is a great word, don’t you think? Who among us wouldn’t welcome a getaway to re-treat ourselves to something we love? And when we focus that retreat on writing, our joy is complete, with a whole day to study, talk, learn, discover, rediscover, and experience one of our favorite things. Interested? Inspired? Your students are waiting.
Yes, you can hold a retreat for your fellow writers, guide them with new and relevant information, and wrap them in the circle of words that will ripple through us all. Yes, you can.
While holding a writing retreat is a bit like teaching a class or workshop, it offers more personal interaction, in-depth training, and that intangible camaraderie you develop after a day with a dozen or so of your new best friends and lots of chocolate. Teacher you’ll be, but student also, as you discover new inspiration and direction for your own work too!
Your retreat will take lots of planning and organization, more than you expect, but it will ignite your creative fires as well, so grab notepad and pencil now for those ideas I know will come to you as we continue here.
I led a retreat recently hosted by an established sponsor, but there’s no reason you can’t be host as well as guide. If you have a local writers group, start there. Post flyers at your library and community center, and ask for free notices in your local newspaper and on local radio stations. If you have your own or access to a fellow writer’s email list, certainly use that resource (responsibly, of course) to publicize and garner interest for your retreat. You may even be able to line up some local merchant sponsors for food or supplies.
Choose the title for your retreat carefully, perhaps reflecting how specific or general your students’ interests will likely be. Maybe you’ll create your plan based on some area of interest you’re aware of or something you’re especially qualified to teach that would meet many writers’ needs. “Historical Romance Fiction Writing” is a lot more specific than “Techniques in Popular Fiction Genres” and would probably limit your student pool, but if you know something that specific is what writers in your area want, provide it.
You’ll need to choose and publicize a date several weeks or even months in advance. If you’re working with a sponsor, your location may be decided for you. If not, consider your home or a friend’s home, community center or library, church or bookstore. Include the price of lunch in your students’ registration fee and choose a simple meal with minimal clean-up—and generous helpings of chocolate.
If you don’t have hosts to take care of monitoring the mealtime for you, ask a friend to help or hire a teenager—because your students will want to talk with you during the entire lunchtime and that kind of informal “extra” is part of the attraction of a small retreat, and the whole event will work best with just a few students, probably no more than 12 or 15.
“…if you know something that specific is what writers in your area want, provide it.”
Your students can get plenty of writing information from books and other resources, so use this retreat opportunity to offer them your take, your theory, your approach that gives them something they can’t get elsewhere, something that provides them with both the mechanics and the motivation to write more and better.
The title for my retreat I mentioned earlier was “Writing Non-fiction Books for Women.” That’s clearly a broad title and could have been approached in a variety of ways. That’s another benefit to the day-long retreat—you have the time and venue to fully handle the topic in your unique way.
I divided my retreat into an equation that would unfold logically throughout the day. The formula was Story + Service = Salability. We followed (and spent most of the time on) the story part of a book, the service (the steps or how-to that benefit the reader), and the salability (the specifics of a book proposal, research, platform and marketing).
Spend ample time to create your own formula, making sure it’s one your students can understand and follow throughout the retreat, that it builds a sturdy idea they can carry home and apply to their own work right away.
In addition to your retreat’s purpose, you may want to come up with an encompassing theme, something to note at the beginning of the retreat that sets the tone and unites you and your students. My retreat was sponsored by a Christian organization, so I chose a “retreat verse.” The verse and my approach (that I came back to from time to time) and even a personal example lent themselves to a prop. I bought $1 sun visors for each student and myself, just a fun and tangible way to unite us further as we joined together for the day.
In place of a Bible verse, you could choose a quote or slogan or even a very short story to set the stage for your retreat and find less expensive or even free props to bring from home. It’s not the amount of money you spend, but the low-key knitting together of your little group that’s important.
“Spend ample time to create your own formula, making sure it’s one your students can understand and follow…”
A retreat is designed to be relaxed, comfortable, and intimate—a day among friends. So, even if you don’t know your students personally, meet them as colleagues, on a level of genuine interest and respect. Thank them for spending their day with you.
Have your syllabus planned well, with your materials all together in one location. Be able to put your hand on every paper, book, example and item you’ll need. Have a blank notepad to record ideas that come to you as you’re talking or a student is asking a question.
