I'm at a writing retreat at Green Gulch Farm in Mill Valley, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a lovely Zen Buddhist facility surrounded by Eucalyptus trees and bucolic hiking trails, with Muir Beach and the Pacific Ocean a mere 20 minute walk away . Every writer gets a single room with floor to ceiling sliding doors that open out onto lush foliage. It's a setting that's very conducive to writing. The best part of the retreat is that all meals (healthy vegetarian fare) are prepared for you and served in the community dining room.
I've been coming here twice a year for about 8 or 9 years with the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It's a chance for me to get away from daily responsibilities, focus on my writing projects, and be able to have uninterrupted time to work.
There are 12 writers at this retreat, so it's small and intimate. Retreaters can hunker down in their rooms and write alone or work in the living room with other writers. And even though everyone is silently typing on their computers, usually in silence, there is a sense of camaraderie and shared experience that is motivating and inspiring. Writing is a solitary endeavor, so retreats also offer the opportunity to meet and commiserate with other writers during meals or other retreat-sanctioned events such as Meet and Greets, critique groups etc. One thing to note is that you don't have to come with or as a group to Green Gulch Farm. Their rooms are also available for individual bookings. You'll have your own room, but keep in mind, you will be sharing the guest house with others.
I always return from a writing retreat completely rejuvenated and energized about my projects. I highly encourage all writers to go on an occasional retreat. You'll be amazed at how much you can get done in a weekend.
Retreats are getting more and more popular as real-life responsibilities and stressors compete with our creative passions. If you do a Google search, you might get a gazillion hits. So, which one should you choose? Here are 7 things to consider when choosing a writing retreat:
1) LOCATION - What inspires you most? A cabin in the woods? A view of the ocean? A beach? Nearby hiking trails? Let's face it, when we're talking inspiration, location is important. But budget can play into this factor. Obviously, the further you have to travel, the more expensive it is. On the other hand, you may not feel like you're really getting away if you're literally in your own backyard. If this is your first retreat, start small and close. That way, if it's not really what you're looking for, you can easily escape back home. It took several retreats for me to figure out the type of retreat that best inspired me.
2) SIZE - How large of a group are you comfortable with? For some, the social aspect of being around other writers is enticing. For others, it's anxiety provoking. Figure out what your comfort zone is. I know a writing club who tried to organize a writing retreat once—for 100 people! For me, that is not a retreat; that's a conference. I like no more than 16 people at a retreat. It's important here to consider the space you're in. 16 people spread out on a 2 acre property feels very different than 16 people in a 2,000 sq. foot or even 4,000 sq. foot house.
3) MEALS - Are you okay with fixing your own meals? Some retreats are located in houses with kitchens and sometimes the retreat provides food or sandwich fixings, but retreaters cook and clean up after themselves. Sometimes it's bring your own. Others have community kitchens and dining rooms and your retreat fee includes meals. The latter is definitely my preference when I go on retreat. After all, I like to maximize my writing time, not spending it cooking and washing dishes.
4) ROOMS - I've seen a lot of different configurations for retreat spaces. Some are hostel-style with bunk beds, some have multiple beds in a large room or dorm-like space. Others, like Green Gulch, have single rooms. If you don't mind sharing a room with others, this might be a good way of bonding with other writers. But if you like to write (or can only focus) in isolation, then look for retreats with single or, at most, double rooms. After all, rooms can be only for sleeping in. If you have a laptop, and are in a beautiful setting, take your computer outdoors and let nature inspire you.
5) PROGRAMS - This can vary quite a bit with different retreats. Some bring in guest speakers, some have evening socials or readings, others like Green Gulch have no programs except for informal optional critique groups. What do you hope to get from a retreat? Do you just want uninterrupted writing time, or do you prefer a learning aspect to it?
6) ALTERNATIVE RETREATS - Retreats used to be the traditional gathering of writers in a stationary location (house, lodge, loft etc.), but in the last few years, there have been writing retreats on cruise ships and trains. Since I love both, this has been a dream of mine. If you're the more adventurous type and love the idea of being in a different location or looking out your room window and seeing a different scenery every day, these retreats are for you. They are more expensive and tend to be lengthier but has always appealed to the romantic in me. Here's a few you can check out:
Amtrak used to have an Amtrak Writing Residency program which began in 2014, but that page is no longer functioning, so I think the Amtrak Social Media Residency has replaced it. However, here's a blog post on creating your own train writing retreat.
7) DIY RETREATS - You don't need to sign up for an established retreat locale and be surrounded by strangers. Just grab a few of your writing friends, rent a house or find a bed and breakfast somewhere and create your own retreat. Usually, this does mean you have to cook your own meals and wash up, but my friends and I split the duties and the costs. And because we know each other well, it's basically Girl's Night Out—or In—with writing.
If you find a retreat that you really liked, please let me know in the comments below. I'm always on the lookout for good retreat locales.