What I Learned At My Writing Retreat
I went on a writing retreat to escape and it ended up being one of the most enlightening and creative experiences of my life.
Around September of 2022 I was not in a very good place in my life. I was in a very high stress job that was an absolute sucking vortex of misery. You know… the usual. I felt like I was stagnating. Putting so much effort into making an unappeasable master happy that my mental, physical and creative health were all floundering.
I had had a similar situation at my job before that… and the job before that. I’ve never really enjoyed any of my jobs because I’ve always tried to shove myself into career paths that I had no desire to be in.
Since I was fifteen I have wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, nobody in my family is a writer, nor do we know any, so most of the reactions I’ve gotten are very nonplussed “why do you want to do that?”. I had absolutely no idea how to make money writing, so I settled for unfulfilling garbage that didn’t even have the common courtesy to pay me well.
At this most recent job, I really felt like my life was slipping away from me. I was probably the most miserable at a job that I have ever been. I not only had a lot of work on my plate but that work would constantly be undermined or interfered with making it impossible to get your head on straight.
By September we’d basically had huge 2-day conferences back to back for months and we were about to have another three within the span of 9 weeks. (Yeah, our boss didn’t really understand the concept of a work/life balance. Despite he, himself, never being in the office for more than a week at a time.)
On a day I was particularly pulling my hair out, my similarly frazzled colleague pointed out to me that I hadn’t really had a proper break the whole time I’d been working there. It dawned on me that I hadn’t ever really had a proper break for almost a decade. For some reason I’d tricked myself into thinking that taking a break was self-indulgent.
For as long as I’d been working a 9-5, I’d rarely taken more than a few days annual leave at a time, and I’d always spent my evenings writing. I was exhausted. Always working but never feeling like I was making any progress. The needle never seemed to move no matter what I did.
Weirdly, 2022 felt like a bit of a turning point for me creatively. After years of false starts and constant wheel spinning, I’d actually managed to finish two first draft manuscripts within just a few months of each other. Something told me I needed to try to capitalise on this momentum. So I signed myself up for a writing retreat.
I’d been thinking of going on a writing retreat for years, but I’d never had the balls to actually do it. It was too much money. I’d go and everyone would tell me I was a bad writer. I was fooling myself. I was too socially awkward. Everyone would think I was weird.
I can say. Going on this writing retreat was possibly one of the best decisions I ever made.
My fears realised…
The retreat was run by a company called Arvon and held at their location in Hebron Bridge, West Yorkshire. A beautiful farm house perilously positioned on the edge of a valley. It was down a steep hill through a patchwork of green fields that rolled over the countryside like only Yorkshire dales do.
It was a chilly day in early December, and I was feeling slightly out of body following an almost 6 hour drive. So, in typical fashion I wondered around for a while, until a passing course-mate found me stumbling around in the wilderness and informed me it was literally all the way at the bottom of the hill.
The first day was just for us to get to know the other students and get settled in. It was quite a basic inside but extremely cosy and conducive to writing. There was a library full of books, a small snug lounge with a huge burning fire, and a dinning room with a gigantic wooden farm table. This is where we would hold seminars and eat our meals.
I was quite nervous meeting everyone. I was bullied quite badly throughout school and I always struggle with meeting new people. Thankfully the first few people I met were extremely kind and seemed just as timid about meeting new people as I was. I always love to meet other writers as I almost always vibe with them immediately.
Once everyone arrived, and after dinner (which was delicious by the way), we were taken over to the barn, which would be another one of our seminar spaces. This is when my stomach dropped. They wanted us to read some of our work to the rest of the group. I knew this was part of the course, but it still didn’t make it any less scary.
I’ve always had a bit of a negative opinion of my writing. A lot of the feedback I get from family and friends has been indifferent, and I’m generally quite hard on myself anyway, so I’ve never had a realistic indication of my skills as a writer. I’m pretty aware of my weaknesses at this point but not how those compare with other writers.
I’ve been told by teachers that I have a good writing style, which is easy to read and understand, but having a nice writing style doesn’t automatically make you a good fiction writer. I’ve always worried that my writing is not descriptive enough. I’m not very observant so it doesn’t come naturally to describe locations or types of clothes.
After years writing in script format, I worry that too much scene description will drag pacing, so I have this pathological need to be succinct in my writing. Therefore, I tend to write how exactly how the character is acting or interacting in a scene, not so much about the scene in general. What people would refer to ‘white room syndrome’.
The point was that we would each read and then the group would provide critique. I don’t remember who started the reading but every one of my peers has these beautiful descriptive passages that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. How was it that they were they all so talented?
I know it sounds crazy but I had assumed that at least one of my fellow students would be a talentless poser who had no real business being there. That’s when I realised that maybe I was the poser. I certainly couldn’t write descriptive text in the same way that they could.
There was one girl in particular, an Irish girl with this raven black hair dressed in plain black with a muted cardigan, who wrote some of the most beautiful descriptive prose I have ever heard. Every lyrically poetic line of the piece she had written made my heart sink deeper and deeper into me. I shouldn’t be here. Not with these people.
Eventually the circle came around to me. How was I supposed to follow those? I hurriedly read my piece before sinking back into my chair and hoping not to make eye contact with anyone. Oh god, here it comes. The critique…
What really surprised me wasn’t that people said nice things about my work. It’s easy to make up some generic bullshit about someone’s writing in order to have something positive to say. What was amazing was that my fellow writers had actually listened to what I had said. They chose specific phrases and fragments and told me exactly why they liked it.
Someone in fact praised the succinct and to the point nature of my writing. The exact thing that I was self-conscious about and actually described it as a strength to my writing. It was so utterly eye-opening to have critique from actual writers who were passionate about learning and helping other people learn.
After this I started to be able to catch on to the differences between other writers, and more importantly, the parts of their writing that they were self-conscious about. We all thought we had something to improve about our writing. It is so crazy that it took me this experience to understand this.
The most affecting critique I received throughout the retreat was from a woman named Faye. She also happened to be the same lady who saved me from the hills on my first day. Faye always seemed so in awe of my imagination and the confidence with which I seemed to lay out scenes. She was also one of the most humble people I have ever met.
Faye has the most incredible vaudevillian imagination, akin to Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes. How she could summon such textured characters and intricately unusual settings within minutes is a skill I could only dream to emulate. Yet, she would brush it off as if she had no special skills, only the desire to learn.
I didn't want to leave...
On the last day of the course a snow drift came and covered the retreat, a metaphor for what I was feeling side, which was that I didn't want to leave. After that week I felt a sense of calm that I haven't felt in years. Knowing I'd have to go back to my job eventually.
I loved this experience, and while I'm not sure I will ever go on another writing retreat (at least not for the time being), it changed me more than I can imagine. As a person who has felt like I am fooling myself pursuing something that so many people told me I shouldn't, this was not only healing but gave me a renewed motivation to keep going.
This experience really helped me grow as a writer. I’ve learnt so much from my fellow students about how to write more descriptively, but also about not comparing myself to the styles of other writers. There is room for beautiful literary prose, as well as more high concept contemporary fiction like mine.
The most important lesson that this experience taught me is that all writers are different. We must embrace those differences because all readers are different. If a certain writing style seems natural to you, don’t fight it. Just work on cultivating that style.
If you have a deep desire to do something. Don't let other people tell you No. It's not their life to live. To quote Wayne Gretzky, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take". So take that shot, be who you want to be.