Explain your formula—your overall plan—for the retreat. Let your students know that you have planned a beginning, middle, and end for the day, filled with plenty of goodies they can put to use immediately in their careers. Provide a clear structure for the retreat and follow it in a professional way. Don’t make your students guess where they’re going, wonder if you got ready for this event last night, or question your control of the retreat.
“Be able to put your hand on every paper, book, example and item you’ll need.”
Be prepared. Prepare your materials. Then prepare some more. Then do it again. Don’t assume that your students will consume the time with questions. And even if they do have a lot of questions, you need to provide a generous amount of rich, valuable content they can take away—not rely on information they have to gather from the discussion that ensues.
Choose materials other than your own. To illustrate the story part of my retreat formula, I had several great books to draw my students’ attention to. But, I found one book that was beautifully written and told a complete story—the perfect example of the techniques I wanted them to learn and understand. So, the bulk of that part of the formula was where I explained how those techniques worked and helped the students see how they could add those techniques to their own writing.
As much as your students need to see what works, they need to see what doesn’t. And, as much as I didn’t want to criticize another writer’s work, I felt that my students needed to be on the lookout for trouble spots in their own work. I only focused on specific, objective examples easily understood—not my personal taste—and explained why those habits distracted from the book’s story and failed to serve the reader in any way.
“As much as your students need to see what works, they need to see what doesn’t.”
Be organized. Schedule your day with time for instruction, writing, and breaks. At the beginning of each instructional session, state your purpose for the session and distribute any materials the students will need. Allow for plenty of questions (as the informal setting will encourage), but stick to your plan so you deliver what you promised your students at the beginning.
Depending on your students, they may or may not want time for writing assignments during the retreat. Be ready either way with several short assignments that focus more on the craft than the creative on such short notice.
For example, one topic of discussion in my retreat was the elimination of gray-headed metaphors and similes to make our writing more enjoyable for readers. I provided the students with a page of typical offenders (easy as pie, white as snow, she’s a saint, etc.) and asked them to come up with their own original alternatives.
I also gave them two short essays (one serious, one humorous from my life) that I wrote—badly. The essays were dull and trite, and I asked them to rewrite them better (not a hard assignment at all). When we regrouped after that exercise, several students gave examples of their new and improved comparisons and stories. I also supplied them with rewritten essays of my own so they could dissect and understand the improvements I made—and know that they could improve their own writing in a similar way. When we tell our own stories better, readers respond.
“…stick to your plan so you deliver what you promised your students at the beginning.”
Be flexible. It’s likely that you’ll have a group with a wide variety of experiences and skill levels. Don’t worry about editing your material on the spot because your less advanced students will benefit greatly from material that seems over their heads. Just be sure that you allot plenty of time to each concept and encourage input from your more advanced students. At the same time, don’t be afraid to cover elementary principles, but do it in a clever and interesting way to hold the attention of even your seasoned writers.
If you see you need to devote more time to a topic, perhaps you can eliminate a break or shave a few minutes off lunch. Also, if one portion of your formula is of more interest to your students or some point needs more attention, adjust your schedule to accommodate that. Again, just be sure you don’t shortchange your students in any way.
You may find that your students don’t exactly fit your retreat title. None of my students at the “Writing Non-fiction Books for Women” retreat had published a book, and only a very few were working on one. All of them had book ideas, though, and they wrote for publications, websites, their church or job and a variety of other venues. None of that was a problem.
Much of the information I provided for their book-writing endeavors could be applied to their current work, so I frequently pointed out how a technique or practice would work on a smaller scale and encouraged them to apply what we learned immediately instead of waiting until they began their books. So give your students all the great material you promised, and help them adapt it to their writing lives now and later.
“…allot plenty of time to each concept and encourage input from your more advanced students.”
Be accessible. Your students are attending your retreat because of your information and because of you—they’re expecting up-close and personal contact with you, so don’t disappoint them. Accept their questions and be generous with your information. They may ask about your schedule, your history, your contracts, your contacts. Be honest, but, of course, don’t relay confidential or negative information about colleagues. Focus on your choices and the lessons you’ve learned.
Ask frequently if everyone understands and patiently explain any point that needs further detail. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. Offer to help your students find the information they need or point them to a resource that might help, and give them examples from what you do know.
Don’t be afraid to share the tips and tricks you’ve discovered over the years, and show them examples of your own work where you learned something better or improved upon a technique. Share your stories of success and failure and how you’re still growing as a writer too.
