Why are writers’ retreats boring?

In my recent profile in Grub Street, I alluded to applying for (and failing to receive) a fellowship at the prestigious Hawthornden Castle Retreat for Writers.  This was the first time I’d applied for a fellowship at a writers’ retreat.  I wanted to go to Hawthornden because you get to write for a month in a Scottish castle (awesome!) near Edinburgh (a cool city!), with all your room and board provided (sweet!).

Pictured: Inspiring awesomeness (AKA Hawthornden Castle)

Upon the news that Hawthornden had inexplicably passed on a C-list zombie author, well-meaning friends suggested I consider looking into other retreats.  I began researching a few online, and came away with the impression that not only are most writers’ retreats not designed for me, but that they’re designed to solve problems that don’t exist.

As a typical example, take a look at this website for the prestigious Sangam house international writer’s retreat.  The statement at the top of their webpage reads:

“Sangam house is an international writer’s residency program that brings together writers from across the world to live and work among their peers in a safe, supportive and nurturing space.” [My italics.]

Now, I don’t know about you. . .but when I’m at a cocktail party and it’s disclosed that I’m a writer, my host’s reaction is usually not: “Get out of my house this instant you horrible man.”   To the contrary, my being a writer (once disclosed) often suddenly makes me interesting to persons who– moments before– had found me not worth talking to.  It can impress women.  It is, in fact, the very thing about myself that I would volunteer if called upon to feel supported and accepted.

To parse Sangam (and its pretentiously uncapitalized) house, I already feel plenty “safe, supported, and nurtured.”  What I don’t feel is stimulated.

To the contrary of what 95% of writers’ retreats want to provide, what I need to write is the stimulation of interesting, dynamic people and surroundings.
This picture is from the website of the “Writers in the Heartland” retreat in Illinois. Does it inspire you to create exciting, dynamic, dangerous art. . .or to have a second scone and talk about how you still don’t “know computers”?

I think I am not unique in this.  There seems to be a long tradition of artists of all stripes wanting to be around interesting shit because it makes you want to make art.  (Why do most writers live in New York City, for example?  The publishing industry is there, yes. . .but also, New York City is full of interesting shit.)  My favorite musician, Joe Strummer of the Clash, used to put it this way: “No input?  No output.”  If you want to make cool interesting art, it helps to be around cool interesting stuff.

Pictured: Interesting stuff

Certainly, there are some writers in unlucky situations who might pine for a boring room in the middle of nowhere.  I think of Raymond Carver at the beginning of his career; he was working as a landscaper during the day, raising two kids in a  failing marriage, and trying to clear his head enough in the evenings to write a little bit.  I’m sure Carver would have benefitted greatly from a week in the woods alone.  But generally speaking, in America, quiet and empty places aren’t hard to come by.

Interesting shit is.

Pictured: 99% of America

Many writers’ retreats are not free– they cost hundreds or thousands of dollars– and they provide little more than an empty house in the middle of nowhere.  When I see these retreats, I always think of all the interesting, inspiring things I could do with that money.  (Note: Some writers’ retreats cost thousands of dollars. . .but also include lectures and workshops with famous, successful writers.  I’m not speaking of these retreats, which would obviously be interesting and stimulating.)

Why, then, do these boring, we’ll-give-you-an-empty-room-somewhere-and-expect-you-to-thank-us-for-it retreats continue to exist?  Here are my guesses:

  • Winning a fellowship to a writer’s retreat is something you can put on a CV.
  • The people with money who endow/create writer’s retreats have an inaccurate, romantic notion that writers need solitude in order to work.
  • The retreats are for people who are not “real writers.”  (Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.)

How, then, can my horrible problem of boring writers’ retreats be solved?  Easily!

Institutions that want to help artists (and ensure that Americans continue to create the best art in the world) should create retreats and residencies in awesome, interesting, and inspiring places!

