Last week I was invited to Pigeon Forge, TN to take part in the first annual Smoky Writers retreat. The outing was organized by Alex White, and included fellow writers/podcasters Pip Ballantine, Tee Morris, Lauren Harris, Rosemary Tizledoun, Bryan Lincoln, and Beth Hayes Bailie. It was, I’d have to say, a resounding success.

First of all, it was the longest and most remote of any retreat I’ve been on before. Driving twelve hours south to Tennessee in January isn’t exactly fun, but it gave me a great chance to clear my head and prepare for four days of uninterrupted word-grinding. And boy, did I need to step back. The day job has been a bit stressful to say the least, and trip could not have come at a better time.

Secondly, I can’t talk about the retreat without mentioning THE FOOD. Not only did I not have to worry about providing my own grub, but I don’t think I’ve eaten so well in my life. We had not one, but two gourmet chefs on hand, Alex’s wife, Renee, AKA The Domestic Scientist, and their friend Matt, who is a chef for high-ranking Army brass. From a plate of perfectly prepared pork tenderloin waiting for me when I arrived, to the flan that ended our last meal, we ate like royalty.

Thirdly, there was scheduling and accountability. Having a team of chefs gave us a regular clock to go by. We had breakfast, wrote, ate lunch wrote, and then before dinner, we shared a sample of what we had written that day. This was new to me, and it was brilliant. I don’t think anyone would have slacked off if we hadn’t shared, but I know that I worked harder for knowing that I was going to read.

It wasn’t a critique circle, but I did get an immediate reaction from other writers, and that really elevated the work I produced.

Finally, we reserved the evenings as time off for relaxing. This helped center me in addition to being a lot of fun. It might not have made a difference, but I don’t think I would have been as successful on the page if it weren’t for getting taken by cookie Matt in one hand of poker, playing an opportunistic former meth-dealer in Alex’s RP game, or spending time in the hot tub with Lauren, Rosemary, and Bryan.

Writing is, for the most part, a lonely exercise, and one that takes place mostly in our own heads. I was incredibly nervous approaching this retreat, because I was going to be working with artists that, frankly, blow me away. Tee and Pip were some of the first podcasting novelists. Bryan and Alex create absolutely breathtaking soundscapes in their productions. I didn’t know how I was going to stack up against creators like that. The Smoky Writers taught me to leave my Imposter Syndrome at the door.

At the retreat, I made about 12,000 words of progress in my Urban Fantasy novel Changeling, and completed the first draft of a short story called “Fire Bear’s Day Off.” I learned a lot about maintaining my work/writing/life balance, having the courage to share my work, and to have more confidence in my ideas, and to write to my passions.

Most importantly, I made a stack of precious memories that will last a lifetime. Thanks again to Alex, and everyone at the retreat for making it such a great experience.