Why Writing Retreats Make Lousy Writers

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You can’t seem to bring yourself to write. Your life and day-to-day responsibilities keep getting in the way. What you really need is to go off somewhere quiet, without distractions, somewhere peaceful where you can finally get your writing done. You need a retreat. You need a “writing intensive.” Whatever it is, it has to be something other than what you’re doing right now, because right now you’re not getting it done.

So for a few hundred bucks you get your quiet place. You get your cabin in the woods. You surround yourself with peers who want the same things you do. Mentors with impressive resumes will be there to guide you. You will write. You will write like you never wrote before. The experience will be inspiring and will jumpstart your writing career.

You will have written a ton, and it will be good stuff. Sure, it might need a little tweaking, but you’ve been assured that you have promise. That you’re on the right track. That you are worthy of investing in yourself and your career as a writer. You deserve it. You are worth it.

Writing workshops are not the writing equivalent of kung fu training montages.

But what you’re really retreating from is being a writer. Because this situation is completely artificial. No writing retreat is going to allow you to escape the burden of having to write. Great writing isn’t done in sporadic bursts of activity. It’s a slow, day-to-day discipline. You have to write despite all distractions. You have to make uncomfortable sacrifices. And worst of all, you don’t have a cheering section. There’s no one to tell you that what you’re doing is worthwhile. No one to tell you you’re on the right track.

There is this romantic idea that writers have to write. That they have no choice. That there is this overpowering identity of “the writer” that has to be catered to. But being a writer or an artist isn’t a preexisting condition. You can have an aptitude for writing, but the bottom line is: Writers write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.

Maybe if you don’t write, you will be unhappy or feel unfulfilled. But it is a choice you make. And sometimes it’s a selfish one. Not writing is a choice, too. And maybe you have responsibilities that preclude you from writing. Maybe your life is too overwhelming. And if so, maybe you shouldn’t demand this of yourself. Maybe it should be something you do when you enjoy doing it, rather than something you do as a discipline. The fact may be that it’s just not worth it to you. You don’t have the space in your life to do it, or there are other things in your life you value more. And this is why deciding that you have to be “the writer” can be more a burden than a practical reality. I think ambition is a great motivator, but don’t let ambition be the main reason you write.

Writing workshops and intensives are not the writing equivalent of kung fu training montages. You’re not going to emerge on the other side a champ. You may come out inspired, but that inspiration is not sustainable and it gives you a false expectation of what it is to write. Because most of the time when you’re writing you’re not going to be inspired. But if you want to be a writer, you have to write anyway. And you have to be willing to write poorly, until you can write better. And better isn’t necessarily good. Promise isn’t the same as polish, and the distance between promise and good writing is not one you can travel over the course of a workshop. Because for all your promise, the writing that is most important is the writing you do despite all the distractions, craziness and responsibilities that life puts in front of you from day to day.

So what you’re really doing when you go on a writing retreat is running away from that. And surrounding yourself with all those hopeful people who share your enthusiasm for writing isn’t necessarily the best gift you can give yourself. Yes, I think you can learn from workshops and mentors and writing classes. And if you approach these writing retreats with the object of gaining insight into the craft, and not as a motivator, you may stand to benefit. But don’t look to them for inspiration. Because by inspiration, what you really mean is motivation, and the only one who can motivate you to write is you. Where you live. From one day to the next.

Jed Alexander

About Jed Alexander

Jed Alexander grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where he first discovered his love of books at his local public library. Jed went on to earn his degree in illustration at San Jose State University where he studied under veteran illustrators Barron Storey and John Clapp.

After working for more than ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA WeeklyThe Sacramento News and Review, and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love: Children’s literature. He has since done work for Nickelodeon and Cricket Magazine. He is currently represented by Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. His first self-published book (Mostly) Wordless was financed by a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.

He lives in Davis, California with his wife Regina, his best friend and favorite person in the world.

10 Comments

  1. Connie McLennan on August 17, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Well damn. Not that I was in danger of going to a writing retreat anytime soon. Early on I recognized that I probably wanted more to “have written,” than to write. Plus I was good only at reportorial writing, not creative, and that felt too much like work. I do finally have the one big story I’d like to tell, but figuring out how to start now is overwhelming. Plus I don’t yet know the ending.

  2. Jed Alexander on August 17, 2015 at 11:42 am

    Well, I definitely didn’t want to discourage anyone from writing. The idea is to encourage people to learn how to make writing a part of their routine, rather than make it a special thing they do somewhere else.

    Also, take writing courses! Go to workshops! Learn what you need to learn. Just don’t look to them for motivation.

  3. Jed Alexander on August 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

    And outlining works for some folks. That might be a good way to start.

    • Connie McLennan on August 17, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      Yeah, I play around with an outline periodically. Then I close the doc and go paint.

  4. Jed Alexander on August 17, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Well, painting is a fine discipline, and you’re very good at it.

  5. Elene Gusch on August 18, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    This is a seriously useful post. Thank you.

  6. Jed Alexander on August 19, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Thank you!

    I thought it also might make a few people upset, because there are a lot of great writers who run these writing retreats, and depend on them for a part of their income, but it’s all about what you expect to get out of them. If you go, have realistic expectations of what the experience is going to provide.

    • Connie McLennan on August 19, 2015 at 8:18 am

      In that respect, I think they’re a lot like painting workshops. Some people get hooked on them, but I’ve found most not all that useful (in a too-many-cooks sort of way) once you figure out where you’re going with your own work. But they’re great money-makers for those who give them (note to future self.)

  7. Jed Alexander on August 19, 2015 at 9:43 am

    Don’t get me started on the painting workshops!

    I think there can be something to be gleaned from those as well, but what can you really learn about painting in an afternoon (which is about how long a lot of these workshops last). You pay your hundred bucks or more, you watch them do a demo, and then you make your own attempt at using their technique. But technique is the least useful thing that someone can teach you about painting. It doesn’t hurt, but I agree: people get hooked on taking them for all the wrong reasons.

  8. […] cost for writing is considerably less than for many other artistic endeavors. If I ignore the fancy writer’s retreats and the endless possibilities of writing workshops, the $50,000-a-year undergraduate programs, the […]

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