Brevity editor Allison K. Williams
“Asks the Experts”
what it takes to plan a daylong retreat for writers.
This article originally appeared in Brevity in March 2018.
Recently, I wrote about planning an upcoming retreat. After deciding to focus on full-manuscript revisions, making a website and budgeting, I needed to plan the retreat itself. How would I schedule the time? What would the writers expect? I turned to some experts for advice.
What surprised you when you first started planning/leading/speaking at retreats?
Ryder Ziebarth, founder of the Cedar Ridge Writers Series: The special requests were a bit of a revelation—can you offer more fruit next time? It’s too cold in here; it’s too hot in here; can you possibly rent more comfortable chairs next time? I forgot my coat (notebook, lipstick, power-cord) can you mail it to me? All quite reasonable requests, but I had to learn that I am now not just a writer, but a writer in the hospitality business.
Lisa Romeo, retreat leader and author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss: Regardless of whether an event is labeled as “generative” or not, if there’s scheduled quiet writing time or not, if there’s an option for sharing work or not, if it’s called a workshop or retreat or seminar or intensive—it’s not unusual for those registering to expect some or all of that, or none of that! So it’s enormously important for organizers to publish a very clear description, and follow up with a fuller description and instructions for registrants, so when folks arrive they’re prepared and know what to expect.
Joanne Lozar Glenn, leader of Write Time Write Place Write Now local and destination retreats: The panic that hit me a few days before I had to get on the road for the retreat. As an educator I was comfortable leading writing activities, I knew most of the people who’d be attending, and yet, in those last few days before my first retreat, I was absolutely terrified.
What’s important to consider in the retreat schedule and your own leadership?
Hananah Zaheer, partner in Mind The Gap travelling retreat collective: I have attended retreats that are fairly isolated from the world (VCCA and Rivendell) and were great for working on projects I had started. While the completely open-schedule retreat means one can work any time one chooses, I found that some structure to the day was helpful to me. When my partner and I planned the first collective trip to London, we created a loose schedule with writing time, optional visits to museums and plays, and two readings to be able to share whatever we were creating. This provides a nice, inspirational break to get back to writing.
Ryder: Gauging attention spans. You have to interpret body language to know when your participants need a break. Plan at least one five-minute break for a stretch and some water, etc. at the end of every hour.
Hananah: I think it’s a nice bonus to have a retreat where food is included…such an unexpected little freedom.
Joanne: Participants are excited about having dedicated time to write. They’re also scared. You’re asking them to risk. In a sense you’re asking them to show up naked on the page. So I recommend figuring out a signature way of making them feel welcome and safe.
I find a card with an image/message that resonates with the activities, whether that’s to have a sense of “play” about the writing, or to stand strong in your truth and write with power, for example. One of my last tasks before leaving for a retreat I’m leading is to write a welcoming letter that builds on that theme, tuck it inside the card, and have one waiting for each writer when they check in.
Lisa: Stay on track and deliver what you promised; yet be alert to topics attendees introduce. They may provide great teaching moments and if they seem to capture the writers’ attention or imagination, a spontaneous digression can be an exciting addition to the agenda.
Ryder: It was important to me the Cedar Ridge Writers participants were heard, that everyone’s work was heard if they wanted to share it—even if it cuts into the next exercise.
Joanne: Find a way to match the risk your participants are taking. I used to think my job was to “hold the space,” and that I couldn’t both hold the space and write. But gifted workshop leader Pat Schneider (who founded Amherst Writers and Artists) set me straight. “You won’t write your best work when you’re also responsible for leading a retreat,” she said, “but it’s important to show you’re willing to take the same risk you’re asking your workshop participants to take.” She was right. So I started writing (and sharing what I wrote) during our sessions.
Maybe a year or so later, a retreat participant and I were talking about that idea of risk-taking when sharing work. She told me, “When you didn’t write and share with us, I always wondered whether it was because you didn’t trust us.” That shocked me. No matter your intention or reason for doing one thing or another, it’s going to come across differently to everyone who’s there. The only thing you can do is be as clear as you can when communicating, and then let go of the rest because it’s out of your control. That’s hard, and something I have to really work at.
What did you expect to matter that wasn’t a big deal after all?
Lisa: That everyone in the room be at the same skill level. I’ve actually found it’s much more interesting for everyone when you have a mix of experience represented.
Ryder: I’d never taught before presenting my first workshop. Once I got over my nervousness, I found I was actually comfortable in the role, and I’m pretty sure no-one guessed I was scared to death.
Joanne: Being 100% prepared and scripted. Being prepared is important, of course—the less you have to worry about the more you can be available and present. But I find the Buddhist concept of ‘not too tight, not too loose’ helpful to remember. And getting lots of sleep. If you’re 80-90% prepared and well-rested (and fed), it’s a lot easier to respond in a creative, authentic way to what is happening, and to make the most of a teachable moment.
What are you planning next?
Hananah: I started finding local groups to connect with, to participate in readings and hear what the local writing scene is like. When I plan the Mind the Gap retreats, my biggest concern is finding a location where participants can benefit not just from the travel but also from the local literary scene, museums, bookstores, etc. The next Mind the Gap retreat is coming up in October.
Lisa: My first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. I’ll be speaking about the writing process at the Cedar Ridge workshop June 10th, and other events listed on my website.
Joanne: Upcoming “Get Away and Get Writing” retreats will be in the USA and abroad.
Ryder: I decided to “GO BIG” and move the fourth Cedar Ridge workshop to our local public library, which holds four times the amount of people I can host at my house. Creating Memoir From Memory will be June 10th in Bedminster, New Jersey.
And from Allison: Armed with the information these retreat leaders generously shared, I feel a lot better about my own Rebirth Your Book manuscript-work week in India in June. I’ll also be leading Creating Memoir From Memory at Cedar Ridge.