What do you picture when you hear the phrase “writing retreat?” A cozy log cabin beside a lake somewhere in the mountains? Secluded from the rest of the world and isolated from even wi-fi signals? (Or is that too extreme?) Or is it a cafe in Paris more your style? With a glorious view of the Seine and easy access to walking paths? Or are you like me: you need access to the rush of salty air off the ocean, endless rolling depths, and the constant call of seabirds? There’s no wrong answer, honestly. As long as you’re able to get away and concentrate on your writing, you’re set. But is there more to a retreat than sitting over your laptop, churning out words? Yes. And that’s what I’m here to discuss.
Hawaii Writing Workshop
I was over the moon when I received word that I’d been accepted to attend the Writing Workshops Hawaii Writing Retreat. For one, it was HAWAII! In all of the moves our family made across the country, that was one state we missed. And when my younger brother was stationed out there, I couldn’t swing a visit. For two, my writing was warranted up to snuff. (Always a bonus)
(And the fact the retreat took place shortly after my birthday didn’t hurt)
I was going to have the chance to sit down and discuss my writing with other qualified writers. More, I’d be able to consult with an agent (Mark Gottlieb) and a published author (Ying Chang Compestine), pick their brains, and gain a better understanding of the possibilities for my essay collection. It was everything I could hope for. I counted down the days for MONTHS. And I poured over my essays for weeks, determined to polish them as much as possible.
And even though I received my fellow writers’ pieces during the holiday period, I blocked out as much time as possible to read and review them. I wanted to give them the credit and care they deserved. If it meant neglecting my personal writing time, so be it. This was more important.
I was confident this retreat would be amazing. And I stepped onto that first plane ready for my life to change.
Because we all do that. We have aspirations of greatness. And we forget to temper things with a healthy dose of reality.
The Pros of Writing Retreats
I don’t want to pop the happy bubble just yet, though. So let’s start with the bright side of the coin. Namely, HAWAII.
Now, I’ve been to tropical locations before (Belize, Nassau, Cozumel). They don’t compare. I saw my first black sand beach and drove past ancient lava fields. And nothing beats the sight of the Pacific Ocean. Or all of the whales we had the chance to see (luck of the draw on the right time of the year, there).
Setting is important for a retreat. And this one calmed my brain and allowed the words to flow from my fingertips. But I’m a water girl. If you plopped me in the middle of the country away from a water source, I know the same productivity wouldn’t have happened. Probably the same if I was freezing the entire time. So knowing yourself and what makes you comfortable is important.
But when you’re feeling relaxed – and energized at the same time – this incredible magic happens.
The Synergy of a Writing Retreat
You’re among other creatives. No, everyone won’t be writing the same topics or style as you, but everyone WILL be a writer. And that energy transfers through the air. You end up feeling this connection and drive to sit down and WRITE. Doesn’t matter that you’re spending hours in silence because everyone knows they’re accomplishing SOMETHING. And it’s pure magic.
Think of it like taking the “oomph” you get from NaNo and concentrating it into a PUNCH. Instead of needing to pause and type in a question to your online writing group, all you have to do is wonder aloud. You have an instant critique available whenever you wish. It’s amazing.
And these people are determined to hash a problem out to its conclusion. No two-second discussion before moving on. It’s a sight to behold, believe me.
Wi-fi signals weren’t the best at the retreat. That meant limited time for social media – if any. Personally, aside from an occasional photo dropped onto my Instagram story, I ignored everything. And it was FANTASTIC. The break was everything I needed to breathe and recharge.
Sure, I felt a tiny bit guilty about neglecting things – in the early part of the week. Then I realized how much more work the writing retreat was giving me. Suddenly, none of the rest of it mattered. I completed the draft of my book proposal and eight chapters of my YA novel. In FOUR DAYS! I haven’t accomplished that much at home in the past MONTH! Having nothing else to focus on gave me all the free time I needed.
And I love my husband and family, but not having to worry about anyone but myself helped. I could selfishly spend HOURS typing away. (This isn’t a life choice, obviously) It was refreshing and beautiful.
Writing Retreat = Regular Meals
Can we pause and discuss the FOOD? So amazing.
