Choosing a Writing Retreat? Watch Out for These 6 Red Flags

Writing retreat
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Winter always sends me looking frantically for the next opportunity to run away and write, preferably in a steamy locale.

My first-ever writing retreat included five hot hours on a highway, a tiny dorm room, a stolen laptop and 10 fantastic women. Though I’d never written anything but journal entries, I burned up the page that week and kicked off a 20-year (and counting) career with the written word.

But how do you know if a retreat is going to inspire your muse, or silence her?

All writing retreats are not created equal. The magic ones are mind-blowing, shape-shifting, knock-your-socks-off fantastic. Others are less enjoyable and wind up deflating your creative urges. How do you know which is which?

As someone who both goes on retreats and hosts them for other writers, I’ve spent 15 years interviewing retreat runners and attendees. Here’s what I’ve learned to watch out for when investigating a potential writing retreat:

1. Impossible promises

Four days to a bestseller! Write the next 50 Shades of Grey or Harry Potter!

There’s something so shiny and appealing about these claims, and it’s easy to get excited and carried away.

However, you want to see retreat materials temper their exuberance. Your retreat leader should be ready to provide the wisdom and skills to write your best possible book, but also to explain the challenges of publishing and marketing a book. You want a visionary, rather than fool’s gold.

2. An untrained or barely published retreat leader

Put up a shingle, find a house, gather a bunch of writers and … have no idea what you are doing.

Retreat copy on a website page can look fabulous, but the reality doesn’t always live up to the hype. Great retreat leaders have dedicated themselves the craft of leading retreats. They have a well-defined methodology, can shift people beyond their self-imposed creative limits and can pass along tried and true craft tools.

It’s OK to ask questions if a website doesn’t include a clear bio for the retreat leader. Here are a few I like to consider:

  • What has he published? If you want to write a thriller, you may not find as much success at a retreat led by a poet or romance author.
  • Has she focused on self-publishing, traditional publishing or a combination of the two? If you’re keen on a particular path, choose a leader who can share her experience and expertise.
  • Has he run more than one writing retreat, or collaborated with other leaders on previous events? If this is his first independent retreat, has he helped or apprenticed with more experienced retreat leaders to build experience?
  • What is her style of teaching? What kinds of teaching methods will she use?
  • What other skills does he bring to the table as your mentor? Offering additional support such as advice on developing a series or how to find an editor may be helpful.

A retreat leader is a generous, skilled visionary who is able to help you develop your writing career and provide you with resources to move your writing in the direction of your dreams.

3. A traditional workshop method

Traditional workshop methods involve sitting around a table as a group, critiquing one writer’s work at a time. The whole group is free to throw out comments, and without a skilled facilitator, this feedback can easily veer from constructive to critical.

While this prospect is intimidating, it can also be detrimental to your creativity. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed about the feedback you’ll receive, you won’t be able to do your best work. Conversely, feeling happy “enhances mental abilities such as ‘creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, and the processing of information,’” according to psychologist Daniel Goleman.

Look for workshop methods that focus on positive and constructive feedback, and an experienced retreat leader who knows how to help you develop your work without facing too much criticism. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if the critique or workshop process isn’t clear from the retreat website.

4. A leader on a pedestal

Discovering while on retreat that your leader holds herself apart or works less closely with certain participants is a drag. You want to know how much contact you’ll have with your retreat leader and how approachable she’ll be.

Find out beforehand whether you will be eating with the retreat leader and whether you’ll share leisure time or only structured teaching time with her. Also investigate whether there is a hierarchy in terms of published and unpublished writers — will certain participants receive more attention or coaching than others?

Bowing down to a proverbial podium can harm your creativity as well as your overall retreat experience. Ideally, your teacher will be readily available at meals and will participate openly in sharing activities. Make sure you know what you want, and that your retreat will deliver.

5. Work duties

I know it’s very un-Zen monastery of me, but it’s difficult to “retreat” from real life when you are washing dishes and sweeping the dining hall. When I go on a retreat, all I want to work on is my writing.

In my opinion, writers on retreat should be spoiled: a stocked fridge, a fantastic massage, time to write and read aloud and be supported in your craft. You want to be pampered and to nourish yourself in your dream of being a successful writer. Everything about the retreat, from the bed to the food to the bodywork (hopefully there’s bodywork!), should feel good.

6. A retreat that doesn’t fit your needs

This one is hard, but it will make the biggest difference: you need to know yourself before you sign up for a retreat.

Do you crave a mentor to help you hit your goals and support you through the writing process? If you work best with a one-on-one dynamic, find a retreat with a great teacher who only accepts a small group of participants and focuses on individual feedback.

Are you happiest having new friends to walk with on the beach, talk about books and explore craft? Go for a retreat that focuses on the group setting. If you get stuck, you can catch some crazy creative energy from the person sitting across from you.

