Writerly life advice: Writing retreats for beginners

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A writing retreat is one way of giving yourself time and space to write, and committing to writing more seriously. It’s also an increasingly popular thing to do, perhaps because our working lives leave us little time to be creative, so taking enforced time out in a place where the laundry and the washing up are not going to be causing distraction can be a good way to really put the hours in on a particular project. With that in mind, I have a few pointers to help you to choose a good writing retreat, and to help you make the most of it once you’re there.
Firstly, you can choose between a taught retreat and a self-directed retreat. A taught retreat is more like a course, with writers in your chosen field as tutors who will give you advice on your work and set particular exercises for you to respond to while you’re there. You’ll probably also get some time to work on your own projects. The courses are usually themed, so you might choose a course because it’s on the subject of nature writing, for example. You might choose a course because you love the work of one or more of its tutors.
There is a definite element of networking at work here – people sometimes choose the courses because of the tutors, their publishers or their agents, for example, in order to make connections. I think this is less reliable than picking a course you think you’re going to enjoy, but it is also a consideration.
A self-directed writing retreat pretty much contains as much or as little interaction as you’d like. You can pick one at a dedicated writing centre, where there will likely be a cohort of retreating writers, or you can take yourself off somewhere by yourself and structure a retreat however you like. Some tips I’d recommend are:

1. All work and no play

Remember Jack’s interview in The Shining when he’s asked how he’ll cope with the isolation at the Overlook Hotel, and he assures the managers he’ll be fine because he has ‘a writing project’? You can probably see where I’m going here, and the short version is – don’t overdo it. If you’re constantly telling yourself you have a week to write a masterpiece and staying up all night redrafting, you are probably doing more harm than good.

2. Go outside

It seems to be a prerequisite for any writing retreat that it is held in gorgeous surroundings that you can get out and find solace and inspiration in. Do make the most of the landscape, even if it’s only for a short walk to turn ideas over in your head. The fresh air will bring you back to the page refreshed.

3. Vary your time

If writing is not going well for you on a particular day, then maybe editing what you wrote yesterday is the best thing to do. Maybe that’s not going well either, so you want to sit under a blanket with a cup of tea and read. All of this time is nourishing to your brain and creativity, there’s no hierarchy of activities. If one isn’t making you feel good today, try something different.

4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

This could be my ‘one rule for writing’ actually. Didn’t get as many words written as you thought? Haven’t mastered the sonnet yet? Feel like putting your entire notebook in the bin? Don’t beat yourself up. You have to write the bad to get to the good.

5. Keep up the Good Work (one you get home, that is)

Part of the beauty of protected time is having time to think, and those thoughts can set you off on a writing trajectory that doesn’t necessarily end when the retreat finishes. It can motivate you all the way through a project, if you keep on carving out time for it. Maybe it’s only a couple of hours a week, but if you can keep to a regular habit once real life intervenes once more, you’re going to get a lot more out of your retreat than a week of peace and quiet.
If you’re considering planning a writing course or retreat, these websites may be helpful to you:
https://www.arvon.org/ the Arvon Foundation
https://www.tynewydd.wales/ Ty Newydd, the Writer’s Centre for Wales.

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One thought on “Writerly life advice: Writing retreats for beginners

  • That’s very good advice. Tÿ Newydd is my idea of heaven. There’s no chance of over doing it because the outside always beckons – the gardens, the mountains, the sea – but meals which appear as if by magic, other writers to share with, and above all peace and space to write … what more could anyone ask?

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