Writing Retreats: What Works
I’ve just returned from a writing retreat in Colorado — the most recent of many that I’ve attended in the last several years — and it’s given me a chance to pause and reflect on the nature of that particular beast.
Writing retreats. What makes them work? What sinks them? What’s the right alchemy to bring a group of friends, acquaintances, and sometimes strangers into productive and harmonious balance?
A couple of thoughts:
1. Finding the right people matters.
And here I don’t just mean the right writers. You need the right people AND the right writers. If you’re going to gallivant off to some strange place and spend several days talking intensely about highly personal things, well…you’d better be sure you’re doing it with people you can get along with (and who can get along with you). In my experience, folks who can go with the flow, not take critique personally, and are able to assess when they need alone/down-time are good. Folks who thrive on drama? Folks who don’t really want to hear that their work needs work? Well, obviously this can be less productive and less desirable.
Even more than this, though, you need people who bring different perspectives, write with a distinctive voice, and are able to hone in on the real problems with a piece of writing. One of the things that worked fabulously at the Colorado retreat was the fact that everyone wrote very different kinds of fiction. We had historical fantasy, hard sci-fi, YA space adventure, near future post-apocalypse, gender-bending avante garde stuff, short fiction, long fiction, and everything in between. It made for a nice mix and allowed each person to bring distinctive skills to the fore.
2. Finding the right place matters.
I’ve been to writing retreats in pastoral settings, in urban settings, and in suburban settings. The thing I’ve found is that it doesn’t matter so much if a place is near or far, built up or peaceful. What matters is that it’s interesting and pleasant. Writers need stimulation. They need light. They need comfy sofas. You can find all these things in a remote mountain town in the Colorado Rockies, but you can also find them on the Las Vegas Strip, or in a bed and breakfast in Des Moines.
The Colorado retreat worked really well because it wasn’t just a writing adventure, it was an adventure adventure. We rode a train and went to hot springs and got time to hang out and socialize in a beautiful setting. This built trust and strengthened bonds that, I think, improved our ability to discuss our work frankly and productively.
3. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses matters.
By this I mean a lot of things. I mean the ability to figure out that maybe you shouldn’t spend every waking with minute with everyone — that maybe you need a little quiet time. Or being the person who realizes that everyone’s tired and burned out and the group needs someone, anyone to make a decision (or that they need you to shut up). I also mean knowing where the holes in your work are and being open to exploring the ideas of your peers (even if they aren’t the direction you wanted to take your story in). Or, conversely, knowing when your critique partners (however insightful their comments) are leading your story down a path you don’t want it to take. I guess another way to put this is: getting a lot out of a writing retreat is contingent on you being able to self-monitor and self-assess as you go.
The most recent retreat in Colorado was really top-notch in all these regards. The group of people brought together by the organizers was fabulous — a mix of old friends, new friends, and people I’d never met before. There was no drama and a lot of good times. People seemed to do a great job of knowing their limits and adjusting their behavior in response to the mood of the group. The setting was gorgeous and the balance of work to play spot on. I feel really lucky to have been able to be a part of it and know I’ll be holding it up in the future as a standard for other such events.
I’d love to know what you all think about the writing retreats you’ve been to. What have you found to be essential elements for a good retreat? What works? What doesn’t?