“Ask frequently if everyone understands and patiently explain any point that needs further detail.”
Be over-prepared. I’m a mom and former Scout leader, so indulge me a moment. It’s hard to gauge how interactive your group will be, and your best bet is having a truck load of materials to illustrate your points. Have plenty of assignments that pertain to each part of your formula. And have plenty of retreat reminders.
These may not be that necessary for the effectiveness of your retreat, but they serve to unite your group and give your students little “extras” they can remember. A retreat reminder is effective at the beginning of a session or after a break. It could be a short story from your own experience. It could be a joke. It could be a little magic trick. It could be anything that’s brief and will convey the overall theme of your retreat or specific point you want your students to think about.
For one retreat reminder, I told my students a one-paragraph story that reinforced an idea I focused on: servicing your reader. The illustration reminded the students to write their books as if to one person, one reader whose life would be better because of their efforts. We write our books for the masses, I told them, but they’re read one at a time.
You will probably have enough questions to fill any “leftover” time in your retreat, but don’t count on it. And again, your job is to provide a complete day’s worth of content and instruction to benefit your students—not rely on them to steer the event. Because you don’t know how the logistics of the day will go, prepare for individual or group activities, and then you can choose to implement them to best fit in with your students’ needs and available time.
In my retreat, we didn’t get to a game I’d prepared, but it was important to have it available and I’ll use it another time. I took an old Monopoly board and covered each property with an experience in the “Day of the Writer.” I rewrote Chance and Community Chest cards to reveal more contingencies and developments we all have to deal with. Houses and hotels became chapters and books. I’m sure you can come up with your own plans to involve your students, entertain and teach them something as well.
“Have plenty of assignments that pertain to each part of your formula.”
Be generous. During the time of the retreat, I was preparing for a move to a much smaller place, so that meant having to part with things I normally wouldn’t. I put together a box of books and offered them to my students. I just spread the books out on a table and they chose the ones they wanted.
Even if you aren’t facing a reduction in bookcase space, consider providing something extra for your students. A single door prize is an inexpensive option, or you might politely request goody-bag items from merchants in your area.
Perhaps you have materials from another class you’ve taught. If so, condense some of that information even if it’s on a different topic and give your students a sample. For instance, you may be teaching Essay Writing at your retreat but have Science Fiction or Young Adult notes you can share.
What’s mundane to you might be new to your students. I brought a recently completed manuscript for my students to see. Some of them had never seen a manuscript formatted and ready for an agent, and they were interested in the presentation. Others compared my approach to their own. We didn’t discuss my manuscript—I just made it available if anyone wanted to check it out.
Remember to generously thank your host if you have one, those who provided you with space or supplies, those who helped you in any way, and most of all, your students.
When you’ve answered the final question and concluded all your fabulous instruction, ask a student to distribute your evaluation forms. Provide a self-addressed stamped envelop and don’t ask for the students to identify themselves. Ask yes and no questions, but also provide opportunities for your students to elaborate—such as what they liked best about the retreat, what they liked least, what they would change, etc. Keep it to one page.
Autopsy your retreat and use your students’ comments to help guide you in preparing your next one. Make notes about what felt best to you and what felt uncomfortable, what seemed to work well and what flopped, what you wish you’d spent more time on and what you’d like to cut.
If something didn’t appeal to your students, how can you change your approach or use new materials to help your next class? If you weren’t able to cover the material you planned in the time allotted, restructure your retreat while the excesses are still fresh in your mind, or schedule the retreat for two days. If you had too much time to fill, consider a half-day retreat or partner with another writer to teach the rest of the day.
I told my students to remember that while it’s their book to write, it’s not about them. It’s about their readers. And while your retreat is yours to lead, it’s not about you. It’s about your students. Give them skills they can apply immediately in their work, wisdom they can build on, and the inspiration to do it. Give them all you can and their readers benefit. It all comes full circle.
Karon Goodman is a writer and speaker from Alabama specializing in inspirational books for women. Karon’s written a monthly newsletter for stepmoms since 2000 and hosts the “Continuing the Stepparenting Journey” blog http://stepjourney.blogspot.com/. She also welcomes readers to her newest blog, “Receiving Grace, Reflecting God” http://receivinggracereflectinggod.blogspot.com/ and her latest book, Pursued by the Shepherd. You can visit Karon’s site http://karongoodman.com and send along any helpful hints about living in a silo—her next adventure.