Sunday 22 September 2019

Writing Retreats - Heather Dyer

Hawthornden Castle

I’ve applied for a grant to buy time to write. This might sound odd, since I’m a freelancer and already spend most of my time writing. But writing at home isn’t the same as writing at a dedicated writing retreat.

A writing retreat is the most effective way I can think of for converting money into creative output. I once spent five days at retreat at Ty Newydd, and wrote 10,000 words. At another retreat I conceived a whole new structure and voice for a long-term project.

Ty Newydd

Still, spending six days at somewhere like Retreats for You would normally be beyond my reach. I suppose I could try and manufacture a retreat at home. I could turn off my phone and router, send the dog to kennels, tell everyone I’ve gone on holiday, take down my calendar and hide all reminders of my freelance work, prepare all my meals in advance. But it wouldn’t be the same. I’d still be thinking about the cleaning or the laundry or getting up to sign for a delivery.
Retreats for You

So, I Google writing retreats like others might Google luxury holidays or houses. I lust after their empty rooms, furnished with just a single bed, chair, desk and view. I love reading about the healthy local food they serve, the picnic baskets they leave outside your door at lunchtime. I imagine myself walking in the grounds lost in thought, or sitting on veranda with my notebook on my lap. It feels like a luxury to be able to do nothing but think and work as hard as I can.

But it’s not just the extra time a retreat gives you – it’s the extra headspace. In filling out the application, I reflected on why exactly retreats are so productive. Here are the reasons I gave:
  1. Not having to prepare food or do any other routine tasks allows me to function on autopilot. Because I don’t have to drag myself back to the real world to think about what I’m going to make for dinner, or do the dishes, or walk the dog, I can remain preoccupied by my work 24/7. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I do before going to bed. I can wander about lost in thought, and make notes at the dinner table.
  2. This uninterrupted focus deepens my immersion in the material, which allows unconscious connections to rise to the surface and results in new insights.
  3. Shutting down all other mental ‘bandwidths’ relieves stress, and this also helps create an expansive, creative mindset. Until I’m on retreat, I don't realize how much ‘noise’ is going on inside my head, keeping me distracted.
  4. I set out-of-office/voicemail messages as though I’m on vacation, which helps me feel detached, and sustain an inward focus. Immediately, it’s as though the real world and my real life have been whisked away, and all I’m left with is the material I brought to work on.
  5. Knowing that time on retreat is limited makes me feel justified – and obliged – to give my creative work priority. Usually, the opposite is true. Even though writing is always my priority, there are a million smaller, less important things that are more urgent. So they take precedence. Working on ‘my own stuff’ begins to feel like a guilty pleasure. Every moment on retreat is precious, because here you are a writer above all else.
  6. Being around other writers is motivating and inspiring – both chatting with them and just knowing they’re behind the walls, also working. There’s a lovely kind of understanding that happens, where you can go about lost in thought, and everyone understands. Or, there are people to talk to about writing who really understand.
  7. The progress made during a retreat generates momentum that continues for months afterwards, so it’s easier to continue building on this progress in smaller chunks of time.
But you don't have to be a writer to have a working retreat. You could have a workation, at a centre dedicated to working stays, set up with superfast wifi, social areas and restaurants. With the rise in people working remotely, more and more people are working on the move. I’ve heard of other people attending spiritual or religious retreats to work, too, in the peace and quiet.

Have you been to any retreats you’d recommend? Has anyone made retreating-at-home work for them?

Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides editorial and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. For feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.


Sue Purkiss said...

This links in beautifully with the post I'm going to put up for tomorrow!

Heather Dyer said...

Synchronicity! I look forward to reading it.

Anne Booth said...

I hope you get your grant. It's wonderful to get away and write. I have been to Retreats for you, and I also got so much work done at and also at (which gives discount to member of the Society of Authors).