Writing Retreats and Activist Writers

Writing, by its nature, is a solitary activity. If you’re someone who thrives on a busy environment, that can be difficult.

Unless you’re collaborating on a project, the actual finger-to-keyboard/pen-to-paper part of writing tends to involve hiding yourself away in a quiet corner so you can focus on your current creation.

But it doesn’t have to be lonely. I know when I’m concentrating on writing a new poem, or the next chapter of my novel, I’m too absorbed in the work to be lonely. Or to notice anything else – my husband could wave a jackpot-winning lotto ticket in my face, and I’d be oblivious. But what about those times when the work in progress is neither working nor progressing, and you need other writers to hang out and commiserate or conflab with? Here’s a few ideas:

  • write in a local cafe or library, with other people around
  • find a writing group that meets regularly to share and workshop members’ work
  • join online writing  communities & Facebook groups
  • sign up for writing workshop days
  • book a place on a writing retreat or conference – there are many, worldwide, and depending on your budget, you can go to some amazing locations

activistpinAll these options have given me a community with other writers, and access to feedback and support that has been invaluable in making me grow as a writer. One of these days, I hope air tickets and a booking for a writer’s retreat in Iceland will be waved in my face – I know a trip to the land of ice, fire, aurora borealis, trolls, myths and Nordic sagas will be great for my always wanted to visit list continued writing development.

Until then, I’m lucky to live in an amazing location – New Zealand. Even luckier that I’m just a few km down the road from where Kahini run a weekend writing retreat each summer.

I almost didn’t go this year. I hadn’t been able to in 2018, but I’d attended the 2017 event, and it had taken me about a fortnight to recover afterwards. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know I live with a number of health conditions that make participating in many things a challenge.

Much as I’d enjoyed the first retreat, my experience of the subsequent couple of weeks was being flaked out with a head resembling a vat of candyfloss, a face like a pincushion for a swarm of angry bees, and joints that moved as reluctantly as painted-shut windows. It took 3 days of an IV steroid infusion in hospital before my symptoms settled down. I wasn’t sure that was a cost worth paying again.

And yet… call me stubborn, (you’d be right) but I don’t like missing out on things just because of my health. I’d rather skip parts of events and go to a pared down version, than skip things altogether (more on this in another post) – so that’s what I did.

Even my pared down version still had me walking away at the end of it fizzing with excitement and energy that comes with valuable learning. I may have talked my husband’s ears off afterwards!

What was so good about it?

For one thing, having an entire weekend to think, talk and breathe writing craft with other writers. Whatever stage you’re at in your own writing development, having other people to bounce ideas off, share opinions and discuss work with is a valuable experience.

For another, the quality and range of events on the programme. Kahini offers intensive workshops focused on different aspects of writing, engaging discussion sessions and plenty of space for writing, sharing and reflection.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot forgetting that the whole event occurs in the New Zealand summer, in Waikanae on the Kapiti coast. I don’t know about you, but trees, bush, lakes, rivers and beaches are top of my list for special places. Waikanae has an abundance and there’s plenty of free time built into the weekend to explore them.

My only problem with the event was choice – too much! Imagine looking through a constantly-turning kaleidoscope and having to choose a favourite pattern. With six workshops exploring aspects of fiction, poetry, mixed genre, manuscript development and dialogue, there were at least four I’d have loved to do, and I was interested in all six.
In the absence of some Hogwarts potion allowing you to be in each one simultaneously, some things to think about for narrowing down your choices:

  • specific aspects of writing you need to polish
  • stage of writing process/development
  • challenge yourself to try a new genre/style
  • level of personal interest/enjoyment in topic

I’ve finished the first draft of my current novel and have been floundering with how to fix some problematic issues so I made my workshop choice based on stage of writing. But for the discussion session, I went with personal interest.

Exploring social/political issues and events via the human experience is a common feature of my poems (and my blog), and big themes underpin the novels I’m working on, such as loss, grief,  bullying, child neglect. Fiction Writing as a Form of Activism, with Mandy Hager was a perfect fit. This was the programme blurb:

activistpin5Is your writing driven by an urgent desire to activate readers, or to express your deep concerns about some issue, or to traverse a theme that preoccupies you? Should it be? In this session we will discuss the pros and cons of approaching writing in this way, and look at how you might achieve this without slipping into didacticism. And, as someone who believes fiction is the most powerful form to explore big ideas, I’ll put a case for writing with purpose to help make change for a better world.

Mandy’s case, in essence, is writers have powerful voices that can reach into the hearts and minds of their readers. Fictional characters can have the ability to inspire and empower just as effectively as any real person or act.

It’s not for nothing that authoritarian regimes burn books and imprison writers, intellectuals, journalists, teachers, artists, comedians etc. All these people have the power to encourage ordinary people to rise up and fight for change such as civil rights. It’s no accident Trump spends so much time maligning the integrity of the press, for example.

