:: This past week, I retreated up to an artist’s center in the N.C. mountains to get some writing done. This is a practice my mother refers to as a “taking a vacation.”

But it wasn’t a vacation, not in the sense that she means.

Those of us who write (or do other creative work that requires focus) for a living might have a hard time explaining to people who don’t why it is important to get away—to retreat—every once in a while to get some work done. After all, can’t you just write anyplace?

Answer: It’s complicated.

I retreated to a place that had internet for maybe two hours a day. It had, and I am not kidding, NO CELL RECEPTION for my carrier. (I heard rumors that one certain carrier had okay reception. Harrumph.) The retreat prepared three good meals a day and rang a bell to remind you to come eat them in a dining hall. (With white table cloths! Also, I forget to eat sometimes so I really liked the bell.) There were so few cars that they just let their chickens run around free.

I would write from 6:30am until 11pm and then collapse into my bed and do it again the next day. IT WAS AWESOME. It was a privilege, an amazing gift, something that most of us rarely, if ever, will get to do. So why do it?

A selfie of me with the mountains behind me in the distance

It really is gorgeous up here

Retreating means stepping back. And stepping back to focus on our work in a sustained fashion can be the only way to finish large projects or to start new ones.

Stepping back can be the only way to give enough attention to something as big as a novel manuscript, which is definitely an item that needs sustained attention. Sure, it’s possible to do this work with your 4yo and 5yo running around at your knees, but it’s not easy. And the thing is, I don’t want to do it with my 4yo and 5yo running around, because when they’re here, I want to be here with them.

So, paradoxically, in order to be most present for my family most of the time, a very small part of the time I go away to write. While retreating, I churn out a massive number of words. I edit a massive number of pages. And then I come back, and I can be marvelously present—because I’ve done my work.

A photograph of a long winding gravel trail in a mountain forest