Tag Archives: hawthornden castle

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!