How to organize a writing retreat

(or any other sort of retreat for that matter)

I know there are a lot of writers who’d like to attend a retreat, or attend more retreats, but find it hard to make it to or afford the bigger ones out there. That’s the position my critique group was in four years ago. We were sitting around talking about how nice those retreats sounded, and started speculating about whether we could set something up for ourselves, and I said, “Let me see what I can do.” A month later we had our very first private retreat!

So I figured some of you might be interested in knowing how I went about doing that. (I’ve handled most of the planning and organization for all four of our retreats.)

Note: All of this works best for a group of people who live within a couple hour’s drive of each other; if you’re trying to bring together people from further away, you’ll obviously need to make some adjustments in how you handle things like buying food.

And it’s usually best to start this process well ahead of time, especially if you’re going at a popular vacation time of year.

1. Determine how many people want to participate (and can at the time you all decide on). Discuss as a group any factors that will affect the details of the retreat, including:

-How long does everyone want to stay at the retreat for? (The first year we only did three nights, because we weren’t sure how it would go. Each of the last three years we’ve done five nights, and we’ve talked about maybe trying a whole week next year.) Note that as long as transportation is available for people, they may decide to come late or leave earlier than others if they can’t stay quite as long as the majority want to. (e.g., Last year all eight of our members were there for at least a couple nights, but only six of us stayed for the entire five.)

-What are everyone’s preferences for the location and features of accommodation? Total isolation or a place near/in a town or city where you can partake of civilization if you want to? How far are people willing to travel to get there? How much can everyone afford to chip in for the rent? Will everyone need a bed or are some okay with sleeping on a sofa or cot? How many bathrooms are an absolute necessity? If you’re going to a cottage, do you care about having a BBQ? A fire pit for roasting marshmallows? A lake to swim in?

-Is there anything people absolutely don’t want? (e.g., in the past we have avoided cottages with WiFi so no one will be tempted to procrastinate by surfing the ‘net. 🙂 )

The number of people coming will also dictate how many beds you’ll need and how many parking spots.

2. Find potential places to stay that meet the criteria decided upon in the discussions above and are available for the dates you want. Since we like to stay in cottages, in Ontario, the two sites I always turn to are Cottages in Canada and CottageLink. There are plenty of similar sites for various types of accommodation in the US and elsewhere, too–I haven’t done this very often, but I can recommend HomeAway. Usually it takes a little searching around to find ones that work best for you. Often I need to e-mail the owners to check details (for example, a lot of listings tell you how many bedrooms but not how many actual beds).

3. Share the best options with the rest of the group and narrow them down to the top two or three choices, then start booking. It’s best to know what your second favorite is in case you try the one you want the most and it turns out they just booked your dates. At this point you’ll want to start collecting everyone’s share of the rent, as most places ask for at least a small portion to hold the booking.

4. Come up with a plan for the retreat as a group. (This can also be done during the earlier discussion stage.) The plan can be as rigid as specific hours for meals and writing time or as flexible as leaving pretty much everything up in the air–though if you’re going somewhere not too close to any larger towns or cities you probably at least want to figure out the meal basics ahead of time. It really depends on what the participants want out of the group, and knowing what everyone’s goals are. My critique group mostly wants to get as much writing done as possible, so there’s an understanding that we’ll all go off on our own quietly most of the day and reconvene for meals and in the evening to relax and chat.

We’ve been lucky enough to have a member who enjoys cooking and has handled all the food purchasing (other than shared drinks and snacks) and cooking for the first three retreats. He wasn’t able to make it this year, though, and the system we used seemed to work quite well. We each brought food for all our individual breakfasts and lunches, other than a few common items we divvied up the purchase of, like milk and margarine, and to make one dinner for everyone. Each day everyone took care of their own breakfast and lunch preparation and clean-up, and then we took turns cooking dinner (and doing that clean up) for the group.

It’s good to get that worked out ahead of time so that everyone knows what their responsibilities will be and there’s no conflict over kitchen messes or the like.

You’ll also need to determine ahead of time how everyone will be getting to the retreat, based on who’s coming from where, who has a car, etc.

5. Go, and have fun! The easiest step, naturally. 🙂 It’s often a good idea to exchange cell phone numbers ahead of time, unless you’re all going together, in case someone has trouble finding the place.

Those of you who’ve done retreats of your own, any other tips to contribute?


How to organize a writing retreat — 2 Comments

  1. We have an annual writer’s conference in June which has an option to attend as a writer’s retreat, but we want to offer a fall writer’s retreat for those who just need the time to get away and work. This was very helpful! Thank you.

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