Should you stay or should you go? How to decide if a writing course, workshop or retreat is what you need

Should you stay or should you go? How to decide if a writing course, workshop or retreat is what you need

I’ve been talking with a friend lately about writing retreats. My friend is thinking about signing up for a writing retreat and workshop with a known author towards the end of this year. This friend of mine is a brilliant writer so I was intrigued – why the interest in this workshop?

I reminded my friend, who is an accomplished professional writer, that she was in a position to host and teach writing workshops herself, rather than attend them. It surprised me that she was searching elsewhere for help when she was such a talented writer already. My friend went on to explain that she’d been feeling blocked and hoped this writing getaway and teacher would help her to bust through writing blocks. She was hoping to find renewed energy for the manuscript she’d be toiling on for a year or two.

This conversation got me thinking – when is it the right time to be around other writers, and all the comradery, inspiration and shared creative energy that retreats and workshops can provide, and when is it time to just, well… write?

When is it the right time to be around other writers and when should you just sit down and write?

When is it the right time to be around other writers and when should you just sit down and write?

As someone who has attended a ridiculous number of writing courses and retreats, I know firsthand it’s worth asking yourself a few questions before signing up to the next program that comes your way.

I’ll spare you the embarrassingly long list of courses I’ve attended in my time. But to give you an idea, I’ve attended workshops with the Bronte Writers’ Studio, the NSW Writers’ Centre, the Australian Writers’ Centre and various Sydney Writers’ Festival Workshops. I’ve joined more online courses than I can fit in this post. Then there’s the ‘write your book in a month’, 30 day writing retreat I attended in Bali, as well as various attempts at Nanowrimo.

Oh and did I happen to mention I attended all of these workshops (and many, many more) with two writing degrees under my belt, one with majors in creative writing, poetry and fiction?

I’ve been on Dean’s Merit lists, I’ve won prizes for my writing, I’ve been shortlisted for national writing prizes, I’ve had small pieces of writing published, I’ve read my writing on national radio and at creative festivals and events. I’ve worked in major publishing houses and at Writers Centres, and have been responsible for manuscript reviews and assessments. Today, I have publishing companies and published authors as clients.

Are you tired yet?

God, I am.

And I don’t share any of this to go on about myself. I share it to ask why.

Why, why WHY with all of this under my belt, have I been searching outside of myself for writing answers? Have you ever wondered the same?

So I made a decision this year. No more writing courses, retreats or workshops. No more.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the retreats and courses I’ve attended. And if you can find the right environment and teacher for you, there are many benefits – with fresh writing, expert pointers, friendships, connections, publishing guidance and support being just a few.

But as inspiring as all the courses I attended were, I can see now that they were 100% distraction. For me, writing workshops and classes had become another procrastination tool, a way of avoiding the real work of writing.

Rather than look for outside help, could you swap writing programs for permission? Rather than say yes to the next retreat, could you simply make space for what matters so much to you? Could you just start where you are, with what you have now, and write?

‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’
Thomas A. Edison

The truth is, it’s easier to sign up to a retreat than to actually write. The writing itself is harder than booking the class or paying the fee. Solo writing time isn’t as sexy as writing with the support of a group and riding off the energy of others.

But I now know this about myself: while it’s harder, I prefer to do the work of writing alone.

In fact, it’s the only way I write well.

And funnily enough, you don’t have to dig too deep to find that working alone is the preference of most writers.

The lush environs of Bali proved just as distracting as they were inspiring while I wrote there during a month-long writing retreat.

The lush environs of Bali proved just as distracting as they were inspiring while I wrote in Ubud  as part of a month-long writing retreat.

I wrote about this after I came back from a month long writing retreat in Bali. While I loved my time away, mostly for the circle of friends I made and the fact that I did write my book, I realised that what I really needed to get my book written was permission. Permission from myself. Permission for the time and space to write. Permission to be alone. Permission to say no, close the door, go away.

Even while in Bali, plenty of other writers on the same retreat didn’t finish their books.

As the old saying goes, ‘wherever you go, there you are.’

I still had to escape in Bali to get anything written. I had to drag myself away from entertaining conversations with new friends, and say no to opportunities to travel to the beach, have lunch or try a new yoga class. I had to say no. I had to close the door. And in the end I realised I didn’t need to head overseas and pay an ‘expert’ thousands of dollars to help me do that.

What’s more, the cumulative impact of too much stimulation – like travel, meeting a group of complete strangers, having to follow a teacher’s timetable and navigate group scenarios – absolutely frazzles and exhausts me. In the past I’ve found myself employing strategies to mitigate against the effects of this overstimulation while on writing retreats, when I’d really prefer to be reveling in the joys of solo writing and solitude.

But wait, you say. Isn’t it a good idea to get ourselves and our creativity away from it all? Don’t we need to hide away to focus exclusively on our writing? Don’t writers have to incubate themselves every now and then from the distractions of everyday life, carving out an escape to make writing headway? Don’t we need a creative cave? Sure. This is important. And there are some wonderful courses out there, in person and online, to help you do this. There are also plenty of ways to do this without joining a group.

I’m not trying to be down on writing retreats and workshops. If I wasn’t a fan of them, I wouldn’t have signed up for so many. I have friends and peers who run great workshops, and there are many writers I admire who do exceptional work in this space, holding creative and inspiring retreats.

