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?