My First Writer’s Retreat: Reflections and Lessons Learned

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend my very first writer’s retreat with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, and I’m already counting the days until registration opens for next year’s WFWA retreat. In the meantime, though, I’m sharing a breakdown of retreat-related highs and lows, in the hopes that it will help you get as much out of your writer’s retreat as I did (and avoid some of my mishaps along the way.)

What I did Right:

I took care of business as much as possible before the retreat.

Reservations were made, time off from the day job was requested and granted in advance, and bags were packed. Unfortunately for me, a double whammy of a sinus infection / strep throat reared its nasty head just days before the retreat began. But I acted fast and went straight to the doctor, starting antibiotics on the same day I first noticed symptoms. When you’re headed to a writer’s retreat, you want to be at your best, both physically and mentally. Nipping any unwelcome illnesses in the bud can make the difference between being on the mend during your retreat and being shunned by your fellow writers who are (understandably) wary of your germs.

I socialized with other writers.

I’m a natural introvert, so I’ll admit, chatting it up with strangers doesn’t always come easily to me. But I am so glad I came out of my shell at the WFWA retreat! Connecting with friends I’d already interacted with online, as well as making new writer friends, was hands down the best part of my retreat experience. There’s nothing better than discussing the world of writing and publishing with people who understand what you’re going through because they’re walking the same road with you.

Every writer’s retreat is different: some will focus more on butt-in-chair writing time, others may emphasize networking and/or craft. But no matter what kind of retreat you attend, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to connect with fellow writers. Make the most of that time and those connections. These are your people. They are your tribe. Forge those bonds and don’t let go.

I stopped trying to do it all and focused on what mattered most to me.

After the first full day of the writing retreat, which was bursting with workshops and small group discussions and writing time and a group dinner, I quickly realized that, as much as I loved soaking up knowledge and networking with my peers, I was on track to burn out fast if I kept pushing myself to maintain such a full schedule (especially since I was still not feeling my best physically.) My body and my mind desperately needed down time.

So I assessed the schedule for the remaining days and picked out the events and  discussion groups that I felt would benefit me the most—and I skipped the rest. Most importantly, I decided not to beat myself up for not doing it all.

What I’ll do Differently Next Time:

I’ll set realistic goals from the start.

At first, I had a somewhat unrealistic idea of how much I would be able to accomplish in three and a half days. I imagined myself writing thousands of words each day and socializing with my new writer friends and attending every discussion group / workshop and catching up on my sleep and hanging out by the pool with a margarita in the afternoons (because hey, I was technically on vacation!).

But although I’d left my husband and my job behind to focus on writing for a few days, I quickly discovered that, even in retreat land, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day. I still had to recognize my own limitations and prioritize how best to spend my time. Next year, I’ll set more realistic writing / word count goals for myself from the beginning, so I’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of chastising myself when, inevitably, I can’t do it all.

I’ll get out more.

Because the hotel in Old Town Albuquerque where our retreat was held was so beautiful, and because I was still getting over two infections, I was mostly content to stay put throughout the retreat. I did take a couple of excursions into the old town, but next year I would love to spend even more time exploring. Because, bottom line, these are vacation days, and I love exploring new places while on vacation. And, just as importantly, because I believe engaging with the outside world makes my writing stronger.

I’ll look for opportunities to contribute.

One of the things I loved the most about the retreat was the egalitarian nature of the discussion groups. Everyone was invited to contribute, and everyone’s contribution was welcomed. Best of all, the people facilitating the discussions were my peers. Maybe they had agents, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were published, maybe they weren’t. Either way, they still led fantastic discussions on topics they were passionate about. Next year, I’ll look for ways I can contribute to the conversation more actively, perhaps by volunteering to facilitate a discussion on a topic that’s close to my heart. After all, I got so much out of my first writer’s retreat, it’s only fitting I give a little bit back.

So there you have it: the highs, lows, and lessons learned from my first writer’s retreat. Here’s wishing you your own productive, restorative, and fun-filled writing adventures!

Leah Collum

Leah Collum is a women’s fiction writer represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. When not writing, she stays busy advising and teaching a diverse group of college students from around the world. A native Texan, she loves traveling (especially to Europe!) and has earned degrees in English and French. Follow her on Twitter: @leahcollum.

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