So, after years of having ‘go on a writers’ retreat’ firmly etched on my to-do list, I finally got my arse into gear and managed it last week. The reasons it has taken me so long are manifold, some good, some bad, some trivial, some serious. I’ve spent so much of the last 3 years building up my freelancing portfolio that taking a holiday has had to take a back seat; I’ve survived my Year of Hell, where I was too busy trying to stay emotionally and financially afloat to even think about going away; and, to be honest, I always had massive reservations about the whole idea.
In part, this is due to nothing but my own ornery nature. The best part of being a writer is you can do it on your own, and when I started looking into writing retreats, most of the ones I found boasted glowing promises of classes and courses and informal discussions and work sharing and support and… oh, God. It all sounded too much like Organised Fun to me, and made me want to go lie down in a dark room. So when I stumbled on one that said it offered no structured courses, just fed and watered you and left you alone to write, this seemed like the perfect chance to dip my toes in the water.
Greenacre Writers’ Retreat is run from an ex-convent just outside Henley-on-Thames (I admit, part of the appeal was it was near where a friend lives, so I could stick a visit to her at the end of it – plus, I figured if it was awful and they made us do role play or sense memory activities, I could call her to come pick me up and rescue me). It’s a lovely building – a bit shabby chic, but atmospheric (I spent most of my days writing in the library, which was very Agatha Christie) and set in pleasant grounds which, alas, I didn’t see much of since it was – this being England – pissing it down pretty much the whole time I was there. The retreat struck a nice balance between sociable and private: it was full board so meals were shared with the rest of your group, and there were optional tea breaks twice a day (I must admit I mostly skipped these, grabbing my caffeine fix and retreating back to my work before anyone else arrived), while in the evening there was the option to meet up in the library for a chat and, if you wanted, to share work (obviously, I Did Not Want). The group was small, a diverse but friendly bunch, and though I sometimes find it quite stressful being with groups of strangers (especially at meal times – yes, thanks, I know I am weird) I felt the balance generally worked, so I didn’t feel like I was under a lot of pressure to be sociable, but equally I didn’t feel completely isolated, and the chance to have a bit of a chat after a hard day’s writing was more useful than I thought it would be.
The important question, I suppose, is did I find it helpful – and the answer would be an unequivocal yes. Not only because I actually got loads done – I managed 20,000+ words of my second draft in the Friday-Sunday retreat, which I think is fairly decent – but also because it reminded me of how productive I can be, if I give myself time to write (and, just as importantly, to rest between stints without feeling guilty about doing so). I have been so busy this year with various bits of work that I’ve been scribbling at my book at the edges of my life, and this was a really useful way of reinforcing the importance of carving out a proper space to write, but also of combating the inevitable doubts about ever getting anything done that spring up when you have stalled on a project. I had started to think the reason I was being slow on the book was that it was actually a bit crap, so I was mentally sabotaging my attempts to finish it, but dedicating a weekend to just working on the book, without being distracted by the thousand other demands on my attention (helped, no doubt, by the venue’s spotty internet reception), made me realise that, yes, it needs work (of course it does, it’s only a second draft!) but that it deserves my efforts. And that, for me, made the trip well worth the money.
So, what about you? Have you found being on a writers’ retreat helpful?
You can find information on Greenacre Writers here. (And here are some photos of the site… some slightly blurry due to the fact I was struggling with a migraine, some due to the rain…)