Ever been to a writer’s retreat? It’s a noble idea, but do they actually allow you to get ahead with your work? That depends entirely on….so many things.

I’ve hosted and facilitated mini playwright retreats for JUTE’s Write Sparks playwrights and JUTE Writers-in-residence way back in the day, like just weekend ones. I want to investigate more by going to another source for inspiration. I’m way far from being a professional writer’s retreat guru, but I still have some ideas about what it means to retreat. We live in an age of retreats. We’re fond of retreating for all sorts of reasons: health, meditation, yoga, relationships, wellbeing, art, music, women’s empowerment, healing, spiritual enlightenment and retreats to enrich your pet dog memories.

But, of course, the idea of retreating is not a new one. Humans have been periodically nicking off for some peace and quiet from the maddening crowd since time dot.  Primitive folk from all world cultures have traditions of separating themselves from the tribe to go think about life or endure a physical or mental test of some sort.  Vision quests. Hermiting. Rites of passage.  That sort of caper.

In medieval times in Europe, there was that whole thing of spiritually sequestering yourself to a quiet abbey to think about God and how wicked you are and what to do about it. Feudal aristocrats were gah-gah for them. They went hiding out in monasteries or hermitages to pray, wear hair-shirts, and self-flagellate.  Traditionally it was a time for self-reflection, utter silence and the odd cup of mead to wash down the pain of self-reflection and utter silence. At some point, after they’d flagellated their backs and brains enough, they’d emerge presumably a better person, at peace with their God, and able to sit significantly higher on their high horse about all things religious.

The idea of a modern-day writing retreat likewise is to separate yourself from your common routine.  It’s a deliberate act of withdrawal designed to cut distractions. You are retreating from all that involves your ordinary day and turning your attention inwards to a writing project. Whether your retreat involves immersing yourself in luxury or austerity (both extremes have their drawbacks), the important part is that where you retreat to is unfamiliar enough to stop you thinking about home or the office or your obligations or your pet hamster. Ostensibly the reason for separating yourself, getting that silence and isolation, is to hear yourself think. We are running away from all those distractions to get some work done. But is this naturally true?

If you’re a writer, you are naturally quite curious. New environments are full of curiosities- people you don’t know, objects you’ve not seen before in curious combinations, environments that are tempting you to explore, unfamiliar noises, and negotiation of peculiar arrangements.  Distraction actually abounds when we retreat out of our comfort zone.  I suppose one could say the change of environment can be stimulating. But is it conducive to getting loads of new words down on a page in a fresh and clean way?

Studies have shown that a moderate amount of noise can have a positive effect on achieving creative tasks. Ah hah. This is why you see so many writers looking productive over their laptops in cafes perhaps (or are they?) I do know that you can download an app that plays cafe noises so you can write with the effect of being in a cafe without the caffeine overload. True. I’ve tried the app and I found it irritating because you eventually realise you are listening to a looped sequence of cafe noises, and if that waiter clatters those cups and saucers in the same way one more time, I swear, I was going to shout ‘taxi!’ and run away. Yesterday I sat in a cafe with a writer for two solid hours for a dramaturgical session. It was SO noisy; an echoing room, wooden floorboards, cackling knitting circles, and truthfully the loudest coffee machine in the Southern hemisphere. All this, but I rarely noticed the noise. It was a productive session, I believe, according to the playwright I was working with, and speaking for myself, I felt no need to retreat to a quieter place in order to articulate my points with more clarity.

So why do we insist on this idea of retreating, none the less? Is it about focus? Apparently not. Is it about giving yourself a break in a nice place with the prospect of interesting new cafes to hang out in? Is it about giving yourself permission to focus on what the writing task is by removing known distractions. In which case leave you phone at home. But wait, I’ll need my phone because what if I need to quickly check a fact or respond to an urgent email from my producer….

So I’m chomping at the bit. I’ve applied for a writing retreat in Bali! I need to know what a professional retreat really offers an emerging writer, and I will be an emerging writer in this case as it will be my first foray into writing in the literary rather that the theatrical form. I want to feel al the lumps and bumps, how it all works or doesn’t work.  I need to I also need to know if I have the chops to write in a literary mode. 

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