What I’ve Learned By Going On A Writers’ Retreat

I have been away for the past three nights at a lovely little retreat in Devon. This is the set-up: Everyone who comes here is a writer, some published, some not, some aiming for publication, some just doing it for fun. The place in run by a writer, who understands the difficulty posed by everyday distractions (like making lunch, feeling obliged to be social, etc) and works very hard to make it as easy as possible to get on with some writing. All meals are included in the price and you are actively discouraged from doing any clearing up. If you have laundry, someone can do that for you; if you get hungry mid-afternoon, there are flapjacks and banana bread in the kitchen for you to help yourself to; if you wake up with a headache, there is paracetamol in the bathroom cabinet. There’s no need to worry about bringing shampoo or anything like that because the bathroom is fully stocked with all sorts – from cleansing face masks right down to soothing foot cream. Each room has a single bed, a comfy chair for reading and a desk to work at. If you’re bored of your room, you can go and work by the warmth of the stove in the kitchen or by the huge open fire in the living room. There are plenty of lovely walks you can do from the door, and the sea is only half an hour’s drive away.

Now that I’ve made you sufficiently envious, let me tell you what I’ve learned from being here, and what I hope to take home with me from this experience.

1. If you allow yourself the space to do it, you can get a massive amount done in a day, but it won’t all be writing. I’m at the early stages of a new novel, so the amount of actual writing I’ve done is minimal – although I have done a fair amount – but I’ve been writing out character sketches, planning scenes and thinking about how to order them into a plot (writing each scene on a little card, which I’ve never done before and now I can’t believe I’ve never done it before – it’s so helpful). This all works brilliantly when you’ve nothing else to do in between, because you can see clearly how character fits into plot, fits into theme etc. But I see no reason why these things couldn’t work if they were spaced out a bit more at home. Sometimes you’re so strapped for time that anything other than getting on with the actual writing of the thing seems like a waste of time. It really isn’t. Which leads me on to my next point . . .

2. Even if you have all day and no distractions to dedicate to your writing, you inevitably need to split the day into sections, anyway. Any one of these sections can easily be fitted into your busy standard day at home. It takes half an hour to write a quick character sketch, which I’ve been doing before breakfast. This isn’t going to go into my novel, so I don’t need to get all jammed up with insecurity like I might if I was working on an actual scene. It’s easy, you can do that at home. If you later decide  it’s rubbish, or it doesn’t work for whatever reason, that’s fine – throw it away and do another one. It’s not wasted time; it’s all going towards making what you do end up with better. After breakfast, I might read for a bit – non-fiction research, or poetry or a short story by an author or on a subject close to that of my novel (but I don’t think it has to be). Again, this is something you could do in your lunch hour, or before bed. Then I’ll go for a walk with something to read and something to write on. Everyone walks somewhere during the course of a standard day, don’t they? Just make sure you have a notepad with you – boom! You’re on a writer’s retreat. An hour before lunch, I’ll flick through my plot notes and perhaps tweak them a little, or write out a card for a new scene. After lunch I’ll draft a scene, or begin to, if it’s a meaty one. I might read over some earlier scenes that I’ve written and edit them a tiny bit (not worth doing too much editing at such an early stage). I’ll dedicate a bit more time to this – and hour or two, perhaps, so it’s probably a job for the weekend, at home, or set aside a whole evening and do it instead of watching House of Cards. Then I’ll read a novel which is completely unrelated, but is something that I love. I might skip over parts of it, try to analyse the structure a bit, or the characterisation, or the dialogue. This is something you could spend ten minutes on if it’s a really familiar novel, or you could be at it for hours. My point with all this is that your brain will continue to think about whatever little task you’ve done until you sit down at your desk the next day to do the next thing. Most of the work for a novel is done when you’re away from your desk, but you must do a little bit every day. If you only have half an hour, that’s fine. Even if you had all day, you might not do more than half an hour at a time of any one thing, anyway.

3. If the expectation is that you write, you tend to get on and write. One thing about coming on a retreat that is more tricky to take home is the feeling of purpose. There is something very powerful about knowing that the person in the next room is working on their second novel and writing to a deadline, and that the person across the landing is busy editing their memoir. Surrounded by so much productivity, it’s easy to feel like I’d better get on with writing my novel; that’s what I’ve told all the other guests I’m here to do, after all. One way of taking this feeling home is to give yourself a specific time to write and to let everyone know that that is what you’re doing at that time – make it sacred, make people have expectations of you. You could also cultivate a circle of writer friends to keep you on your toes. Knowing other people are also dedicating themselves to this often thankless pursuit can be tremendously heartening.

4. When you’re paying for space and time to write, you’re much less likely to faff about on the internet. There is pretty good wifi at the retreat in Devon, but despite that I managed to resist updating my Facebook status to gloat about being on a writers’ retreat in Devon (which, let’s face is, would have looked pretty sad – what’s the point in being there if you’re going to boast about it rather than actually get on with some writing. Save the boasting for once you’ve done the writing). I also only checked my emails at specific times, rather than keeping them open all the time to distract me with their dinging. I don’t know how to take this home, other than in the form of extreme self-discipline.

5. Most writers are not snobs about writing. In fact, your strongest critic is probably you. Spending time with other writers doing all sorts of different things is a powerful way to calm your fears about people judging you and your work. Of course, your writing is not going to be to everyone’s taste and it can be a cruel world out there, but fellow writers are probably your biggest supporters. There’s a strong feeling that what we’re doing is something worthwhile; we all know it’s hard, but we all know it’s rewarding, too, so we encourage each other to keep at it.

I was bought my stay at the retreat as a gift and, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have bought it for myself. I would have viewed it as extravagant and unnecessary. But, having experienced it and seen how much I have benefitted, just from the clarity with which it’s enabled me to see my foetal novel, I have changed my mind. Of course it’s possible to write a novel without staying at a retreat, but I think we writers can be quite cruel to ourselves sometimes and being looked after (so well looked after, too – a glass of wine was brought to my room every evening at six, and when I returned to my bed after dinner, there was a hot water bottle there warming it up) for the specific purpose of allowing us time to write is so wonderfully liberating that I’ve come to think that a stay of a few nights in this retreat is more than worth the money. I recommend it, and I certainly hope to be back soon.

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