Fancy a stint as a writer in a Paris loft? What about 30km from the nearest town in the Moroccan Sahara? A castle in Scotland? Or is New York more your scene?
At the forthcoming Byron Bay Writers’ Festival I’ll be chairing a panel on ‘Writers’ Retreats’. I’ve been lucky in this regard – my biggest and best retreat was to Antarctica last November, thanks to the Australian Antarctic Division. I spent an unforgettable month in Sitka Alaska thanks to the Island Institute, a hot and dry week in outback Australia thanks to Litlink, a few down-the-road residential mentorships here in Byron shire and several fellowships at Varuna The Writers House over the years.
But is it all just a jolly holiday, or does some real work actually get done?
I’ll avoid the temptation to argue that writers need something resembling a junket (for most of us, it’s years of unpaid writing followed by years of sparsely paid writing, with no super and no security). For me, the solitary retreat is always a useful thing. Without the distractions of home, friends and garden, I do generally knuckle down and get a decent number of words on a page. I finished the first draft of The Raven’s Heart while on retreat in Alaska (it rained every day bar one for a month) and almost finished the first draft of Chasing the Light on ship voyage home from Antarctica.
The first time I went to Varuna The Writers House here in Australia’s Blue Mountains I was so intimidated by the guestbook proclamations of how productive everyone had been that I wrote like a demon. In a residential mentorship with the Northern Rivers Writers Centre, a friendly rivalry developed over who was getting up earliest. I thought I’d been doing well rising at 6ish to get my cup of tea and return to bed with my notebook (still my preferred method – and I mean a paper notebook). Then I discovered other participants were rising even earlier. 5am was mentioned. I think someone got up at 4.30. The next morning I tried it – but that was Leunig’s ‘Whale of Doom’ hour for me. Prior to 5am is reserved for worrying about taxes and cancer. However the competition worked quite well in getting me motivated.
Funded residences are offered in Australia by organisations like Varuna The Writers’ House (residencies in the Blue Mountains) and The Australia Council (two studios in France, one in Rome and funding for self-organised residencies possible.) Generally you have to apply for several years before getting accepted – though don’t let this discourage you.
What’s getting more popular these days is a structured writing retreat, often in an inspiring location, where participants pay to attend. Today on Books and Arts Daily, Michael Cathcart interviewed Karen Hadfield, an Australian artist and adventurer who has created Cafe Tissardmine, an oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert for creative souls looking for a place to be inspired. There are some fabulous retreats scheduled for the rest of the year, including several run by Aussie authors.
Closer to home, my friend Sarah Armstrong runs inspiring ‘Writing and Yoga’ retreats here in Byron that stretch participants physically and creatively. Olvar Wood is a private writer’s retreat centre in Queensland with courses and retreats run by authors Nike Bourke and Inga Simpson.
This isn’t an Australian phenomenon. There are countless private writer’s retreats in the states. In fact there are even websites that help you set up and run writer’s retreats (one has to worry about that, I reckon).
Without spending hours on a search, here’s what looks like a great website for international residency opportunities. If you’re interested and you start looking, you’ll end up in one of those search engine vortexes where every site leads to another 20. Good luck.
Not everyone is looking for peace and quiet on a writing retreat. Scott Kenemore reckons the ones where you get a room and some space are drop dead boring.
I think the point he’s making – that good writing can happen anywhere (and needs some stimulation) is nowhere better illustrated than this unconventional retreat from New York, where participants from the New York Writers Coalition led a free retreat on a round trip train ride for 75 minutes. The instruction was to write all the way to the end.
Would you pay to go on a writers’ retreat? And if so, what would you expect from it?