Writing for a living can be tough. Whether it’s a full-time job, the demands of a family or simply the wormhole of social media, there always seems to be something to distract you from actually writing.
Enter the option of a writing retreat or residency. Imagine: time to focus on nothing but writing. It’s a dream come true for many writers! However, the dream becomes a bit murky when you consider how many retreats and residencies are available. How do you know which one is right for you?
Here’s a guide to choosing a retreat or residency, as well as how to make the most of your experience.
What’s the difference between a retreat and a residency?
Writing residencies are usually free, low cost or offer financial aid. The catch is that you must apply and be accepted in order to attend, and often the selection process is quite competitive. Many require a minimum stay, often two weeks or longer, and offer quiet, secluded spaces for writers to focus on their work.
By contrast, you’ll usually pay more to attend writing retreats, and registration is usually on a first-come, first-served basis. Retreats often focus on teaching and networking, so expect lots of workshops and mingling opportunities. However, the differences aren’t always clear-cut; always read the details of a retreat or residency you’re considering, since some use the terms interchangeably.
How to decide which retreat or residency is right for you
First, decide what kind of experience you’d like to have. Once you have an idea, it will be easier to narrow down your list of options. Some things to consider as you make your decision:
Where do you want to go?
You can find writing retreats and residencies all over the world, in many different settings.
If there’s a city or country you’ve always wanted to visit, why not look for retreats there? If you have the time and money (or you’re a location-independent freelancer), make writing a part of a larger vacation. If your travel time and budget are limited, look closer to home.
What kind of setting will help you write?
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself writing without worry or interruption. Where’s your ideal writing space? Are you near the ocean or in the mountains? Is it hot and humid, temperate or snowing? Are you in the middle of a city or in an isolated setting? Choose the setting that will most support your writing.
Consider who’s there with you. Are you part of a larger group, or mainly alone? Are you surrounded by artists of all stripes or just writers? Is your ideal retreat or residency focused on a particular group, such as women, mystery authors or new writers?
What will be your focus during the retreat or residency? How will you spend your time?
What kind of writing do you hope to complete — poetry, fiction, nonfiction? Are you hoping to complete research during your time away, or you want perfect a manuscript and prepare to publish it? Many retreats and residencies are tailored to a certain genre or type of writing, so choose a setting that meets your specific writing needs. If you’re planning research, be sure to check whether you’ll have Internet access — many residencies offer limited or no connectivity.
Consider what you’d like to take away from your experience. If you’re just starting out in your writing career, you may want to sharpen your writing and editing skills. A retreat with leaders who can provide feedback and support may be aligned with your goals. By contrast, more seasoned writers may want nothing more than the time and space to write, plus regular meals and a place to sleep. No matter where you are in your writing career, you’ll benefit from meeting other writers with whom you can share experiences, offer advice and receive guidance.
How much structure do you want during your day? Some writers like plenty of open time to focus wholly on their work or to write when inspiration hits, while others like a packed schedule.
Consider what kinds of non-writing activities are available. Many retreats and residencies provide food at set group mealtimes, while others provide access to a kitchen and let you fend for yourself. As mentioned, retreats usually include workshops and networking opportunities, and both retreats and residencies often offer activities like yoga and meditation. Do you want access to day trips, massages and other activities to help you relax and unwind when you’re not writing, or are you happy to focus on the writing itself?
How much do you want to spend?
As mentioned earlier, residencies tend to cost nothing or very little — though they’re often competitive.
Retreats usually have a fixed price that includes everything except airfare. If meals, lodging and other things you’ll need during the retreat are not included, ask the organizers for resources and pricing so you have a clear idea of what you’ll pay.
Who is organizing the retreat or residency?
Before committing your time, money and energy to a retreat or residency, you’ll want to make sure it’s aligned with your goals and values; what fits for one writer may not fit for another. This is especially important for retreats, since you’re often paying to learn from the leaders through workshops and critique sessions.
Take a good look at the experience of the retreat leaders. Does their overall philosophy match yours? Are they able to give you the support and feedback you’ll need to write productively during your time with them? Finally, what resources do they provide to help you prepare prior to the retreat and to stay connected after you leave?
Don’t be afraid to ask for testimonials from people who have worked with them or attended previous retreats. The retreat organizers should be ready and willing to provide clear answers to your questions, as well as help you with any logistics.
Where to find writing retreats and residencies
Once you have an idea of the type of experience you’re looking for, it’s time to browse your options.
While we’ve covered several writing residencies, our posts have only scratched the surface of what’s available. A great place to continue your search is the Alliance of Artists Communities Residency Directory.
Looking for a retreat? Check out our list — and keep an eye on the comments, where readers have suggested additional options.
How to prepare for your retreat or residency
First, decide on your goals for the retreat. What do you want to accomplish?
Do you want to complete a certain number of chapters or hit a certain word count? Are you starting a new project you want to outline and research? Are you looking for a quiet place to review edits and rewrite your manuscript? Knowing what you want to bring home from your retreat or residency is crucial to making the most of your time there.
Next, break down your goal into manageable steps. How many words will you write each day? What’s your daily editing goal? What steps will you take to plan your new project? Set a daily calendar that lays out exactly what you plan to accomplish each day.
Finally, consider the resources you’ll need to meet your goals. Any research for your writing should be at the top of this list — especially if you’re heading to an Internet-less residency. You’ll also want to bring your computer, an external hard drive to back up your files, and power adapters if you’re going to a foreign country. Other good things to have around include paper, pens, pencils, colored pencils for mind mapping or drawing, a camera and maybe even a tape recorder.
Other than that, all you need is to pack your bags and be ready to write, write, write.
Have you attended a writing residency or retreat? Tell us about your experience!