But with so many programs out there and so many writers trying to find their way, it pays to be discerning about which course you attend and know for sure whether a workshop or retreat is genuinely what you need.

If you can see yourself in the statements below, a writing retreat may be just what you need:

// You don’t know where to start with your writing

// You haven’t been able to complete a piece of work

// You haven’t participated in a writing-specific course or program before

// You’re not sure what you want to say or how

// You’re finding your voice and your message

// You’ve never given yourself any time to write, let alone a regular practice

// You’re looking to meet other writers and find a supportive community

// You don’t feel you have the right tools and support to write on your own

// You’re craving the guidance and support of a writer who’s been there before

If you’re finding yourself pulled to attend a writing retreat, here are some questions to ask before signing up:

~ What am I hoping to get out of this?

~ No, really – what are you really, really hoping to get out of this? Is it likely to happen? Is this what the writing host or coach is actually offering?

~ What credentials does the teacher/writer have?

~ Does the teacher or host’s book align with yours? For example, if they’ve written a self-help book and you’re writing historical fiction, are they the best teacher to guide your work?

~ Where are you and your emotions at right now? Be aware of how you’re feeling before you jump in. Writing workshops can be epicentres for catharsis and release, and along with all of the creative energy and enthusiasm, people’s emotions can run wild. Gathering a group of writers in a room can make for an intense space. Sharing writing can make even the toughest personalities vulnerable. There can be tears. There can be anger, fear and a whole spectrum of other emotions. Don’t sign up for a retreat if you’re feeling fragile, working on boundaries or if you don’t have the energy to deal with other people and their stuff.

~ How confident a facilitator is your teacher? How will they handle other participants and personalities? You should be confident your writing coach or facilitator can manage this, and also that you’ll be surrounded by people you can trust.

~ Is the teacher a published author? This is important for a lot of people, but not essential. Either way it’s worth digging deeper. You may choose to work with an unpublished coach who has experience in publishing. If you prefer a published author as a writing mentor, dig further and find out if their book has been successful. Have you read their book and do you like it? Is their book in a genre or focused on a topic that aligns with your work? It may not be ideal to attend a writing courses for creative business owners if your goal is to publish contemporary fiction, for one example.

~ Do you love the teacher’s writing and approach? Do you love their website, blog and other writing?

~ Are they going to review your work? Will you be asked to share your work with other participants? Do you want to do this? Be clear what you’re signing up for. If you’re in the early stages of your work, sharing pages too early and receiving feedback from inexperienced writers can cause more harm than good. Consider timing and whether you need to be around others just yet.

~ Have you given your writing and book sufficient space to form before jumping into a group workshop?

So if you’re not going to take yourself off on a writing retreat, what can you do?

A lot, actually. If you decide to do the work of writing alone, could also:

// Get the same support and community from a writers’ group, where you share and read each other’s work. Why not join one through your local writers’ centre or start your own?

// Create a writing retreat at home (or away, say with an Airbnb). Sarah Von Bargen offers great advice on how to create your own retreat.

// Join a Writers’ Centre and enjoy the membership benefits of the workshops, talks and opportunities offered throughout the year of your membership.

// Book expert, one-on-one guidance for your writing. Writers’ Centres often offer mentoring, manuscript assessments and reviews for a fee. Many authors offer this on their websites as well, whether as part of centres or independently. Often this is far less expensive than the cost of a retreat and the advice you’ll get will be tailored to your work and personal writing goals.

// Seek out writing events, readings and lectures (many book stores, writers’ centres, festivals and publishers offer these). This is an engaging and inexpensive way to find a writing community.

// Work through a writing and creative guidebook like Julia Cameron’s The Artists’ Way or follow the prompts in the writing books of Natalie Goldberg, Twyla Tharp, Anne Lamott or Dani Shapiro to name a few.

There are times when you need the guidance of an expert, and writing courses and workshops can be a wonderful way to receive this, as well as time to write.

However, I’d encourage you to sit with yourself and know the answers to these questions before acting:

~ Could your readiness to sign up for the next writing workshop be masking something else?

~ Are you distracting yourself?

~ Have you given yourself permission to write in your real life? What would change if you did this?

~ Can you say no to distractions and say yes to your writing?

~ Can you give these things a try before you buy the next programme?

And if a resounding yes still comes up for the writing workshop or retreat, then you know you’re saying yes consciously. Only you can know for sure.

I know for me, everything I need to write is right here, where I sit. The magic is between me, my chair, and the page or screen. And sitting here, bum in seat, is the single best thing I can do for my writing.

If you already have:

// a draft short story, novel, or piece of work you’re working with (shitty first draft though it may be)

// a sense of your own voice (or are confident you’ve found it)

// an existing writing or creative practice, and

// if you’ve had feedback (through past courses, awards, minor publication or the endorsement of other writers) that your voice is strong and your writing has potential….

…then you probably don’t need to attend that impressive writers’ retreat or workshop.

You don’t need the new online course.

You don’t need to buy the international plane ticket and writing coaching programme.

You need to sit yourself in a chair at your notebook or laptop and get to the work of writing, re-writing, or editing. This is where I’m at and if you think you might be in the same place, I welcome you to join me. I’d love to hear if this work for you, too.

Happy writing.

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