Recently Sarah Selecky has published series of articles recently about writing retreats, both the tutored and non-tutored kind and I’m starting to make plans for a week on retreat in North Wales later in the year. The person I’m currently mentoring with Cinnamon Press recently been on a retreat with Arvon so I’ve been thinking about retreats and whether they are useful.
I came across an article by Max Dunbarwhich takes a critical look at the whole idea and comes to the conclusion that they are not worth the expense. I disagree as in my case it would have taken far longer to complete the two poetry collections which I’ve had published were it not for the opportunities which Cinnamon Press provide at T’yn y Coed. I want to make the distinction between going away to do a week’s course on writing with workshops and tutor-led sessions (often described as a retreat) and having a week away from home in which you focus completely on your work.
The article makes the point that you don’t have to go away to deepest Devon or elsewhere to enable you to write. You could save the money and do the writing at home. Whilst this is true there is something effective and efficient about having that week away which I would find hard to replicate whilst doing runs to school, hanging out washing and other domestic errands. Of course I write at home but at crucial stages in the development of both books I have needed to get away to spend time with the book and nothing but the book. The other interesting thing which happens psychologically is feeling that you should come back with something to show for the week’s absence. With Convoy I wanted to tackle the difficult subject matter of the final convoy, Operation Pedestal, which reached Malta in August 1942. I found it the hardest part of the book to write because of the number of ships that were sunk and men killed and also because of the volume of research material I had amassed. The week away gave me permission to get on with the writing.
With Voices from Stone and Bronze I used the time on retreat in April last year to take a critical look at how the manuscript was shaping up and to make decisions about the order of the poems and which ones to leave out.
The social aspect of writing weeks should not be under-estimated. I am still in regular contact with the writers on the first retreat I did organised by Cinnamon Press. It helped that the numbers was limited and you got a chance to get to know other people’s writing reasonably well and we were all writing work of a similar near publishable standard. I only have one experience of Arvon which was a long time ago and the group size was about twenty which seemed to lead to a rather competitive atmosphere with people being keen to impress the tutors. Nonetheless I did get a lot written during the week. I think that with the more long standing organisation like Arvon it is your responsibility to make the week away productive and to focus on what you want to finish.
You do not have to free up the whole of a week to go away. You can just escape to a nearby library for the day as Rachel Lucas does, although she has Gladstone’s library up the road from her.
Of course the ultimate in retreats has to be Haworthen Castle, which offers fellowships for a month away. I have that in mind for the book after the next one by which time my household will be finished with A levels and GCSEs and the guilt factor about taking a whole month out will have diminished.