The Lasting Value of a Writing Retreat

How one week away kept on giving

Photo by Rachel Nickerson on Unsplash

On the day I impulsively signed up for a writing retreat, I second guessed myself for three hours straight. I was late making dinner and late walking the dog. I was a practical person and needed to justify the time and expense.

I spotted the advertisement, by one of my favorite authors, at a vulnerable time. The book I’d been writing was at a standstill and I couldn’t figure out the problem. My writing had started to feel unwieldy; I was losing my way. I craved encouragement, someone to reassure me I wasn’t wasting my time. I was sure my situation was predisposing me to an early midlife crisis; I’d planned on writing being the cornerstone of my new identity but now harbored doubts.

I ultimately signed up because I had this idea that the teacher would reveal something about her particular secrets of writing. Maybe she’d even offer me feedback, I reasoned, maybe she’d cheer me on.

Once I arrived at the workshop, three months later, my hopefulness screeched to a halt. By the second day, I realized the teacher gave no feedback at all. She said Zen inspired things like there is no good, no bad. I did not turn out to be an exception which was disappointing. She made clear that the reason we were there was to practice writing which alarmed me. I hadn’t gone to practice. She gave us writing prompts and we were supposed to sit there and write.

In the beginning my mind went blank.

“What do you remember?” she asked us. And I swear, the minute she said it, I didn’t remember anything. And then I wondered what she meant, specifically. What did I remember about what?

Practice, in this way, was something I could have easily just done at home. I realized that I paid for something because I lacked my own self-discipline. I struggled to understand how doing all these writing prompts would move me forward. They were a distraction to my writing crisis. I had no time for this.

My bad mood continued in the late afternoons when we met in smaller groups to write for several ten-minute periods — without the teacher. We were supposed to read aloud what we wrote to our group of three or four relative strangers. Steeping in disappointment on the second day of this nonsense, I revolted. When my turn came to read aloud, I said “pass.” I hadn’t actually written anything cohesive; I’d only pretended to write but really just doodled at the end of unfinished sentences. What did I care about these people?

My response was not well-received.


“Come on, you can do it!”

“That’s not fair!”

I was caught off guard, surprised how their insistence panicked me. I imagined one of them grabbing my notebook from me, seeing my sketches of 3-D cubes instead of writing. Memories of the time my teenage journal ended up in my brother’s hands surged in memory.

“I’ll read the next time; I promise!” I said, notebook clutched tight.

After that, I made more effort. Even though I probably wasn’t going to see these people ever again, they presented a different kind of threat. It was like they were my conscience, personified, staring back at me.

And it was through this effort, over the subsequent days, that I began to understand the value of a writing retreat had nothing to do with secrets or encouragement.

A writing retreat was about accountability, of pushing past resistance. Writing in a group made it impossible to procrastinate. I couldn’t go make a cup of tea or call and check to see if my kids fed the dogs when the writing got hard. I had to stay with my mind.

Reading aloud to other people helped me hear, for the first time, my unedited voice. Because we were told “don’t pick up your pen!” I had no time to judge my writing, edit out the questionable parts. This led to another surprise. My honesty elicited laughs; I hadn’t ever considered my ruminating thoughts to have a humorous perspective.

I also started remembering things I’d forgotten. A random prompt would initially lead me in an expected direction but then there’d be a turn and I’d end up somewhere else where there were more stories to be mined. My journal from that week away became a source for rich material I wanted to explore further.

I increased my writing endurance. I couldn’t just catnap in that room of people sitting and writing. Their moving pens across notebook pages were a visceral reminder to keep going. I was challenged and inspired. I worked harder.

Six days later, standing in line at the airport, I was still writing. A month later, then two, three and four, I kept up my new writing pace. My notebook went with me everywhere– to a son’s graduation, a walk in the park, the train, my bedroom, a coffeeshop, my car, the couch. Six months later, I figured out the problem of my book, how to fix it.

The writing retreat was never meant to be a place to find answers.

It was for fostering a habit that would lead me to them.

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Megan Houston Sager

Written by

Teacher, writer, mother, maker. I have a story about that.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Megan Houston Sager

Written by

Teacher, writer, mother, maker. I have a story about that.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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