The Hawaii Island Retreat has a mission of sustainability. So the majority of what they prepare comes from what they grow and maintain on the property. And NOTHING beats whole foods. Or the fact that there were regular meals every single day. No thought required, no time out of the schedule to make something (you know, the agony we play up to justify why we don’t get off our butts).
It was glorious. Even for someone with a touchy stomach.
And they included dessert every night. How do you beat that?
The Cons of Writing Retreats
Nothing is perfect, though. And I’m the first to admit I went into this writing retreat with rose-colored glasses on. Which were promptly smashed within the first day. So, in the interest of fairness, and for anyone who’s yet to embark on their own journey, I want to provide a complete portrait of what these affairs can be like.
(Still beautiful – nothing changes that. Not even two days of rainy mornings)
Writing Retreats and Introverts Don’t Mix
A writing retreat is an opportunity to network. And you should take advantage of that. But you also need to be aware of your personality’s limitations – while recognizing that not everyone has the same boundaries. And if there’s a prominent name on the table? (Or two) Yeah, expect the chum to hit the water.
I’m an introvert. Worse, I’m a neurodivergent introvert. It takes A LOT for me to speak up. I won’t speak over someone or put myself forward ahead of anyone else. And that meant I found myself at the bottom of the pile most of the time. My one-on-one session was cut abruptly short – after getting rescheduled. And my second one? Started late while I waited for someone else to finish their spontaneous conversation.
I couldn’t bring myself to defend things I knew were correct. And I caved on other points because I felt too many eyes on me. It was distinctly uncomfortable – in a way that went beyond a standard workshop. (I’ve done plenty of those and don’t usually have a problem) I was out of my depth and felt very lost. Hiding out with my headphones became necessary.
“My Way or the Highway”
There is no one right way to do things.
Let me repeat that for the back row: THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO DO THINGS.
Unfortunately, when you end up in a writing retreat with certain people, it’s easier to revert to a template form of teaching. Never mind how bland, uninteresting, or monotone that template becomes. Or how it may make someone feel to watch the query letter they spent over a week polishing disintegrate into a boring copycat of everyone else’s draft.
You will NEVER stand out if you follow the pack. And dismissing someone who’s actually done their homework is how you damage people. I deleted the file because I was so embarrassed. The only saving grace is that I am who I am and had it saved on my computer at home.
Honesty is Not the Best Policy
If you’ve never participated in a writing workshop where you critique other people’s work, don’t attend a writing retreat. It isn’t fair to the other attendees. People are looking to improve their writing – not for a love fest. A compliment or two is fine, but if all you’re going to do is rave about how wonderful they are and overlook the glaring problems, you’re not doing them any favors.
You can’t improve perfection. (And, for the record, no one writes perfectly)
I sat there and made balanced critiques like a fool. And felt like an absolute freak. Worse, I had our mentor tell me they were solid and that he was sure everyone appreciated them. (Facial expressions said differently) On three different occasions. It was awkward and drew more attention which made me want to abstain from participation.
There are guides and classes that teach how to workshop properly. More importantly, do everyone a favor: read and polish your work before submission. (Grammarly has a free option)
And be well-read. (I don’t know why that needs to be said, but it does)
Aloha Hawaii Writing Retreat
In terms of productivity, my Hawaii writing retreat was a roaring success. (Did I mention I also finished reading three books?) I came back energized and ready to dive into further chapters and get to work on my Clarion and Clarion West applications. There’s nothing to compare to that level of relaxation and focus.
But on the other side of the coin, it was exceedingly uncomfortable. I felt out of place and unwanted. Several times, I wanted to approach the people in charge and ask if they’d made a mistake in selecting me. I walked away with a bare handful of notes on my work. (Most people didn’t know what hermit crab essays were, or even lyric essays) I was embarrassed and cursed myself for trying.
Which is why I encourage you to think through attendance. Because a writing retreat isn’t perfect. Especially if you aren’t pushy and extroverted. And I thought it was. You need to understand exactly what to expect – and what you may not get from the experience.
Or what you may walk away with that you didn’t expect.