The university in which I work puts on two-day writing retreat events – these are not residential but just an opportunity to work on something in a dedicated space, in the presence of colleagues all doing their own writing. I try to go to these when I can, I find I can concentrate better in a room in which everyone else is writing too. For that matter there is nothing else to do except write, so you write. I notice too that people tend to come back to follow-up events so something is clearly working.
In addition to these internal events I have been three or four times to a week-long residential writing retreat. This is organised independently and it attracts some academics but probably the majority are working on fiction – poetry, novels, short stories. A lot of colleagues have asked me if going away like this is worthwhile and yes I would say it is. But before saying more, the concept of writing retreat needs some clarification. Some universities put on focused, structured events – they are called retreats but they are really organised residentials – around writing for publication. It seems from reviews carried out  that what academics like about these events is protected time, having other people around and getting some input from mentors. There is little negative comment about these events in the literature but I would guess that you need to make a residential voluntary as anyone who has to go, rather than wants to go, is likely to be very grumpy. The advice given for those organising a residential is to think of it as a process, rather than a one-off. In other words prepare; run the event; follow up with participants afterwards. This means getting participants to work something up in advance, let them discuss work in progress with mentors at the event and, crucially, go back to participants afterwards and monitor what they have done and offer more support. Little to argue against here and the kind of thing that is organised from time to time for students as well.
But what about the unstructured writing retreat, the type where people go away somewhere quiet and simply get on with it, what do people get out of them? Like the structured ones earlier I think the main attraction is protected time to work on some writing. However, there are some fairly obvious reasons why they do not appeal to many academics, in particular:
- if you are short of time to write it may not make sense to spend any of the time you do have in travelling to a retreat.
- some academics have very comfortable arrangements for writing at home.
- money – if it is not organised by the university then you will need to pay for yourself, and to be honest it feels like paying for the privilege of doing your job, no matter how pleasant the surrounding are.
- squaring it with others – if you are away a lot for your work your family will not react kindly if you go away for another chunk of time especially if out of term time.
Added to all this, I felt a writing retreat sounded really self-indulgent and I think a surprisingly large number of colleagues feel the same way. This raises a larger question of academic identity; being an academic is supposed to include writing but this is very hard to prioritise given all the other demands on our time. Writing is in any case so uncertain (you don’t know for sure if it will ever be published and who will ever read it?) but teaching and administration is not (you get it done and it is there for all to see). Certainly, I would not have gone on a retreat if I did not have some teaching award prize money I could use. It was not the money, but the legitimation I needed.
It tuned out that I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the retreat- it was a small group with masses of room in the house where we stayed – and the routine of early morning walking, breakfast, lunch, cake, dinner broke up the writing really well; instead of thinking I had a whole day in front of a screen I could work around two hour blocks. I liked the mix of writers and the thing I was most worried about (there might not be other academics, or at least no academics in my field) turned out to be the thing I most liked. I got a lot of work done, much more than I thought I would, and much more than I had succeeded in doing anywhere else. I did feel undeservedly cossetted from everyday concerns but, hey, it is surprising what you can get used to. I have been back since, I try to do so once a year in order to reinforce some of the helpful habits for writing I picked up. However I would not want to do more than that as I want it to be a bit special.
So perhaps you might want to give writing retreat some thought. If so, first work out if it is an organised or non-organised event, or perhaps something in between that you want. Sometimes organisers will suggest you share your work in progress but I don’t think that will ever happen unless expectations are clear in advance. Plan what you want to get done. If you could really prepare thoroughly then I expect you are so well organised there might not be much point in going away to write. So realistically for most people planning will mean finding a moment to decide beforehand if you want to use the time to [a] get your head around a topic by reading around it and note taking; [b] complete a draft of something that you have already started; or [c] focus on something that has been hanging around for some time, perhaps something that is especially taxing and the retreat is a reward for getting it done.
I would also advise to ask yourself if you are really looking for a holiday rather than a writing retreat. In fact, there are many summer writing retreats on Mediterranean islands and in idyllic Nordic forests advertised on the web, these are fine as holiday destinations but if you want to go on holiday then go on holiday and if you want to write then write, I like to do both but not at the same time. Finally, don’t worry about anyone else. The point of a retreat is that other people have their own things to do, they are not really interested in you or your work; you can look vacant and lost in thought but that is OK as they are similarly distracted. They won’t mind it if you talk about your work, and they might talk about their, in fact they will welcome the distraction, but only at the right time. I suppose good advice is finally to research places to go as far a you can – actually I did not but it turned out fine.
 Rowena Murray amongst others has discussed retreats over a number of years as well as issues of academic identity e.g. Murray R. (2008) Writer’s retreat: reshaping academic writing practices. Educational Developments, 9(2):14-16.