Going on a year of lockdown, isolation and limited movement has got us obsessing about going on holiday! And what better for a writer than a writing retreat? We asked the scribble if they'd ever been on a retreat, what they got out of it and whether they rated the experience.
I’ve been on both the traditional residential-course writing retreat, and the self-imposed exile kind. Both have been brilliant, life-changing experiences, for different reasons.
The residential courses I have attended have been run by the Arvon Foundation, and both of them were unforgettable. Both of mine took place at Lumb Bank, so the location itself was inspirational. It was fantastic to be learning from ‘real-live writers’ at a time when, to me, such people were on a par with unicorns; being around them made me realise that my dreams might not be so ridiculous after all. By far the best thing about it all was simply being around other writers. The creative energy just crackled, and I made friendships that continue to this day.
One of my best memories from my time at Lumb Bank is a simple afternoon sitting on a huge, squashy sofa, surrounded by the clicking of laptop keys. Occasionally someone would wordlessly pass something over for perusal, a bit of gentle feedback would be given, and tapping would resume. It was such a relief to be surrounded by people who were of like minds to me, and the week was life-changing in a fundamental way - its effects continue to resonate almost fifteen years later. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this without that five days in 2007 having happened; I wouldn’t ever have had anything published and I very much doubt I’d be studying for my Masters in Creative Writing.
I’ve also done the self-imposed exile in a cottage by the sea, and I learned a lot about my personal writing practice there. I learned that my ideal writing life consists of writing for two hours first thing in the morning, before I have the chance to talk myself out of it, then spending the rest of the day going for long walks and ruminating on where my story might go next. I learned that I write in short, fast bursts and that that’s absolutely fine. I simply don’t have the concentration to scribble for hours. I learned that domestic life really does get in the way of creativity, and if I was going to take my writing seriously, I would have to be selfish and carve out time for it.
I also learned that what I really want out of life is a tiny flint cottage on the North Norfolk coast to write in. We can all dream...
I've sort of been on a writing retreat? It wasn't anything fancy and not very much writing was done so I'm not entirely sure if it counts, but I'm going to pretend it does for the sake of this question.
I went on the same writing retreat twice with my university, it was based in Whitby which was absolutely gorgeous. It offered group readings, workshops and plenty of free time, but all scheduled activities were optional, so you could simply find yourself a little bolt hole and write (or drink) the weekend away if you so wished. It was wonderfully atmospheric and offered plenty of amazing inspiration, but I will admit quite a chunk of the time there was spent drinking and socialising.
Realistically, I probably didn't get an awful lot of writing skills or inspiration out of it. What I did get was a chance to take a breather and make some absolutely wonderful memories. Memories that I'm certain will end up in my writing one day, in some form or another. It might not be what you'd usually take away from a writing retreat but I'd say it did me a lot of good.
I haven't been on an actual writing retreat so I don't have much to offer here.
I do try to write whenever I'm away though. I always take more than enough reading material with me - I can't imagine finishing a book while I'm so far from my bookshelves and not being able to pick up another. But, as well as carrying more books than is sensible, I always make sure I take a notepad. New surroundings often spark new ideas and feelings, so it's important to me that I can write whenever I feel the urge. I probably write more poetry than anything else when I'm away. I'm not sure why.
I'm going away in the UK for two weeks soon and I'm sure I'll be devoting some of my time to writing for the final project of my MA. I know this doesn't really qualify as a "writing retreat" but I'm kind of treating it as one. I hope to get a lot of work done in the mornings while I'm away.
Though I haven't actually taken what I'd call a writing retreat, I do want to. It's something I hope to do as regularly as possible in the future - when life and money allow it. I'm certain it's a fantastic way to lose yourself in the process and be as productive as possible. If you can get away, go for it.
Back at the start of the year, after months and months of being shut up at home, I decided I needed to get away and decompress; so I went online and booked a cottage in the remotest, tiniest little hamlet I could find in East Yorkshire. As soon as lockdown was lifted in April, I waved goodbye to my partner and headed off with the dog for a further week of isolation. I know, it sounds completely illogical and mad.
The reality is that I didn’t really want a holiday. I wanted to be able to shut myself away in a private bubble and write for a week - which is exactly what I did.
I suspect that when you think ‘writing retreat’, you think of an idyllic venue, catering, guided workshops, mentors and a group of hobby or side-hustle writers wanting to learn or work on their magnum opus. And I have done that - I absolutely loved it.
But what I found I really needed, earlier this year, was a disconnection from all my other roles - my job, my house, my hobbies - to give me the opportunity to be a full time writer without any nagging guilt about an email that I needed to send or a wall that needed painting or weeds that needed pulling. Personally, at that exact time in my life, I found it far more useful than a workshop or a sharing circle.
Buggering off by yourself and rattling around in a lovely little house with nothing but gorgeous countryside and the opportunity to write may not quite fit with the traditional definition of ‘writing retreat’ but that’s exactly what it was.
I think most people that go away to write are looking for one of, or a combination of, three things: the space to write, the motivation to write or the encouragement to write. A good examination of which of those apply to you should help you work out what sort of retreat you need.
So yes, whether a guided programme with a group of likeminded people and infectious enthusiasm or a lonely writer’s nook with nothing and no one to disturb you but your imagination, I absolutely recommend a writing getaway.
In fact, I plan to do it every year.
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