Writing on Retreat: Finding Your Own Way

notebook on a wooden table
Category: Writing

I love writing retreats. Whether it’s a tutored retreat at Moniack Mhor, an untutored retreat at Cove Park, or a week alone in a hut with nothing but a notepad and pen, there’s just something about having that dedicated time that makes me feel particularly creative. But everyone experiences retreats differently and it can be hard to know what to expect – the more retreats I go on, the more I feel like I’m still learning how to make the most of the opportunity. So what’s the best way to approach a writing retreat?

Put expectations aside

As with most things, it’s helpful to approach a writing retreat with an open mind. Retreats can function in various ways – with tutorials or independent writing, socialising or solitude – and much depends on the people you’re with. If you arrive expecting a retreat to be a particular way, there’s a chance you might be disappointed. But I’ve found it useful to stop expecting a specific experience, and instead allow the unexpected stories, ideas, and friendships to develop.

Plan if you can, but value having time to think

Thinking is a vital part of the writing process

People often arrive on a retreat with an ambitious plan. I do it myself: “I’m going to write 10,000 words” or “I’m going to finish my novel”. Sometimes I meet those aims. Often I don’t. While aims can be a useful way of providing focus and momentum, there are weeks of my life when my writing just won’t progress the way I want it to. But thinking is a vital part of the writing process, and one that doesn’t seem to get blocked in the same way as a word count. So as long as I spend some time thinking during a writing retreat, I count that as time very well spent.

Don’t be afraid to tell the truth

A retreat is your time to focus on your writing in whatever way works best for you. It’s okay to protect that time by speaking up, if you need to. If you’d rather not join the daily wine drinking session, that’s fine. If you prefer to work through the evening rather than meet others for dinner, it’s your choice. If you’d appreciate someone to talk to, try asking your neighbour – they might feel the same way. But it’s okay to stand up for your time and spend it how you choose. It is valuable, and it is yours.

Remember to walk

When it comes to generating ideas, walking can be as productive as typing – and most writing retreats are set in beautiful surroundings. As tempting as it is to shut yourself away in your room and force the words to come, don’t be afraid to step away from the computer and head out into the wild when you hear it calling.

Go Easy On Yourself

There’s no such thing as a failed writing retreat

There are no rules for what you should achieve on a writing retreat, and often what I achieve is different from what I was hoping for. That’s okay. There’s no such thing as a failed writing retreat, and it could be that some time away was what you needed more than writing a few thousand words. So whatever you write (or don’t write) on your retreat, allow yourself some respite from the pressure of having to do anything. Usually, the moment I stop putting pressure on myself is the moment my writing comes alive.

Helen Sedgwick

Helen Sedgwick won a New Writers Award in 2012. Her first novel, The Comet Seekers - a story of love, loss, hope and the comets that illuminate the skies above us - was published in August 2016. Helen holds an MLitt  in Creative Writing from Glasgow University and a PhD in Physics from Edinburgh University.