Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writers and Retreats: Pros and Cons

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Writers and Retreats

Banff, Yaddo, Sage Hill, Mom's basement... there are endless options for writing retreats all over the world, from the fabulous to the humble, and from the sanctioned to the DIY.

Some writers swear by the unplugged isolation of the retreat, while others claim they can get just as much done at their kitchen table, surrounded by the realities of family, friends, email and the telephone. Writers' opinions may change with their circumstances, including co-habitation, childcare and other concerns. Even amongst retreats, there is endless variation — some offer workshops and critique, others consider human interaction verboten.

Some writers object to the expense of writers' retreats, which range drastically and can represent a serious financial commitment on the part of the writer. A few retreats fund guest writers' stays in their entirety, while others charge a residency or program fee on top of room and board. Most retreats fall somewhere in the middle and some offer assistance to those in need.

Most retreats require application, meaning that you can't just show up with a suitcase and your VISA. A select few have, in themselves, become marks of distinction.

Jessica Westhead, who has written two books including last year's critically acclaimed short fiction collection And Also Sharks (Cormorant Books) was enthusiastic about the value of retreats, but offered the caveat that they are most helpful once a project has a firm shape.

"[The value is there] if the writer has a fairly solid grasp on his or her current project. Personally, I find that if I'm only in random-scribbling-in-my-notebook mode, having oceans of time to do more scribbling doesn't make me more productive. But if I have an idea for a story that's compelling me, and I've already written some of it, then having focused time to develop that idea further can be a huge help," said Westhead.

At the same time, retreats can ease writers' worries about being seen as not working while they are brainstorming or working through edits. Jessica noted: "It seems frivolous to 'just go for a walk' or 'just stare out the window'. But that's when our brains give us those 'wahooo!' moments of insight that make good writing great." Which perhaps puts writing retreats in the same category as Archimedes' bathtub.

The top dog amongst Canadian retreats is the Banff Centre, which offers residencies in numerous genres and includes a mentorship aspect in their Wired Writing Studio program. Westhead attended the program in 2005 while working on her first novel, Pulpy & Midge and declared it an "ideal" experience. "[It was] the perfect mix of zero pretension... an inspiring mentor (I worked with Lynn Coady), AND my own room with a comfy bed, a desk, and a view of the mountains."

Alison Pick, who is most recently the author of the Booker Prize-nominated novel Far to Go (Anansi), attended the Banff Wired Writing Studio and comments on their website: "[I had] a really vague idea that one day I would like to write a novel. It seemed like an impossible thing to do. Getting to Banff changed that. The environment was so conducive — the community of artists combined with having your cooking and cleaning taken care of — it seemed like a good time to start."

The rising popularity of retreats may represent a shifting model of writing life that goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of MFA programs, where writers find it necessary to extensively polish their work prior to submission to an agent or editor. As publishing professionals are stretched thinner and thinner, programs spring up to support authors in their quest to give their words that extra bit of shine.

It's worth noting that a retreat doesn't necessarily have to be official to be of value. An author who opts to turn off his or her wifi and cell phone and set an Out of Office message may gain just as much benefit as someone in a traditional retreat setting. Some authors build their own retreats with rental cars and remote hotels, borrowed cottages or even house-sitting gigs. The structure and prestige of a retreat is less important than its affect.

So while the value of an organised retreat lies with the individual, all writers can benefit from the basic tenets of peace and quiet and an opportunity to focus. For some writers however, nothing can quite replace the experience, validation and opportunities that come with an official retreat.

What do you think about writing retreats? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.

For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

1 comment

I worked on my first poetry MS. at the Banff Centre, under the great mentorship of Don McKay and Stan Dragland. It was the perfect setting, and a great mixture of isolation and community (dinners were often followed by rabble-rousing in Props, the on-site pub...and perhaps at late-night venture up Tunnel Mountain.

And what's even better -- this week I had the pleasure of reuniting with writers from my Banff visit 7 years ago at the Anansi Poetry Bash, where I launched my second book! So good to see them again.


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