E is for El Cheapo


El Cheapo: the best way to refuel.


(Image Creative Commons via Photopin)

E is for El Cheapo*

This Blogging from A to Z post is for all those writers out there.

For many years I had the good fortune to belong to a writing critique group led by the late Phyllis Taylor Pianka. Two Thursdays a month we would meet at Phyllis’s house to read our work and partake of delicious dessert. How I miss those nights! And how I miss Phyllis!

At one of our meetings, we discussed the benefits of writing conferences. I’d been to a couple–Squaw Valley is the best example I know of a conference that includes workshops. Cynthia, one of the writers in Phyllis’s group, emailed me later with the concept of a homegrown writing retreat. The idea was that it would be intimate and would cost nothing aside from groceries and wine.

She called it El Cheapo.

It was the birth of a fantastic event.

Here’s how El Cheapo goes. Twice a year Cynthia and I set aside two days and two nights for our El Cheapo retreat, sometimes at her house and sometimes at mine. The schedule is simple. We sit ourselves down in comfy chairs and write. We will usually write for a couple of hours until one of us says, “Do you have something to share?” Then we take turns reading for 10-15 minutes followed by a critique. The critiques explore what works, what is confusing, what needs more expansion, etc.

We break for meals and gossip and wine. (After all, in vino veritas. Yes?)

Should you consider holding an El Cheapo retreat? Here are three reasons (aside from the obvious financial) you should.

1. Accountability

I really liked what Corinne O’Flynn wrote about the benefits of accountability partners. You can check out her post here. As Mary Heaton Vorse once said, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” In an El Cheapo retreat, you can look up from your work at any time and see your compatriot, which both keeps her in her chair and you in yours. Blocking out the time for writing is the biggest factor for me in producing work. If I’m alone, I hear the siren calls of the laundry, the dog, and, worst of all, the internet. All (or most, anyhow) distractions are silenced when I’m attending El Cheapo.

2. Validation

Have you ever had a writing idea, maybe something a little outrageous or something that veers wildly from your outline, and said to yourself, “Does this make any sense? Should I scrap this or continue in this new vein?”

Alice Sebold talked about her crazy idea for a teen ghost narrating her murder. She read some pages to a friend who told her to continue. That was the beginning of the bestseller The Lovely Bones.

At an El Cheapo retreat you can say to your accomplice, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?” Then you will be the recipient of instant feedback. Your writing buddy will tell you if your crazy idea is a good crazy or a bad crazy. She can also ask probing questions to help you flesh out your concept.

3. Community

Writing is a lonely business. A homegrown retreat allows you to pursue your art with company. At El Cheapo, Cynthia and I work and critique, all the while knowing a meal and unwinding were a few hours away. Lunches and dinners provided time to socialize and gossip as well as encourage each other. We ate good food and drank nice wine and shared invigorating laughter.

I LOVE my El Cheapo writing retreats. I am the most productive I can ever be, and I cherish every minute.

How about you? Have you participated in a homegrown writing retreat? What worked or didn’t work for you?

*El Cheapo is actually in the dictionary. I checked.  


E is for El Cheapo — 12 Comments

    • I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. It really is like a slumber party–minus the prank calls and Spin the Bottle.

  1. What a great idea! I did a version of this with a friend a few years ago, although we went less cheapo and rented a cabin at a resort. She wrote in the main lodge during the day (and came back with all kinds of stories about the odd clientele) and I commandeered the cabin. We broke for lunch and the wrapped up in mid afternoon before food, wine & gossip. I was working on a novel and she was writing an academic work, but we still compared notes, ideas and competed over word count (I won). 🙂 Love the idea of doing this even cheaper at home.

    • Your retreat sounds wonderful! There’s nothing like an idyllic setting to inspire creative ideas. Congratulations on winning the word count war!

    • True. You could do craft retreats, too. Quiltmaking would work well since multiple people could share making a series of quilts.

  2. This is a great idea. The key is putting together a group that is honest, knowledgeable about the craft of writing, and supportive. You roll the dice with the people in your group in a traditional retreat, but when it’s DYI, you don’t have a third party facilitator/referee either.

    As long as you have the right group and the right space, this is a great way to do things. Thank you!

    • I agree that the right setting coupled with the right participants is key. In my case, Cynthia became a friend, and we were mellow in our approach. Plus, we had the same goals, which were to write as much as we could, provide encouragement, and offer constructive critiques. I’m a fairly quiet person, and so just having the two of us was the most comfortable for me. Other people may like more of a slumber party feel with many voices. How about you? What has worked for you?

  3. Pingback: J is for…Journey | Julie K Gilbert

  4. Pingback: Mini Writer's Retreat

    • Hi April,
      I’m so glad you tried out your own El Cheapo retreat. Glad it was so productive for you. Potato chips…I’ll have to add that inducement to my next El Cheapo! Thanks for the tip.

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