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Why It’s Good to Beat a Writer’s Retreat

Award-winning Scottish author Lorna Fergusson, who is also an English literature and creative writing teacher, explains why she’s a firm believer in the value of writing retreats to recharge your creative batteries, and suggest some helpful questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge.

Headshot of Lorna Fergusson

Lorna Fergusson, teacher of English literature and award-winning author, who also runs writers’ retreats

So, you’ve had a lousy day. You’ve been pulled every which way, and that story you want to work on has stopped tugging at your sleeve and is sidling off into the shadows. You want to go after it, grab hold of it, but the cooker timer has gone ping, the dog’s been sick, your child has knocked something over and hey, there’s someone at the door and you forgot to buy that birthday present for your mother-in-law …

Now, pause for breath and say these words: writers’ retreat.

Say it again. Savour the syllables, prolong that last vowel. Allow yourself to dream …

Why Every Writer Needs a Retreat

Mention the word retreat to any writer and their eyes will glaze with longing. We all want to get away from petty distractions to a fantasy place where we’ll enjoy undisturbed focus and productivity. As Gish Jen once said in the New York Times:

“Every moment spent in one’s real life is a moment missed in one’s writing life, and vice versa.”

By retreating you’re turning your back on the mundane. You’re telling Life it’s not as important as Art. In this spinning interconnected digitally-febrile world, you seek the chance to truly find yourself as a creative being.

I recently talked to a playwright who’d spent a month at the renowned retreat at Hawthornden Castle, near Edinburgh. He raved about how much he’d written there and said I should apply. Ironically, this was after I’d created my own retreat for writers, last autumn in Cornwall, and found it to be one of the most positive, life-affirming events I’ve ever run.

How to Choose the Best Writers’ Retreat for You

In order to choose the right retreat, ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you want a few hours’ peace in the local library, or a physical getaway you organise yourself?
  • Do you want a solitary trip or to go with a few friends?
  • Do you want someone else to organise it?
  • How long should it last – a day, a weekend, or longer?
  • Would you prefer to do it from home? – some retreats are online, bringing writers together over the internet, setting goals and tasks
Writers in the lounge of the flat, with sea view

This small private flat in the English seaside town of St Ives, Cornwall, provides an intimate setting for the FictionFire retreat (photo: Lorna Fergusson)

And here we come to the next big question: do you want structure and guidance, or just the peace to spend your days as you wish? Many retreats combine solitary time with time in workshops addressing aspects of the craft or creative motivation. Some include personal growth elements, spiritual development, yoga and meditation as part of the retreat experience.

Next question: do you want to be part of a group? Retreats can offer social connection – meals, entertainment, excursions, and the chance to have feedback and bounce ideas off other writers. The mutual support of being with other like-minded people can be invaluable, but you may want utter solitude and resent being disturbed or being asked, as at certain famous retreats, to join in the cooking and washing up!

Do you want a facilitator, someone who directs the retreat, provides encouraging advice and helps you figure out where you are as a writer and where your book is going?

Can You Stand It?

I ask this because at Hawthornden, no internet. Now, we may dream of cutting loose from all that, but a month without social media and Google is enough to challenge any modern writer. You may run screaming back to reality. Do you want to escape to a remote place – an island, for instance, or the depths of the countryside? Would the silence out there oppress rather than liberate your imagination?

Can You Afford It?

Retreats cost money, especially if you opt to go abroad. Then again, if you pay for your retreat, you will have invested in your development as an artist and that may make you even more productive.

View of St Ives Bay

To the LIghthouse?Taking inspiration from peaceful sea views on a writers’ retreat (photo: Lorna Fergusson)

There’s no doubt about it: retreats can be healing and uplifting. A beautiful location, fresh air, companionship and support can all work wonders. When your mind is undistracted, it’s set free. Your story will slip back out of the shadows, take you by the hand and lead you to unexpected and amazing places.

  • If you’d like to know more about Lorna Fergusson’s retreats, visit www.fictionfire.co.uk.
  • If you would like to recommend other retreats that you have enjoyed, please feel free to add links in the comments.

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