Here are some retreats for writers that I would like to see:

  • The Coney Island Writers Retreat, Brooklyn, New York (Retreat would be located right on the boardwalk.)
  • The Lower East Side Writers Retreat, Manhattan, New York  (Talk about stimulus.)
  • The Hyde Park Writers Retreat, Chicago, Illinois (This neighborhood is dynamic and awesome, plus you can see Barack’s house.)
  • Muir Woods Writers Retreat, Sausalito, CA (Gorgeous)
  • The Grand Canyon Writers Retreat, AZ (Double gorgeous)
  • The Las Vegas Strip Writers Retreat, Las Vegas, NV. (Best people watching in the world.)
C’mon patrons of the arts, make it happen!

8 thoughts on “Why are writers’ retreats boring?”

  1. Why are writers’ retreats boring?

    OZ was always standing behind the curtain, but that’s uncomfortable to know. It’s not SAFE, NURTURING or SUPPORTIVE.

    You wrote the piece well. That wasn’t safe, nurturing or supportive either. What’s wrong with you man? Look at that lawn at the Writers in the Heartland retreat; it invites cozy naps where poems about butterflies are born. Don’t be the cat’s paw that plucks the Monarch out of the air.

    Social grace “law” (guess who wrote it!) mandates that before I judge you/your writing – they are the same you know – I must first ask, “Are you sitting?” It’s the “Safe” principle of the law.
    It dictates I follow with, “You should further develop your ideas of alternative retreats. They’re good.” Gotta have “Nurturing.” It’s necessary and sufficient to the law.
    “Muir woods is gorgeous; you’re right.” Here, the “Supportive” element buffers the pain causing power of, “However…”

    Only now can I judge you/your writing.

    “What the fuck Scott? Ever heard of a map? Muir Woods isn’t in Sausalito. Are you sure Hawthornden isn’t an Irish castle?

    Writing is alive, or in the case of zombie writing dead. Nothing alive -refer to above zombie comment- is ever safe. Support and Nurture are important reminders to amend mistakes, which are dangerous to all living things.
    A month of writing in a Scotish or an Irish castle, why not? A limousine ride to the corner liquor store for a Bud lite, okay. But, if I feel you: a limousine driven by a drunken zombie -not a safe, supportive or nurturing roadtrip – breeds perspective.
    When you find Muir Woods, let me know the time and date for the retreat. I’ll climb a tree and throw eggs and recite Malcolm X until everyone is satiated by uncomfortability. Then, you can drive them to the Zen Center near Muir Woods in Sausilito so they can purge.
    Thanks for providing me with the safe, supportive and nurturing space to mentally masterbate.

    David

  2. This blog entry tries to be cool and funny, but only succeeds in exposing the ignorance of the author. Just because you don’t find it good, doesn’t mean others won’t!

    There are thousands of writers out there who would kill for a writing retreat – yes, a peaceful and secluded one – because most of them need what they are missing in their lives. A writing retreat is not just for writing. If all I want is solitude, I can book a room in a hotel, lock the door and just write. A writing retreat offers so much more – beautiful surroundings (thank you, but I have enough of concrete jungle shit around me), the opportunity to meet fellow writers face-to-face (the only writer friends I have via Facebook) and some great memories to recall when I am knee deep in mind-numbing daily routine of taking care of my in-laws and work my ass off in my day job (did you even know that most Indian women live in a joint family system and are not allowed go out late in the night?).

    And I am really amused at your example. The Sangam Foundation is located in India, and their mission statement reflects the reality in India for certain creative professionals. Perhaps you have heard of Salman Rushdie? He definitively needs a safe environment. But you say such a famous author does not need a writing retreat? Okay, I am a pretty much non-famous writer, living in an unattractive city, residing in a street that I can’t walk alone after 8pm, and living with people who don’t understand why anybody wants to be a writer, and I would jump at the chance of a retreat that gives me a ” nurturing” environment.

    Hell, with kind of life I (and most writers in my country) have, I would stay in a window-less shack in a desert, if it proves to be quiet and safe…

  3. And please do remember… you are privileged to live in a country which has places like Times Square and Las Vegas, and live in a free society that does not restrict you in any way. Not many are as lucky as you.

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