In his instructional book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, author Stephen King advises aspiring authors not to be too precious about the ever- elusive muse. If you sit down at the same time, in the same place, every single day, inspiration is going to figure out where you are and come sit at your desk, he suggests. And he’s right. If I waited for the perfect moment to start writing every day, the moment when I could feel the creativity flowing through my veins, the moment when I felt like a conduit, a vessel, a – well, you get the point: I’d never get any work done.
After years of following King’s advice, I’m now a published author and make a living as a freelance writer. But I must admit, there’s something soul-crushing about forcing creativity to rendezvous with me daily by being predictable. And since I, along with many others, have been reading what author Elizabeth Gilbert has to say about creativity lately (that it’s the key to a fulfilling existence, that it must never be ignored, that it must always be cultivated), I’ve decided my muse may need a little working vacation – a writing retreat. She deserves it; she’s been working hard.
Here are five writing retreats with no prerequisites except an open heart and mind, and a desire to write.
Author Natalie Goldberg, Upaya Institute and Zen Center, Santa Fe, N.M.
In 1986, Natalie Goldberg published Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Author Within, and this might have been the moment people started to realize writing could be for everyone. Now she encourages those with a creative spirit to write it all down during retreats that are as much about finding inner peace as they are about seeking literary modes of self-expression, set against a striking New Mexico desert backdrop.
Her next retreat, titled The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and this Zigzag Life, will be held in May. “The retreat is good for everyone,” Goldberg says. “It’s about getting in touch with your deep heart and writing from there. Many seasoned writers come to wake-up and refresh, and new writers come because they want to connect with themselves and with their true voice.”
Upon registration, a reading list is sent to students, and in addition to Goldberg’s writing teaching, part of each day is spent discussing this eclectic list of fiction, non-fiction and memoir. Timed writing sessions, meditation, walking, talking and “deep listening” are also part of the program. Silence is encouraged from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. “Bring fast writing pens, notebooks and a beginner’s mind,” students are instructed on the Upaya website.
Skyros Writer’s Lab, Skyros Island
There are two writing centres on Skyros Island, one on the remote Atsitsa Bay, and the other in the heart of Skyros Village. From June to September every year, Skyros Writer’s Lab classes are offered on writing fiction, memoir, screenplays and more. The long list of instructors includes bestselling U.K. author Lisa O’Donnell ( The Death of Bees; Closed Doors), and Jane Harris, whose first novel, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
All classes take place outdoors, in literal writing circles held in gardens and fruit-tree orchards. And the Atitsa Bay location is nestled between the ocean and a vast pine forest. If that scenery doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. “The writing courses offered here are like the island itself – full of light and shade, stimulating and strong on surprises,” says BAFTA-winning screenwriter and author Steve Attridge, who is one of the instructors. The solitude to write and create, combined with the variety of activities available once the three-hours-a-day courses are finished, plus the strong sense of community fostered here keeps participants coming back year after year.
Tuition: From $1,205 a week (twin share, full board, including courses); skyros.com
Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat, Cork
The idea of looking out a window at heather-covered hills while working on my novel makes me feel like James Joyce. Run by author and Cambridge University Press editor Sue Booth-Forbes, the Anam Cara retreat offers a place of warmth and solitude for aspiring writers and experienced authors alike. You can create your own retreat by arriving with a specific project and spending each day working on it – then join the community of writers in the evening for meals and conversation in front of a turf fire or while watching the sun set over the hills and scenic Coulagh Bay. Or, you can sign up for a workshop, which will lend more structure to your days.
A variety of workshops are offered at Anam Cara, but the Proprioceptive Writing Retreat option is the most unique, especially for those who don’t have a work-in-progress and want to find a way to start writing or defeat writer’s block. According to the Anam Cara website, proprioceptive writing (PW) is “a regular, disciplined practice that can deepen attention and free us to think, write and speak with strength and clarity.” Ginny Keegan, who teaches the PW workshop at Anam Cara, explains that this is a meditative form of writing. “We write to music, by candlelight, in 20-minute sessions. It is not about sentences and paragraphs, it is about learning to listen to your thinking.”
Tuition: From $1,329 (€900) for a course; accommodations range between €600 to €700 a week for individual retreats, includes meals; anamcararetreat.com
The Banff Centre, Banff, Alta.
Donald Lee/The Banff Centre
The Banff Centre, set in the picturesque heart of Banff National Park, is one of Canada’s most respected cultural organizations. The centre is well-known for offering programs, retreats and residencies for established and emerging artists. But what many aspiring writers don’t know is that the Banff Centre also has self-directed writing residencies with an open application process.
If you need to banish distraction and focus to chase your writing dreams, this is the place to do it. The mountain vistas and forest views combine with access to a creative community of artists and encouragement to focus wholly on your writing, editing and manuscript development. These self-directed residencies must be a minimum of three days and you will have your own single room, which can be used as a workspace. Writers in all creative genres can apply, and applications are evaluated through an impartially adjudicated process which focuses on artistic merit and whether the work will benefit from the program.
Writers can also apply for independent residencies in the Leighton Artists’ Colony, where they can stay in one of nine studios, while they immerse themselves in solitude, and their creative project. The application process requires a project proposal, letters of recommendation and a portfolio.
Tuition: From $90 a day for the self-directed writing program, and $150 for the Leighton Residency, both include private accommodation, meals, access to the Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives and the gym; banff-centre.ca
Under the Volcano Master Classes, Tepoztlan, Mexico
Find this master class in the foothills of ancient volcanic mountains, one hour south of Mexico City. To apply, potential participants must submit eight to 10 pages of a work-in-progress and writers from around the world are drawn to a top-notch faculty. This year’s staff included poet Owen Sheers, fiction writers Magda Bogin and Valeria Luiselli, and non-fiction writers Jonathan Levi and Alison Wearing. Classes are held in January (registration begins April 15) and focus on poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, and are limited to eight participants each.
Under the Volcano is intense, but it’s not all work and no play. There’s an opening reception and dinner, daily group lunches, a private faculty reading event, public readings, book signings, a village tour, pyramid hike and closing celebration. All activities take place in and around the village of Tepoztlan.
A range of housing options are available in Tepoztlan, a forgotten-by-time pueblo with steep cobblestone streets, adobe houses draped in bougainvillea and a close sense of community, including budget homestays, simple guest houses and luxury hotels.
Tuition: $1,795 (U.S.), includes most meals. Rooms available for $40 to $250 a night. The extended residency option costs $500, plus accommodation; 2017 course runs Jan. 12 to 22. Partial scholarships available; underthevolcano.org
5 books to pack
You’ll want to pack a few books for your retreat, take at least one of these.
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
This was required reading when I was in journalism school, and it’s still a favourite today. Zinsser encourages simple writing – and while the focus is on non-fiction, his tips for clearing away the clutter are relevant for any writer.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
He really is the master. This book contains some of the best writing advice (in a nutshell: sit the hell down and start writing) you will ever receive and it never leaves my desk.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s writing about creativity is divine, inspired and optimistic – perfect for those days when the writing doesn’t come easy.
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
Especially if you’re attending her workshop, don’t show up without reading this time-tested treatise on developing the courage and skill to become a writer. A real one.
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
This is the book you need to read when it’s time to kill your darling words and phrases. Editing is painful but necessary before you submit your work to anyone.