Writing retreats have been mocked as an excuse to check in to a swanky hotel, order room service and escape other obligations, but many writers find them useful for enhancing motivation, focus and productivity. For both of us, retreats have become central to our writing practice, community building and job satisfaction. In what follows, we offer lessons from our experiences to help others effectively plan and advocate for their own retreats.
Over the past few years, we have organized and participated in a variety of writing retreats. Ours seek to build a writing community and create positive associations with writing that can improve writers’ relationships with their work. We have thus endeavored to create ideal schedules that include time for recreating and socializing—that is, time spent not writing, but enjoying the company of fellow writers.
Before we outline our main insights, one caveat: since we will be focusing on community building, we will not focus on individual writing retreats. For many writers, a retreat requires total isolation and the elimination of all distractions in order to write. Such solitary writing bursts can be incredibly beneficial and productive, as our own experiences and others’ testimony show. We, however, are primarily interested in the added value that comes from using retreats to create a community of faculty writers. An integrated overview of peer-reviewed literature identifies the benefits of community-building during retreats, including the formation of shared vision, collegial support, mentorship and social interaction. As research on such retreats shows, social interaction promotes connectivity, facilitates dialogue and builds rapport between colleagues—all of which are associated with greater work satisfaction and productivity.
Although the term “writing retreat” often refers to a variety of on- and off-campus writing events, we use the term exclusively for off-site ones. The change of scenery allows writers to retreat away from the site of other competing pressures. As Rowena Murray explains in Writing in Social Spaces, “Conversations about writing cannot happen on campus and other workplaces, where writing has no place.” An unfamiliar environment allows writers to reset their practice without interference from contextual cues or distractions in the normal work environment. Retreats also legitimize time away from the conflicting draws of teaching and service so that participants recognize writing not as elective but rather as integral to their careers.
Our retreats, lasting three to five days, follow a daily schedule from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and include goal-setting and structured blocks for writing, breaks and debriefs. When we have significantly more time together, such as during overnight retreats, we include at least one session workshopping short pieces of writing as well as flex time for more writing or social recreation. Meals are all communal.
Employing this structure, we have experimented with different participant configurations, approaches and settings:
- Two-person retreats organized with one other colleague in our field at another campus.
- A local retreat based at Aubrey’s house, with a dozen colleagues from our campus invited to join us for three days, from breakfast through happy hour, with a light breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks provided.
- A local round-robin retreat in which four colleagues, each assigned to a day within one week, invited colleagues to their homes for a full day of writing, with the day’s host responsible for drinks, snacks and lunch.
- A mid-distance retreat that involved driving to a neighboring state and staying in a rental house for a few days, with all six participants sharing meal preparation duties.
- A long-distance retreat in which four people flew to a more distant state and stayed together in a rented house.
From these experiences, we have learned much about the various aspects of organizing the most effective and enjoyable writing retreats.
Length of time. A three-day retreat is ideal. Although it is easy to follow the standard five-day workweek, people often burn out after three full days of writing. The fourth or fifth day then leads to lowered output followed by a slump in productivity and motivation after the retreat.
Structure. A daily plan is incredibly important for staying on task while not pushing to burn out. Our optimal schedule includes four blocks of 80 to 90 minutes of writing, separated by morning, lunch and afternoon breaks. All writing activities stop after the final block. Based on participant interest, workshopping sessions can be added, either during longer breaks or in place of a writing session.
Walks outside during breaks and at the end of the day, although optional for participants, have proven greatly beneficial for maintaining energy levels and providing a mental reset between writing blocks.
Setting. Space and place matter. Above all, intensive writing should occur in spaces that offer plenty of desk space and comfortable seating (particularly for reading). Both indoor and outdoor writing spaces are important, as are large common areas to engender community building. We prioritize beautiful settings to facilitate recreation during the breaks.
Refreshments and coffee should be accessible. While strong Wi-Fi has always been a must for our participants, a no–Wi-Fi retreat could be ideal for those seeking to remove that distraction.
The time of year should also be a consideration. We firmly believe that faculty members need breaks from all work, including writing. Therefore, retreats should either avoid weekends in between busy weeks or only occupy a portion of a break. If writing retreats are scheduled midsemester, such as during spring break, it is helpful to choose a different geographical location and climate to give that sense of recess and distance from the semester.
Food. The vast majority of our writing retreats have been self-catered. Usually, each participant takes responsibility for planning and executing at least one major meal. The most intensive food preparation was at the local retreat at Aubrey’s house, when the two of us planned and prepared every single snack and meal—an exhausting endeavor, particularly when catering to participants’ myriad food allergies and restrictions. Group meal preparation has been a great builder of community and connection, with participants sharing their favorite foods and recipes and with only minimal prior coordination necessary.
External catering, while more expensive, allows faculty to focus entirely on their writing, but we have found that it means the loss of important community-based advantages. Shared self-catering is not only more affordable, but it also promotes group ownership and makes the events more intimate and personal.
Participants. Multiple-participant retreats offer the ideal means for building community. While we both enjoyed the opportunity on two-person retreats to strengthen our singular bonds with that person and receive disciplinary-specific feedback, they lacked the community-building of multiperson retreats with colleagues from our own institution.
The nature and setting of the retreats naturally determine who participates. The retreats in our private residences allowed us to invite a dozen faculty members, but since we were welcoming people into our homes, all invitees were at least acquaintances of someone else in the group. Many of us met new people—we intentionally invited new faculty who had arrived during the pandemic—but all invitees were from a subset of our college’s population determined by our natural social networks: women within our first 15 years at the institution.
Mid- and farther-distant retreats dictate an even narrower group of people and thus more exclusivity. Staying overnight in a house, often with shared bedrooms, requires comfort and familiarity. Usually, we tend to retreat with our friends, and while we have developed even deeper bonds, we recognize the limiting nature of this.
Moreover, since community-building on an institutional level is a top priority, we have brainstormed how and whether retreats could be designed more inclusively. One way to do it could be through a conference-like approach, where the separation between private and communal space is maintained, perhaps in a hotel-like environment with a space that can be dedicated to writing and has a kitchen, cafe or restaurant on-site.
Cost. Each of these different models has varying expenses. Writing retreats that require renting a house and driving or flying a distance can cost a few thousand dollars. Those hosted in participant homes might only cost a few hundred. Self-funding a retreat might be one’s only option, but it is worth it to seek support from one’s college, either as an individual or as a group. Drawing on the growing literature on retreats cited here has helped us make the case for using institutional research funds for retreats.
When proposing these intensive writing events to one’s institution, it is important to highlight the very good reasons for colleges and universities to support them. Writing retreats—by building the faculty’s scholarly profiles with increased publications, grant applications and research collaboration—have the potential to build institutional status. There can also be more concrete or measurable benefits to funding writing retreats. Australian scholars Penny Paliadelis, Vicki Parker, Glenda Parmenter and Myf Maple attribute an institutional investment of 18,000 Australian dollars ($12,000) in writing retreats with securing A$300,000 ($201,000) in grants as well as a 100 percent increase in papers submitted.
These numbers demonstrate quantitative value to resource-strapped institutions, but we should not ignore retreats’ vital yet harder-to-measure qualitative benefits. Decreasing morale, growing faculty dissatisfaction and the Great Resignation populate today’s headlines and are trending at campuses across the country. In our experience, gathering faculty members together at writing retreats increases community, morale and job satisfaction at a time when colleges and universities need that most. Those communal goals, combined with increased research productivity, make writing retreats an important investment for us all, and we encourage faculty members, academic affairs offices and institutions to organize, participate in and support such gatherings.