I took this from my cabin window.

How to Plan a Writing Retreat, Part 1: Goals and Rules

So you’d like to plan a writing retreat. Good, because an effective retreat is like Disneyland with no lines, unlimited food, no screaming kids and only interesting people. Oh, and you don’t have to go outside.

But you’re going to need some goals. Let me help you with that.

This is the first article in a multi-part series. Over the coming days, I’ll be talking in further detail about a lot of aspects of retreat planning, from cash to readings.

You can read the second article about scheduling here.

Every year, I disappear for a week to Gatlinburg, to live in a cabin with some of the best people around. I’ve been told that I organize the best writing retreat ever, and I do a lot to keep it that way. There are many of us, and we haven’t had any murders yet. In light of that smashing success, I’d like to share some of my secrets with you.

The most important aspect of a retreat is its goals. Without them, all you’re organizing is a binge-drinking contest/regrettable oversharing championship. You have to get everyone in attendance on the same page, and they have to support those goals, or you’re going to wind up angry with one another. Some of you are going to get work done, and some of you are going to want to party. The partiers will distract the writers and the writers will bum out the partiers, and everyone will waste their money.

Why are you even here?

Are you at the writing retreat to work or play?

If you just want to drink, stay at home… or, uh, don’t. I don’t know how to throw a good party, as any of my guests can tell you. If you’re there to work, I think I can help you.

Make sure everyone knows that you’re trying to get stuff written, and start looking at any obstacles that might impede that. Some obstacles that might hinder the process include:

  • Noise
  • Visual Distractions
  • Discomfort
  • Bad Social Dynamic
  • Need to Feel Writerly
  • Need for Sustenance
  • Getting Arrested

Now you need some rules.

If you want to remove all obstacles, you need a fairly ironclad set of rules. There are obvious exceptions, but generally, people should be expected to abide by the rules of the venue. You may be faced with more obstacles, such as dangerous flora/fauna or robbery or something, but I think we can go down the basic list and fix the big ones.

Noise

You’re not going to be writing the entire day, but you need to carve out a massive chunk for everyone to use. I recommend day job territory: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. This time is sacred. It’s where everyone gets to test whether or not they can actually write at a professional level, if given the opportunity. If you allow noise to ruin it, you’re invalidating the retreat for everyone in attendance.

Rule: 9am – 6pm are writing hours. Keep conversations to a minimum. If you must converse, go outside. Use headphones if you’re that kind of writer. Do not play guitar or kazoo.

Visual Distractions

If you’re watching a movie in my eye line, I can’t think. I don’t care if it’s hardcore porn or the Golden Girls, I have zero chance of being able to concentrate. Anywhere else in the world, this would be my problem, but we’re at a writing retreat. That means that guests should take it upon themselves to watch television somewhere that won’t bother anyone.

Ideally, everyone would write nonstop during writing hours, but I think it’s unfair to dictate process to another artist. As long as they can watch TV somewhere private, it’s their time to spend.

Rule: During writing hours, do not turn on any televisions in communal areas. If you’re going to watch something, make sure your laptop screen isn’t facing others. Also, wear clothes. No one needs to see that.

Discomfort

If you can’t relax, you probably can’t write. As the organizer, it’s imperative that you rent enough space for everyone to spread out. If you skimp on the cabin so everyone can afford to come, remember that mistake when you’re writing, piled on top of each other like a boring orgy.

A great writing retreat is the balance of privacy and fellowship. It matters that people are able to put a few feet between them and the next person. There need to be comfy chairs and lots of work surfaces. Every location we’ve rented has had a pool table, which can also work in a pinch.

Rule: Help others find a good working space. If furniture needs to move, pitch in at the beginning, and it’ll make the rest of the time go much better.

Bad Social Dynamic

This is a tricky one, because you never know what’ll happen once you get a lot of people in a small space for a week. However, I’ve found a couple of rules that work for me.

Rule 1: If this is a fiction writing retreat, everyone is a fiction writer. If this is a journalism retreat, you know what to do.

Rule 2: You are not there to pick up a date. Do not make sexual advances on people trapped in a cabin with you.

Rule 3: If you want to impose on someone, don’t. If they’re not breaking the rules, it’s up to you to fix your own situation.

Need to Feel Writerly

Everyone wants to feel like they’re experiencing a personal renaissance, and that means doing writerly things, such as having readings. These readings help to provide deadlines and validation, and get everyone comfortable with bearing their soul. At the same time, you can take it too far and offend people, so I’ve got two rules that serve to balance one another.

Rule 1: Every night, each participant will read some of what they wrote that day. This isn’t optional, because everyone needs some skin in the game.

Rule 2: No critiques are allowed during the readings. You can’t request them, and you certainly can’t give them. Also, no part of the retreat format can judge the quantity or quality of work performed there.

If a critique group wants to form outside of the readings, that’s fine, but not everyone feels the need to be evaluated.

Need for Sustenance

As the organizer, you need to find a way to get food into everyone’s bellies. We solved the problem by “hiring” chefs. We give them a food budget, ask them to cook three meals a day, and comp their rooms. They don’t have to be quiet in the kitchen, and anyone working near the kitchen understands that it’s a noise area.

Furthermore, all writers are required to wash dishes. The chefs are there to cook because they love to cook, just like you’re there to write. Make it a cooking retreat, and remove any part of cooking they don’t like (such as washing).

Rule: Do not fuck with the chefs for any reason.

Getting Arrested

If you get arrested, you’re gonna have a bad time. Eliminate illegal things, but also potentially-illegal things.

Rule 1: No drugs or guns at the retreat. Period.

Rule 2: If there are minors at your retreat, it’s a dry retreat. If you don’t enforce that, minors will be drinking by the end of the week.

The Fun Police

If people are breaking the rules, it’s up to you to stop them. And it might suck, by the way. They might get angry with you or decide not to return (which might be a good thing…).

The important aspect is that you’re not mad at them for breaking the rules. You’re just there to keep the peace and make sure everyone gets what they came for.

As a joke, we started saying, “Freeze! Fun police!” when rules were broken. It’s hard to feel threatened when someone yells that. The most common breaches of protocol were discussions during quiet hours, because we’re not fucking monks.

Sometimes, people are going to make mistakes, and they won’t even notice. Unless they’re chronic offenders or they’re endangering someone, just point out that they’re breaking the rules, then drop it.

14 thoughts on “How to Plan a Writing Retreat, Part 1: Goals and Rules”

  1. Alex, this sounds like an amazing retreat. I’ve heard you, Tee, Pip, and a few others talk about this. Really sounds amazing, and as much as you work, you have fun too.

  2. It’s so important to be around other writers. If nothing else, to rub shoulders with others who are listening to the muse. It helps to keep the flow going. I went to an ASJA conference in New York City last year and got really inspired. Maybe a writer’s retreat is next! Thanks for the info. I can see that structure is really important.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this information out there. Our group wavers between doing workshops or retreat every year, and these blog posts should help sway my group to doing a more retreat thing this year. Just passing along a thing we do that you may like, we participate in word wars during the writing time. Usually 90 minutes, and at the end, everyone shares their word count they created. Because some people are naturally faster typists, we draw from a hat with things like ‘most words’ or ‘closest to 1,000’ or for our editing writers: ‘decreased word count’. Then we have some random prizes to hand out to the winner. It always gets our chattier writers to buckle down and focus and the room literally buzzes with creative energy. It’s awesome.

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