If you’re interested in honing your writing skills outside of the traditional classroom you have a lot of options. I’ve been cobbling together my own DIY MFA curriculum over the past several years through a combination of reading craft books, taking online classes and in-person workshops, and attending writing conferences and retreats. My path has been less a strategic plan of attack and more a meandering exploration. It’s worked well for me, but I have some tips and thoughts to share that are useful even if you prefer a direct route.
Future posts will explore craft books and online classes, but right now we’re in the thick of a hot, sticky summer here in Wisconsin and I’m yearning for a getaway, so writing retreats, in particular, are on my mind. Writing retreats got me to start writing, introduced me to long-term writing friends and groups, and helped me take tangible steps forward in my work. I’m a big fan, but retreats require time and resources, the biggest barriers for most of us. If you are able to find the space in your life and budget, here are some factors to consider when choosing a writing retreat for yourself.
Who is teaching?
The first, and perhaps most important factor to consider is who’s leading the retreat. Unlike writing conferences which feature an array of instructors, most writing retreats are led by only one author/teacher, increasing the importance of a good fit.
Word of mouth among writing friends and online writing communities is a great way to get recommendations, but if you’re brand new to writing or haven’t found your people yet, look into contemporary writers you’re already reading. I’ve found three core writing teachers this way who have shaped my writing life.
I came across my first writing retreat about five years ago on the Facebook page of an author whose memoir I loved. It was before I’d started writing, but her message of ‘newbies welcome’ caught my eye and helped me see that I could just decide to begin. A few months later my laptop and I were on a ranch in Montana, an adventure that turned out to be one of the best risks I’ve ever taken. Without the inspiration from that first welcoming retreat, I may never have started writing.
A year or two later my husband gave me a craft book on writing memoir that blew open my understanding of the genre. I filled the margins with notes, underlined an unreasonable amount of text, and eventually attended two memoir-focused retreats with the author, which pushed my writing forward in meaningful ways.
Likewise with a popular parenting and politics blogger: following her posts led to taking online writing classes with her, finding a long-term writing group with students from those classes, and a spot on a couple retreats with the author.
Writing focus: General or genre-specific?
If your writing is focused on a specific genre, then choosing a retreat with the same emphasis is obvious. But if you’re still figuring out what you want to write or you work across genres, then a general writing retreat is likely your best choice. Before I recognized the pull to creative nonfiction, learning alongside people working in a range of genres was a useful way to start. The diversity of those early retreats gave me a solid foundation and helped me find my voice. Eventually, I developed a preference for genre-specific retreats for the tailored and directly applicable instruction.
The agenda is the heart of a writing retreat so identifying the goals for your time away is crucial. Are you looking for a retreat heavy on craft, something with more time to be off writing on your own, or a combination? Of course, your needs may shift over time as you gain experience.
In my experience, it’s common for mornings to focus on craft instruction, often with some short writing exercises peppered in. Afternoons tend to be a mixture of free time to write, additional craft sessions, or other activities. In the evenings, there may be a chance to read work aloud and get spontaneous feedback from the instructor and your peers, or even another craft session squeezed in. Agendas vary significantly, though, so search for a schedule that best supports your writing goals and personality.
For example, I’ve learned that while I want to get as much as possible out of my time on a writing retreat, I do best with an agenda that balances craft instruction and feedback with time to process what I’m learning, and to sleep.
Another aspect of some retreats is pre-work, a combination of reading you do ahead of time—ranging from selected excerpts to a whole book—and writing you submit in advance for peer and instructor feedback at the retreat. These may be included in the cost of the retreat, or the written feedback and a 1:1 meeting with the author/instructor might be available for an additional fee. While it can add a significant amount of work beforehand, the results of the pre-work have been the most valuable aspect of a retreat for me as I’ve gotten further into my writing practice.
Location and accommodations
Aside from the writing-related factors, what type of an experience are you looking to have? If you need a plush spa robe and crisp white linens, there are writing retreats at five-star resorts in glamorous locations around the world. But, if you can be flexible, you might be surprised at the variety of places writing retreats are held.
I’ve been on a retreat at former 1960s nudist colony in the bay area, and another at a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. I’ve stayed on a ranch in Montana and at a quaint inn in New Jersey. My focus has been more on who I’d be learning from rather than where I’d be going, but an interesting locale can add a fun or inspiring element to the experience.
And while it’s great to get outside your comfort zone, it’s also important to know your deal breakers. I’m willing to be adventurous, but I do have some minimum requirements. Sure, I’ll share a bathroom, but I need my own bedroom. I snore and I’m an introvert at my core, so space to myself at the end of the day where I can power down and recharge is a must.
Most of the retreats I’ve been on have had a chef/cook on-site who prepared meals for our group, everything from an all-vegan menu to family-style farmhouse fare. However, in an area where restaurants are within walking distance, a combination of group meals and meals on your own is more common.
Some retreats offer activities for an extra fee like yoga classes, guided hikes, massages, and equine assisted therapy. Whether I sign up for anything extra usually depends on a combination of the cost and how the rest of the agenda looks. As tempting as the add-ons are, I don’t want to over-schedule myself.
Finally, consider bookending your trip before and/or after the writing retreat. The extra time will allow you a more focused, peaceful transition from your home environment into retreat mode, and then back home again.