As Mandy said, in this time of impending global catastrophe, when we are facing imminent destruction of the lives we know through climate change, and when a few privileged voices work against the wellbeing and interests of the vast majority of people, it’s time for artists and creatives to step up and use that power for the good.

It’s what Mandy does, in her writing. It’s what I try to do in mine.

Do you?

Key elements for activist writers:

  • use empathy and compassion as your guiding compass
  • approach your writing with a conscious desire to help
  • write to challenge, to illuminate, to model
  • write to make the readers hearts feel ‘seen’
  • encourage questioning of the status quo
  • underpin your writing with compassion and love

writing retreats


40 thoughts on “Writing Retreats and Activist Writers

  1. Writing is never easy. When I see how my husband struggle with writing from time to time I do think of writing retreats. it is great that you write for blog, use your poems, I enjoy it all. I am not into politics but it nice to write about whatever

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a new blogger/writer, so I’ve never heard of a writing retreat, but it sounds amazing and something I’d definitely like to investigate further! I write in between errands, work, and friend/husband time and never can seem to stay on task. I see alot of people writing in coffee shops and I think that one day I might like to own a writing-inspired coffee shop and have lots of individual little tables and relaxing music and lighting, where people can come to be creative!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never heard of a writing retreat before this. I kind of want to look into it now. For me, when I write, it’s my “me” time. 3am, my husband is at work, the phone is quiet, and the cat is sleeping. I do my best work. So I don’t know that a cafe or coffee shop would work. I’m too easily distracted, and my situational awareness would have a meltdown because I want to watch everything going on around me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Writing retreats are really useful for all writers but one needs to be careful about his or her own purpose of joining the retreat and to find out a group which resonates with it. Its amazing how writers can help and support each other grow! A very nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bit of both, I think! Seclusion is great too, but sometimes it’s nice to have the social contact while writing too.


  5. I have always been curious about going to a writer’s retreat! I work from home and it can get pretty lonely sometimes even as I like the quiet, but being around other writers and in such a stress-free looking environment is seriously calling to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like doing most of my writing at home with some music on, I think I’d get distracted if I were in a cafe full of people because I like to people watch.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I usually need (almost) complete silence and solitude to concentrate and write – I love people too much, and I can’t help but start talking if I’m with anyone else. BUT I’ve never tried writing side by side with other people, getting mutual inspiration and encouragement – I think that’s something I’m going to do later on. And landscape plays a true role – I’m lucky enough to write in a room that has a view into our garden, I can hear the birds chirping and all that, even if we live in a city. But I’d never spent too much time thinking about all that, so thank you for your post, it gave me some interesting insights! (and ps : Oh I’d love to go to New Zealand!!! )

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t live near any coffee shops, so I usually write at home. During the summer when I’m off work, I’ll head to the local lake or state park and camp out on a blanket or picnic table. Being surrounded by nature always inspires me. I would love an Icelandic writing retreat, although I’d want to be outside experiencing all that Iceland has to offer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Writing outside in nature is always lovely too. some of my best ideas often come just going for a walk in the bush or along the beach. I agree – will need plenty of time to explore Iceland too!


  9. I love writing in coffee shops! I’ve also been really wanting to schedule a writing retreat! I know a couple people who have gone on one and I’d be all about that! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love coffee-shopping wrtiting at the ideas or first draft stage. I hope you manage to find a retreat you can go on soon.


    1. Yes, New Zealand is gorgeous – it’s not hard to find a peaceful spot with beautiful views to settle in and write.


  10. It’s a interesting fact that online communities help us to keep focus and do things when we are stuck. Sometimes threads or challenges are very useful to make write when I don’t have motivation! Nice tips thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think I actually enjoy solitude and silence when I write. I get sidetracked by distractions too easily!

    I am glad you managed to go to your writing weekend and that you found it so beneficial. One day, you’ll get to the Iceland retreat! You will.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For slapping ideas down on the page, I can write pretty much anywhere/anyhow. But for the concentrated shaping, crafting and editing, I need distraction-free time. Yes, one day, Iceland. Meanwhile, travel blogs!


  12. I’ve heard of writing retreats. I’m torn between whether something like that would make me more productive or less productive though. I do love sitting in coffee shops to work on things!


    1. I think it depends on the structure of them. If it’s all independent writing it can be hard to be disciplined!


  13. I work from home and it can get pretty monotonous at times seeing the same four walls of my office so I completely agree with getting out and going somewhere that other people are around. Even a Starbucks or local cafe with internet works for me when I’m trying to write. I love being around creative people (artists, writers, and musicians are some of my favorite people). I love your writing and hope you make it to Iceland for a workshop one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, cafes work well for me too. Thanks Scott, glad you enjoy my writing. I think there will be a few ecstatic blog posts if I do make it to Iceland!


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