Writing Retreats are Back

I’m just winding down from my first in-person writing retreat in what seems like fifty years. This one was within driving distance of my home in Milwaukee, was small (14 people) and affordable and I have to tell you, it reminded me of all the reasons I’m such a conference junkie. Yes, I’m that person who, when I see a notice in my inbox about a bunch of writers getting together in a communal space, I seriously consider whether I’ve got the time and the money to attend. Every single time. I’ve been to huge events like the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, an intimate 4-person writing class in Port Townsend, and a dude ranch with Steven James and Robert Dugoni in the wilds of Texas. Have pen, will travel is my mantra.

Of course, during the pandemic, these events turned virtual. Which was good in many ways— lower fees, participants and instructors from all over the world, and you couldn’t beat the dress code. But now that things are a bit safer (at least here in Wisconsin) I realize what I missed most about those face-to-face meetings I took for granted pre-2020.

Flesh and blood vs. pixels.

There’s just no substitute for a hug, an in-person smile, or the sound of a laugh echoing around the room when someone makes a joke. Some of the people attending this retreat were old friends I hadn’t seen for eighteen months; some were writers I’d never met. But seeing them in “real life” made them come alive (excuse the pun) including body language, tone of voice, style of dress, behavior in class and at the communal dinners. I walked through the front door of the center on Sunday and encountered a group of strangers. I walked out on Friday, already missing my new set of friends.

No ticking clock. 

Urgency is fine in our stories – in fact, it’s something we strive for. But when a bunch of creatives get together, some of the best ideas come at you tangentially. An overheard remark in an elevator sparks an idea for a dialogue exchange in your WIP. Watching a writer react to a critique gives me insight into human emotion. Observing how people spend their off-hours (extrovert, listener, loner, goes for a walk) reinforces making my characters unique individuals. And the stories people tell around the dining table, particularly after a glass of wine? You learn more about the real life of a writer than you’ll ever learn in books.

Quiet time without distractions.

How many Zoom calls have gotten interrupted by crawling cats, barking dogs, and demanding toddlers? Is your writing time truncated by home schooling, household tasks, and endless to-do lists? Do you long for a stretch of time when you can do nothing but concentrate on your manuscript and let your mind grapple with plot holes, character interactions, and story structure? That’s what most writing retreats offer (in addition to craft lessons and camaraderie). The unfamiliar surroundings mean the routine of everyday life is disrupted and you can’t turn to your typical time sucks. And when everyone around you is diligently bent over their pages, it seems only natural to do the same.

Exposure to genres outside your own.

Maybe you’ve always thought you’d like to try a cozy mystery or a sci-fi fantasy. A writing retreat is the perfect chance to meet and ask questions of authors who write stories outside your comfort zone. Ask them their favorite authors and which craft books they’re recommend. Learn where they hang out on Facebook and which writing organizations they belong to. Depending on the format, you may get exposed to the first ten pages of a bunch of manuscripts you’ve never seen and be asked to analyze them and give feedback. Doing so for novels outside your genre may spark ideas for your own. These one-on-one interactions aren’t something you see on Zoom. They happen spontaneously when you get a bunch of writers together in a room and have them interact over a period of time. Take advantage of the opportunity.

Get recommendations.

A face-to-face retreat is a great place to gather information, whether it’s a referral to a top-notch developmental editor, the real skinny on an agent you’re considering, or advice on how to approach book clubs or independent bookstores to take a chance on your debut. There’s a wealth of hidden knowledge lurking inside every participant – all you have to do is ask.

So next time you see a notice of an in-person gathering, stop and consider what you loved about them “back then” and if the price, the safety precautions, the venue, and the format appeal to you, take the plunge.

Although you’ll have to wear pants.

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