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  • Writer's pictureDamian Robb

Stray Thoughts 06 | European Writing Retreat


At the end of this week, a few days into May, I will be arriving bedecked in the ruffled appearance and aroma of someone who has spent the past thirty hours sitting in an enclosed space with a few hundred other people in to the apartment of my twin brother and sister-in-law. I will give them both big tight hugs before pulling my now toothy two year old nephew off of the floor and into my arms and bestow upon him a flurry of kisses he may or may not want. 

I can’t wait.

Their apartment resides in the twenty second district on Vienna’s outer edges. I live in inner-city Melbourne, hence the thirty hour trip to get there. While this distance is big, we’re lucky enough to broach it quite easily, usually through satellites and routers and a whole other bunch of technology I don’t really understand, so that every fortnight we sit across from each other virtually and have a bit of a lovely chat. But, as blessed as we are to live in the future where global communication is literally as easy as pressing a button, it does lack that tactile edge. It’s missing the physical, and more than that, it’s missing the hangout nature you only get from, well, hangin’ out together. And so, for about the past decade, minus a few years where this virus you might have heard of decided to act like a real drama queen, we’ve visited them whenever finances and work would allow.

These visits aren’t purely to hang out though. One, it costs a lot of money to get to Europe from Australia, and two, Europe has a whole bunch to see and do, and so in addition to the hugs and the kisses and the hanging out, we usually pick some beautiful places, ideally a train ride away, and have ourselves a bit of a wander and a look around. While I do of course sometimes wish for the ease and comfort of having my brother and his family in the same country or city or suburb as me, I would be lying if I didn’t also say I do enjoy the perks of having a family member live on the other side of the world. I have access and an understanding of a culture different from my own and now feel a familial connection to it. My world and life is bigger because of this. Forcibly unsheltered in the best possible way. 

Also, I have a place to stay whenever I visit Vienna, which is no bad thing.

On previous trips, we, my wife Holly and I, have done many great things. We have walked over the tips of the Alps. Witnessed Jon, my brother, and Alex, his wife, get married. Crunched out way through ice and snow covered streets in Prague. Swam in breath-stealingly cold mountain lakes. Visited a converted airport, now a park, in Berlin only to find its sky full of kites of every size and colour imaginable thanks to some fortunate timing and a kite festival. Drank dark and delicious beers in Irish pubs while a collection of musicians rattled out some entertaining and enthralling top tapping folk music. Passed under the branches of the black forest. Strolled through christmas markets. Watched the rain fall from the windows of a tiny home on the Isle of Skye. Eaten pork knuckles at the Prater as big as our heads. And hung out and read books in Jon and Alex’s various apartments as the smell of cooking food wafted through the air, relaxed and comfortable and at peace. 

To say these trips are incredible and exceptional experiences would still be leaving so much unsaid. This next one though, is a little bit different. While it’ll still contain visits and travel, it’ll also contain work. 

One of the less expected benefits to a global pandemic was, I think, a worldwide shakeup to the expectations of workers and their relationship to the office-based nine to five. It really helped ask the question of, in a future where I can talk to my family in Vienna with a click of a button, where the cloud means we can jump on any computer with access to the internet and find our whole desktop and files waiting for us, where communication can happen in an endless assortment of digital ways, arguably too many, then why are we so tied to being in a specific location at a specific time to work? 

There are of course jobs that require this specificity. That are location based, and have need of a physical meeting of people in order to trade goods or services, but for the every increasing number that aren’t, and that have been proven to be flexible on these fronts, it only makes sense to me that that flexibility is embraced and used to make all our lives that little bit easier and gratifying. To increase the pertinence of the adage about working to live, and not the other way round.

For me, presently, I have to admit, this is very easy to do. That hasn’t always been true, but this year I am nothing if not flexible. I am my own boss, my wife, my financer and patron, and my work is to write as much as I can about whatever I want. I have never been happier. 

As for Holly, she fortunately works for a business that has mostly embraced the flexibility of post pandemic working life. She works from home three days a week, and when she asked if she could work remotely, say, just for example, in Vienna? They granted her two weeks to do so. Which, it should be noted, is generous given that you couldn’t find another location on earth that has a more opposite time zone. This will mean five am starts for Holly to allow a crossover window where meetings can occur, after which she’ll continue her workday blessedly unbothered by her clients and coworkers thanks to them all being asleep. 