Are you an introvert? Do you get your best work done alone? You might want to try creating your own writing retreat. It’s also a cost-effective way to test out a writing retreat — though you may find you miss the feedback and guidance of a mentor or group to share your work.

Pick a writing retreat that works for you

Your writing time is precious — as is your money, as retreats are often pricey. Make sure you are giving yourself a true gift by watching out for these potential pitfalls, and then prepare for your writing retreat to make the most of it. Enjoy!

What do you look for when choosing a writing retreat?

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Suzanne Kingsbury is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author (Scribner), and the founder of Gateless Writing, an organization that moves writers to the point of publication and beyond.... .

Suzanne Kingsbury | @writesuzanne

Suzanne Kingsbury
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Comments

  1. Great piece, Suzanne. I am a frequent retreater, but tend to just go away alone to write, with maybe a little socializing in the shared kitchen or lounge areas. One thing I would add to Number 4, is to check or establish what the roles of the host will be (person who runs the place) versus the hired-gun or guest retreat leader(s). I have been hired as the latter–with a host who couldn’t or wouldn’t let me lead my group. This dyad left the participant writers feeling confused and guilty and caught in the entire power struggle. It’s happened more than once where the administrator (or owner or manager) switches roles or never made roles clear–and it’s always disastrous and poor use of the participants’ precious time. I also believe that it’s important to prepare for your writer’s retreat–even a solitary one. It’s a big switch from our normal lives, but a needed one. Thanks again for this wonderful piece. I can’t wait to share it.

  2. Great advice! I’ve done conferences, but never participated in an organized retreat. This is definitely a useful post to share with other writers before they attend their first retreat.

  3. thanks Aine! I’ve never had that experience, but it sounds confounding… Good luck leading them, that’s a whole other animal than attending, but often just as fun!! xo

  4. Thank you for the important considerations in your post. Attending a writing retreat is big commitment in time and money and especially trust. I have just finished running a retreat with Patricia Lee Lewis in Guatemala (this is our 10th year at this particular location). We run generative writing retreats, with the goal of providing a safe and expansive space where creativity can flourish and the spirit can open. We don’t ask writers to sweep, wash dishes, or subject their tender new writing to critiques from the group. I am totally in awe of the gorgeous writing that I heard last week, from the most novice writer to most experienced.

  5. Fantastic article Suzanne! While I’m not running a writers retreat, I’m about to embark on facilitating my own retreat TOMORROW and your advice is very timely! You’ve created raving fans with your retreats because you are not only a great writer, but you are also highly intuitive and understand how to manage and facilitate group learning and dynamics. A retreat leader needs to be more than an expert in their field, they need to know how to run a retreat, and you are a great example of that!!

    Great article!

    • Desha!!! So happy to see you on here… and I can’t WAIT to find out how your Sweet Spot Style retreat in Mexico goes. You are such an inspiring author and beautiful beautiful facilitator, and those peeps are lucky to be in your midst. xxxxooo

  6. Thanks for this – I haven’t done a retreat yet. I’ll keep your advice in mind when I look for one.

  7. This is a great piece. I have seen the great, the good, the ugly of retreats. They are out their.

  8. Susan Grady Bristol says:

    Great information. Thank you for posting.

    Retreats don’t have to be expensive. Our generative writing group plans annual retreats “just for us” and they are wonderful. We found a secluded retreat house in the middle of Nebraska that is run by monks. The facilities and grounds are spacious, modern and beautiful. The rooms are inexpensive and we are well-fed. We have no responsibilities except to show up at meals on time. At our preparation meeting, we come up with a “loose” agenda and choose writing prompts and other topics of interest. We each pick one or two items to present. We build in “free write” time which accounts for the much of the retreat.

    The majority of our retreats have been held at the monastery/retreat house, but some years, we have gone to other places nearby. Once, we drove down to Red Cloud, Nebraska, and stayed in the Cather Home. We drew numbers for the bedrooms and I got to sleep in Willa Cather’s bedroom. Another year, we ventured to the small town where Bess Streeter Aldrich lived and were able to write in her home (now a museum), at her kitchen table.

    Writers don’t have to go to retreats in Hawaii or Bali. We don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to seek the call of the Muse. We can stay close to home and find inspiration. If we want to meet agents or publishers, we may need to go to a conference, but when it comes to producing our stories, all we need is imagination and writing tools.

  9. Hi Suzanne – thanks so much for this very helpful article. I’ve looked at several different retreats mentioned in The Write Life. A lot of them look interesting, but I have yet to find any that will let me bring my dog with me! I’ve even written to several asking if that is possible and haven’t received a single response. Retreats are for writing, I know, but being able to bring my constant companion rather than leaving her in a kennel for a week or two is important to me. Are there any retreats out there where she would be welcome, too? Thanks

  10. Thank you so much for this. As a first time host of a Writers Retreat in India, in October 2015, I took a lot of notes, in the hopes that I don’t fall into the “not so good” retreat category.

    Shabnam

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