I try to run away at least once a year. If I’m lucky, I manage it twice. Running away can be one of the best things we can do for our writing business.
We often dream of being holed up in a garret, hidden from the world, as we work on our current writing project, free from any distractions. Unfortunately, most of us live in the real world and we’re not afforded that luxury.
We might not be able to escape life’s distractions all the time but, with some careful planning, it’s possible to have some occasional writing freedom in the form of a writing retreat.
Every November, I, along with several of my writer friends, retreat for a long weekend on the Welsh Coast. We organise it ourselves and hire some self-catering accommodation. There are no workshops or formal tutoring. It’s just space to escape daily distractions and focus on our current work-in-progress. (As well as take the odd invigorating beach walk to blow away the cobwebs!)
The joy of doing this is, while we all have our own space to write, we can still mix with other writers and chat through writerly problems.
Retreats come in all shapes and sizes. One writer friend takes herself off to France by herself for a couple of weeks, leaving family to fend for themselves. She’s found it’s the only way she can truly break the back of her novel first drafts.
Other writers prefer organised escapes, where meals are prepared, and tutors are on hand to help with writing problems.
Novelist and writing tutor Alison May (https://alison-may.co.uk/), who also writes as Ally Sinclair, has found retreats extremely useful for her novel writing business.
“I’ve done so many different types of retreats,” she explains, “tutored, untutored, catered, self-catering, sometimes with a group of friends, and sometimes as a tutor supporting a group of writers. They can all be wonderful and I’ve been drawn to different things at different stages of my writing life.”
This variety means it’s worth spending time beforehand identifying what you want to achieve with your retreat. The time is precious, no matter how long or short, so it’s important to make the most of it.
“Having a tutor there can be fantastic if you’re looking for input to help shape your ideas or just someone to bounce ideas off,” says Alison, “but more recently, if I’m going on a retreat for myself, rather than as a tutor, I’m usually just looking to get away and get into a bubble where all I have to think about is writing. A retreat is literally that—a chance to retreat from the world and from the everyday stresses and to do lists and just write.”
Sometimes, it’s not until we go on retreat that we truly understand what we have to cope with in our normal lives.
“For me,” says Alison, “it’s the sole focus on writing that makes the difference. No laundry to do, or phones to answer, or dishwashers to empty. That head space is so valuable and I don’t think you realise how much of your head space at home is taken up with other things and other people until you’re away from all of that.”
This is why retreats can be so effective. That ability to focus on nothing else, other than your writing, means great things can happen when on retreat. I often feel selfish when I run away. There’s a guilty pleasure in just thinking about my writing, even though it is my full-time business. Yet I know from my writer friends with day jobs that many feel the same.
However, don’t think of a retreat as an indulgence. It’s an investment. It’s recognising the importance of ourselves as writers, and also of our current work in progress.
Whether a retreat is a day, a long weekend, a week, or perhaps even longer, it’s important to set out what it is we want to achieve from this escape. That can vary depending on the project we’re working on and where we are with that project.
Last year, for instance, I was struggling to get started on my third novel, so while on retreat I focussed on outlining the plot and subplots. I did very little writing while retreating, but those two days spent sticking and re-arranging Post-It notes on a large blank bedroom wall helped clarify the overall structure of the novel and my characters’ goals. It broke the mental blockage I had with the novel, enabling me to get going again as soon as I returned home.
Alison, whose latest novel as Ally Sinclair is The Christmas Season, published by Hera, finds she uses retreats differently, depending upon her current writing dilemmas.
“If I’m in the midst of a first draft, I will nearly always set a word count goal and on a retreat, I will usually exceed it. It’s amazing how productive you can be when there’s nothing else to think about! I also find retreats helpful when I’m at the initial idea stage, though, and goals are harder to quantify then. That tends to be more of a question of ‘work out what on earth I’m doing with this idea’, which is usually done by staring at the ceiling, making—and crossing out—lots of notes, and going for long walks.”
A writing retreat is not a holiday. However, it’s important we take time to recharge our creative batteries. Going for long walks and taking time out to explore our new surroundings can still be a useful way to spend our time.
I often find these moments generate new ideas and writing opportunities. On last year’s retreat, a morning spent exploring the local town led to a travel piece for a weekly magazine.
Retreating on our own gives us complete freedom to do what we want, when we want, but it also takes responsibility and self-control. After all, if we’ve set ourselves a daily word count target but have spent all day wandering around the local shops, and haven’t written a word, then we only have ourselves to blame.
However, an organised retreat can be great if you want structure, accountability, and tutoring to improve your skills.
Alison facilitates retreats with Jeevani Charika and Janet Gover for writers. These retreats offer writers ample time to work on their project, but they can also have a private one-to-one session to solve any issues. Being able to chat about writerly problems with other writers can be extremely useful on retreat.
“I prefer to retreat with other writers,” says Alison, “so long as there’s a space where I can write in solitude if I need to. I find the peer pressure of joining everyone for lunch and dinner and hearing what they’ve achieved really motivating, and having other people around who’ll join you for a brainstorming plot walk or be a sounding board when you’re working out an idea is incredibly helpful. And a few minutes’ break from your own idea to return the favour can be inspiring too.”
A retreat can be as individual as the writer, and no two retreats are the same. If the thought of retreating appeals, identify which of your writing projects would benefit most from a period of deep focus, and what you need to achieve to move the project forward.
“Decide what you want from it,” says Alison. “If you’re worried about structuring your time, or working out what to focus on, look for tutored retreats, where there’s someone there specifically to help and support you. If you know what you want to achieve and just want the time and space to do it, think about whether you do better with other people around or on your own.”
“If you crave solitude,” she continues, “just checking solo into a hotel and holing up in your room might be enough. If you want other writers around, look for retreat venues who offer ‘just write’ weeks or weekends, or think about booking a self-catering house with a group of writer mates.”
The beauty about solitary retreats is their cost is down to whatever you want to spend. I once booked myself into a Travelodge overnight, paid a bit extra for an early check-in at midday, and then checked out twenty-four hours later. The accommodation was under fifty pounds, and there was an adjacent restaurant for meals.
A few years ago, I took myself off to the Lake District on a solitary five-week self- catering retreat. As retreats go, that was epic, but it enabled me to crack the first draft of my first novel. Without that retreat, I wouldn’t be where I am with any of my novels today.
Distractions are the bane of every writer’s life, whether it be from family and friends, or just the constant notifications on our smartphones. Those wishing to really escape should check out the Landmark Trust, because many of their self-catering properties are in locations where there is no mobile phone signal, let alone a Wi-Fi connection. Many don’t have televisions either.
A retreat is an investment in our writing business. It may feel selfish, but they help us grow and develop as writers.
Consider sharing with family what your writing retreat goals are. Not only can this accountability help keep you focussed while away, it may also show to them what you can achieve when they don’t interrupt you. They may even be more understanding the next time you raise the suggestion of going on retreat.
Handled well, running away for your writing business could become a regular thing!
Fiction Tutors (Alison, Jeevani, and Janet): https://fictiontutors.co.uk/events/
Queen of Retreats: https://queenofretreats.com/experiences/create/creative-writing-retreats/
The Writers’ Retreat: https://writersretreatuk.co.uk/
Premier Inn: https://www.premierinn.com/gb/en/home.html
Landmark Trust: https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/
Sykes Cottage Holidays: https://www.sykescottages.co.uk/