Starting Your Own Retreat: How Hard Can It Be?
January 24, 2023 § 14 Comments
I guess that guest didn’t hate me after all.
By Allison K Williams
Writers often thrive in new places—residencies and retreats that allow us to expand our ideas and make big progress outside the demands of daily life. But residencies are often competitive and retreats expensive. After eyeing promising opportunities that may be distant, outside your childcare capacity, or require three references (on paper! In the mail!) you might ask, Should I just lead my own retreat? How hard can it be? You’d get to pick convenient dates, cover your own travel, maybe even profit.
After leading sell-out retreats online and off, I can say it’s hard the first time, and new challenges arise from new locations and types of event. But repeat events become a checklist of specific tasks I know I can accomplish. Whether in Tuscany or onboard the Queen Mary 2, I’m going to teach how to finish books and write better, addressing the experience level and needs of every writer present. Most new challenges are logistical.
Going virtual? The new challenge is “make it feel like a real retreat,” and meeting it means gift boxes, responsiveness outside retreat hours, and clear guidelines for participants to plan their time.
New venue in Costa Rica? “Communicate serious dietary needs to the on-site chef in my very weak Spanish.” Hello, Google Translate and a poster of guest pictures clearly marked Vegana, Sin Gluten, and Sin Alcohol.
New itinerary in Portugal? “Schedule tour bus and trains.” Doable with a TaskRabbit helper in Porto, a guide in Coimbra, and the national train system website.
Retreat leadership has evolved from hoping I’d break even and enjoy the experience, into a regular income. It’s truly amazing to nurture artistic growth and exploration in writers who happily contribute to my livelihood. Often, I’m lucky to have Brevity’s editor in chief Dinty W. Moore as co-teacher, which means not only sharing the emotional load but learning new elements of writing myself, in the classes he leads.
Could you create a retreat?
Yes! Even if you start small, perhaps an AirBnB weekend with one writing friend, asserting time for the joy of writing feels great.
But should you create a retreat/workshop/event that other writers pay you for?
Yes, if you keep two main principles in mind.
1) Find the right audience. It’s much easier to market to a specific, defined participant you want to serve. When I created Rebirth Your Book, most retreats didn’t focus on whole-book work. When Dinty and I created our Virtual Intensives, most writing workshops didn’t offer an affordable week focused on one topic.
Are you drawn to help authors fill in the gaps to make their book publishable, or generate new material? Do you want to only offer writing, or explore a new culture, a complementary artistic process, or yoga? Got a great location you want to share, or are you more comfortable over Zoom? As you define your offering, narrow your audience. Instead of “anyone who has a week off and wants to go to Provence,” identify an immediate, pressing problem you will help your guests solve. Market your retreat to people who have that problem badly enough to make time, find the cash, and get there. Be ready to deliver 100%—after their time with you, their problem should be solved.
2) Remember that you aren’t a participant. Retreats are rarely “fun” for the leader. They’re often joyful, meaningful, and profitable, but come with daily, constant responsibility. Having a great time on a mountain hike? Make sure you’ve spent a few minutes walking and talking beside each guest. Check in with the guy who was working through a new idea after dinner—how does he feel about it this morning? Is the lady who needed to reach her family for an emergency able to focus on her writing or does she need some personal time?
Retreats demand rigid flexibility. You must create a strong frame within which absolutely anything might happen. Where you’re truly open to accommodating what each guest needs, even if what they need isn’t what you planned. My first-ever retreat, one writer didn’t want to stay in the venue after all, instead commuting from a hotel and eating on her own. I tamped down my fears and made myself available for porch talks and reading pages on her schedule. She later thanked me for “supporting the retreat she needed to have.”
At another retreat, a writer outlined ideas, but didn’t write much at all. I worried he secretly hated me, was sorry he’d paid me, had only tagged along to be with his friend. But two years later, he booked another retreat, so I guess it didn’t suck—and it’ll be my job again to support the retreat he needs to have.
Sharing what you love in a fabulous location with happy guests is truly marvelous. Taking home a paycheck (and a bit of paid vacation) is the icing on top. With planning, confidence, and clear expectations, you can make great retreats happen—whether it’s just you and a friend, or a fellowship of inspired, productive writers. Whether you break even or make bank, our true profit comes from experience. Our true leadership is taking someone’s hand and asking, “What do you see? Show it to me.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager, and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Her retreats take place around the world and online, and she’s offering a webinar about leading your own sell-out retreats (and making a real income from meaningful events) Feb 4th. Find out more/register here.