Five Essentials for a Successful Writing Retreat

image: Kjetil Bjørnsrud
image: Kjetil Bjørnsrud

The word “retreat” comes to us from Latin via Old French and Middle English. The root means “pull back.” Now that makes sense for military actions, but when it comes to writing, a retreat is a major step forward.

As a noun “retreat” can be a place or an action. When planning a writing retreat, both come into play. A writing retreat is a special place where special things happen. However, in no way is a writing retreat a dictionary-defined withdrawal or retirement. One could argue for other descriptors, however, of seclusion and sanctuary, but not necessarily.

I have planned and/or hosted a number of writing retreats over the past decades. I just love ‘em! I find writing retreats energizing and productive. There is the satisfaction of accomplishment during the retreat, and there is a residual effect from the focused time writing and thinking about writing.

Some of my friends have had solitary writing retreats, but that is not productive for me. My best retreat experiences have been with other writers.

But, I don’t need to convince you. If you’re reading this, you likely have attended or plan to attend your own writing retreat. To be clear, I am not talking about a big conference kind of fly-to-Hawaii-retreat. Nope. This is the home-grown kind with writers you know.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the big deal retreats, but, you know, most of us can’t swing that.

Where retreats succeed or fail typically goes to five essential elements: 1) goal-directed, 2) clear communication, 3) the right writers in the right place, 4) creature comforts met, and 5) substantive production and critique time.

1) Goal-Directed retreats stay on track because the purpose is production and response to production. When writers sign on, they know that this is not mainly a social event. The purpose of the retreat is to work on writing: planning, drafting, responding, revising, learning. When everyone knows the goal, they can attend or not as it fits into their personal agendas. Setting goals together prior to the retreat will likely be more successful than a retreat unilaterally planned. Develop the goals based on what you expect as an outcome. Will everyone leave with the draft of a short story? Will each writer have time to share the most influential writing craft book they’ve read? A sample goal might be: Each writer will write for four hours each day.

2) Clear Communication during planning and during the retreat ensures that there are no surprises. How many can attend? (I’ve found 6-8 to be the maximum for good interaction.) Where will it be? What are the days and hours within the day for the retreat? What are the agreed-to goals? How much time is production and how much for response? I always print a draft of the retreat agenda and distribute in advance for comment. Revised agendas are distributed at the retreat.

3) The Right Writers in the Right Place means that everyone present is aware of and communally shares the retreat’s goals. The Right Writers know their roles and accept the responsibility to be productive and to help others be productive. Almost as important as who, is where. You know that some places foster more productivity than others. For a retreat, cut off communication with anyone not part of the group as much as is possible. Isolation with the writing community encourages production. There is a zeitgeist that occurs when you interact with the limited group. That is facilitated with pleasant personalities who share goals.

4) Creature Comforts Met includes food and fun and breaks. At all my retreats, we rotate meal duties to share both workload and expense. Additionally, everyone brings more snacks and adult beverages than any productive group could consume. (On the other hand, there are those stories about writers with a range of voracious appetites.) In the evenings, we play word games and cheat wildly and openly (lubricated by said above adult beverages). The point isn’t winning games, it’s bonding and laughing our guts out. We also have walking time for those who want to get some exercise or meditate. Many walk and talk as a socialization activity.

5) Substantive Production and Response Time is the crux of a successful retreat. You want the attendees to go away reluctantly because it’s been so productive, feeling as if the retreat was absolutely worth the time away from other things one could be doing. If more time is spent eating and taking walks in the woods, the purpose of the retreat is lost. The intent should be to provide writers with focused time on their own writing so they leave with substantial progress on a project. By the same token, sharing and responding to one another’s writing or plans enables others to accomplish their goals. I had one group who wanted to leave our retreat in the woods to drive a half-hour into a nearby town. I put my foot down. Sightseeing wasn’t on my agenda for a writing retreat. I finally had to ask, “What do you want most out of this time?” Maybe they weren’t the right people.

Writing retreats can bring a new focus to your work, energize your work-in-progress, and jumpstart a new project. The keys are knowing what you want to happen, keeping communication open, locating an appropriate site and finding folks who share the vision, making sure they’re well-fed and relaxed, and spending time doing what you planned to do.

Retreats can take place in a writer’s home or at a hotel. Spend money if you must, but great retreats can be pulled off with very little cash. And whatever the cost, in time and/or money, make sure the expenditure is worth it.

Author: Sharon Arthur Moore

Sharon Arthur Moore is an intrepid cook, who has lived in every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest and loved every single one of them.

2 thoughts on “Five Essentials for a Successful Writing Retreat”

  1. I agree; a retreat alone is much less productive than one would expect. I did this once after having produced a storytelling festival; I figured I could use the introvert recharge time, and I wanted to jumpstart my own creativity after having managed an event that profiled other people’s. There was a place nearby that did artists’ residencies in the summer and it was empty and cheap in the winter; I signed up for a week. A huge, empty house and I could feel how wonderful it would be to be there with other writers, but the sudden onslaught of unstructured time was more difficult to use wisely than I had anticipated. I did have some odd, almost ghostly company in the visitors log, where I could read about the experiences of other writers at the Center. It made me oddly jealous and lonesome. The next time I retreated, I retreated in good company. Worked much better!

    1. Paula, that sounds like a wonderful story to develop. I can see it now. The isolation. The walks on crackling fallen leaves with your scarf blowing around your head. The fear you’ll never write again. Confronting what it means to be a writer as opposed to someone who writes. I love the image you planted in my head!

      But, like you, I am a people person and I thrive best with the energy of others! I’m glad the post inspired you to comment. Thanks so much for this most poetic response.

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