For me, it means a fairly epic writing retreat. In fact, part of the trip will see Holly and I part ways. She will head to Rome and more of Italy beyond to meet up with some friends and journey with them, while I’ll aim myself at the alps, where I’ll also be joined by my brother, to sit in the shadows of the mountains and write.

"Writing retreat" is one of those combinations of words that injects into me a feeling of comfort and joy. The premise alone is spectacular. A few days in a remote location, temporarily cut off from the world at large and the regular responsibilities of everyday life to fully indulge in a creative endeavour, giving it your complete time and attention. It feels like wish fulfilment and, in many ways, is. 

Back when I was working a more regular nine to five, I generally did my writing in the morning. Thankfully, I can work okay in the mornings, and so would get up at five thirty, get a coffee, enjoy the quiet and dark of a day where you’ve put the sun to shame by rising before it, and get some writing done. Usually, I would have an hour, maybe a little bit more, to get some words down before I had to start doing the needful to get ready for work. That little oasis of time was regularly my favourite part of the day, and while it was undoubtedly a positive way to kick the day off, it also inevitably fell into a kind of frustration because just as I was getting going I would have to stop.

For a writing retreat, there is no stopping. It’s falling down the rabbit hole of a project and for my somewhat obsessive brain, allowing yourself to get completely lost within it. To put pieces together, to create problems and then solve them, to get completely swept up in the creative flow, until you then crawl back out the rabbit hole dirty and tired and satisfied.

Therein is the key to the whole thing, the flow. 

The concept of “flow” as an experience of total engagement in an activity, was introduced into psychology by a Hungarian-American psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Mihaly initially found examples of the flow when studying physical activities such as sports, where it is now more colloquially known as being in the zone. He also found it was achieved in games such as chess, religious rituals, occupational activities such as surgery, and when creating in the arts. He described the flow experience as “The sense of having stepped out of the routines of everyday life into a different reality”, during which a person was able to achieve effortless attention, a merging of action and awareness, a balance between skill and challenge, time distortion, and spontaneity. Along with this, Mihaly also noted other common cognitive pressures were no longer present, so no mind-wandering, no fears of failure, and none of the usual self-consciousness of everyday life. In other words, it’s no small thing to enter the flow.

Another study at Drexel University looked at the brains of jazz players as they improvised in order to better understand how we enter the creative flow. They found that high-flow states for these jazz players were associated with increased activity in the brain’s auditory and touch areas, and decreased activity in executive control regions, suggesting there is an actual level of reduced consciousness during creative flow. Their study also supported the theory that achieving creative flow requires building expertise in a creative field and then training yourself to  “let go,” which enables the brain’s specialised circuits to operate autonomously.

This “letting go” is perhaps the hardest part of getting into the flow, as it’s a state that seems to require a conscious unconsciousness, a controlled lack of control. For me, when I’ve felt myself swept up in the flow, only to resurface however long later, there’s been two elements that have helped me achieve this. The first is this type of letting go, mostly around my expectations of what I want the writing to be or that immediate and consistent evaluation of the work. What helps do this, for me, is a timer. I like the pomodoro method, and so twenty five minutes is my set time of choice. Hit the timer and just start writing. Let go of all the bullshit, second guessing, and questioning, and instead just think of a sentence, write it, think of another sentence, and write that too. It’s the same as going for a run. I can torture myself by thinking about going for a run for hours before actually doing so, or I can instead not think about going for a run and just put on my exercise gear and just start running. By the time the timer goes off at the twenty five minute mark, if I’m lucky, I can pull back from the flow and be surprised at all the words written there. The second element is time. Time to try again and again to get past all the conscious thoughts and fall into the flow. 

Which is where a writing retreat comes back in.

This trip will see us in Europe for six weeks, split between Austria and Italy. Of that time, at least half of it for me will be a dedicated writing retreat across multiple locations, although I expect to write during the whole thing. If anything, I think it’ll be hard not to. Travel is a great inspirer. Not only is it easy to take a step back from your phone, your routine, all your usual trains of thoughts, but there’s also so much new. New places and scenery and people and food and accommodation. So many things to take note of and admire. And, importantly, time to do it in. 

I can’t wait to tell you all about it.


Thank you so much for reading these Stray Thoughts and until next time, have yourself a holiday at home; put the phone away, go for a walk in an area unfamiliar to you, take a book to a pub you haven’t been to before, and, if you feel the urge, why not do a bit of writing as well.


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