in with an idea of a specific project to work on (but are open to serendipity if you’re inspired by your surroundings).

You can arrange it however you like, but there are some practices I’ve found especially useful. Starting and ending with a ritual is a good idea, to formally commence and close your retreat experience. For me, this often involves candles, meditation, and bringing focused attention to my intention to make the most of this writing time.

I also do timed writing periods, with rest breaks in between. A simplified version of the Pomodoro Technique (http://pomodorotechnique.com/ ) is a good way to start. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Write. Take a 5 minute break. Set the timer for 25 minutes. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (10 or 20 minutes). If I’m dithering about what, exactly, I want to accomplish, just setting the timer and starting to write – anything at all – helps break through any resistance. Sometimes just getting started is key.

It’s also important to have lots of water, and good, healthy food on hand, ready to go. Other retreat activities might be taking a long walk, or doing some visual art (coloring, collage, abstract painting) to stimulate your creativity but get away from words for a while.

It goes without saying (I hope) that checking your phone is forbidden, unless you absolutely must check in case a family emergency has come up. Just remember that once the phone is in your hand, it’s easy to check email, Twitter, etc. etc. and soon get out of retreat mode.

That’s it, in its simplified version. Depending on how long you have, and what your goals are, you can make it more complex, or less. You can even give yourself a treat at the end, whether it’s an ice cream, a massage, or a trip to a bookstore or library to get a good book.

I can already hear some of you saying, “That sounds nice, but I could never take that much time for myself.” Really? Or is it that you have to claim that time for yourself, as an artist? No one will give it to you. No one will give you permission. You have to give it to yourself. You have to believe that you deserve it. Whether you’re single or not, have a family or not, there will always be people who pull at your attention, and other things that seem crucial to do before you can sit down to write. It’s up to you to claim your writing time, and to take yourself seriously as a writer. Retreats are special occasions, to go deep and savor the time to focus on your project. Start with a short one – a half day, perhaps – and see how it feels.

Have you done a writing retreat? Do you do them regularly? Let us know about any tips or ideas you have!