My first introduction to the National Writing Project was my participation in professional writing retreats hosted by the Maryland Writing Project, where I later also organized retreats. I then attended the invitational summer institute in 2000 at the Delaware Writing Project, and four years later I attended the National Writing Project’s Professional Writing Retreat.
Afterward, my site director asked me to start a professional writing retreat at the Delaware Writing Project, which supports teachers from the city of Wilmington as well as those from the farms found in lower Delaware. I was excited and couldn’t wait to begin.
Build It and They’ll Come. Not Necessarily.
When I began to prepare, I sent an email out on the listserv asking if anyone was interested in attending a professional writing retreat. I guaranteed them a spot at the first annual Delaware Writing Project professional writing retreat.
Then I sat back and waited to be inundated with emails. After all, the professional writing retreat had been one of the most rewarding experiences of my Writing Project career, so I thought others would want in on this experience.
No one responded.
I was shocked. Later, I sent personal emails to fellow teacher-consultants from my invitational summer institute cohort, telling them how inspiring a weekend of writing could be. With a little prodding, some relented but many did not. One of my friends waved me off and said, “A weekend of writing? No thanks.”
I realized many viewed a weekend of writing as a weekend of work. Eventually I rustled up a few participants, and the only person who was not from my summer institute cohort was a woman named Martha Ford.
Changing the Strategy
What will I do differently when recruiting for future retreats?
I will send out an email that is a little more open, in order to draw out all of those Martha Fords.
Also, instead of accepting only those who can attend the full weekend, I might open the retreat to writers who cannot get away for that long. If you can find out what everyone’s needs are, you can tailor the retreat accordingly. For example, consider hosting daylong retreats for writers at the point where their research is complete and their writing is beginning.
Finding an Appropriate Location
The location is something that can make or break a writing retreat. It must be reasonably priced and free of distractions, have a central meeting area, and provide food.
It is not always easy to find an inexpensive retreat spot that provides room and board. Try looking during the off season. I also charge participants a nonrefundable deposit. Requiring a financial commitment will ensure that last-minute cancellations will not affect your budget.
Meals are a welcome respite and a chance to talk to other writers, but avoid eating out because it consumes too much valuable writing time. If you cannot find a place that provides meals, arrange for delivery. Find out participants’ special needs (e.g. vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free) and plan the menu before the retreat so that you will need only a few minutes to call it in.
It’s also crucial to reserve a central meeting space as a place to check in and to read your final pieces. When the entire group is not meeting, participants can use that space to write or to meet in revision groups.
Shaping the Retreat
There are some scheduling differences between a local professional writing retreat and the national version. Because a local retreat usually runs on a shorter time period, I like to keep it simple to maximize the time spent on writing.
My local retreats usually look like this:
Friday: On Friday evening we host a check-in. Each person discusses what she is going to write and possible venues for publishing, and the other participants respond by suggesting resources and other possible publication options.
I don’t schedule any other meetings until Sunday morning. Instead, we use meal times to see how people are doing and to discuss their writing. Sometimes the conversation will stray from writing but a simple “How’s your writing going?” will always bring writers to discuss their work.
Saturday: At lunch on Saturday I assign revision groups. Now participants have people they can go to for feedback once they need it.
Sunday: After breakfast on Sunday we have the read-around group.
Equipment and Materials
You do not need to bring a U-Haul full of materials!
Bring a printer with the software and cords, because you don’t want your personal laptop to be used by everyone to access the printer. Also provide highlighters, sticky notes, and all of the other accoutrements necessary for writing, as well as journals and books on writing.
Before the retreat make sure everyone knows what is available and whether there will be Internet access. Some participants may need assurance before spending a weekend without the Internet.
A Gift of Time—with Fellow Writers and Teachers
Once teachers attend a professional writing retreat they realize that a weekend of writing does not translate into a weekend of work. They often leave the retreats feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, and with a piece of their writing ready to go to the next level of publication.
I have asked myself if I’d be as productive if I checked in to a hotel for a weekend of writing. The answer is no. Writing retreats are successful because of two things: colleagues and time.
One participant commented, “Having peers there provides support for my writing. I know that there are other teachers available to talk with or to see for resources. Writing takes time. This retreat gave us the gift of time.”
Anyone who has had the pleasure of attending a professional writing retreat knows that a weekend of writing is indeed a gift.