Writing retreats – a waste of time

From Joel Rickett’s Guardian Bookseller column:

Writing retreats are now wildly popular. On any given week there’ll be small groups of budding scribes strewn around the Lake District, Wales, and even Tuscany, searching for that elusive blend of solitude and writerly companionship. Now they can go further afield with the launch of “writing adventure holidays” from the Literary Consultancy, which promises “the company of some of our best-known writers and artists . . . in a stunning setting which will open mind and senses”.

I’ve always been suspicious of writers’ retreats and my gut instincts tell me that they are a waste of time and money. This isn’t a popular view – after all, who could object to the idea of writers from all over the country getting together to work in a tranquil environment?

These writing adventure holidays are a new thing. But as I’m discussing writing retreats in general, let’s take a look at the company that provides what is regarded as the writing holiday in this country – the Arvon Foundation.

Its courses offer four and a half days at a range of picturesque locations where you’ll be tutored by a range of published authors including A L Kennedy, Toby Litt and Kate Long – and I even see our past Succour contributor Matt Thorne on there. The price includes accommodation and food, and this year there is even the possibility of having your work read by a top literary agent and literary publisher.

From the blurb:

Our residential writing courses pluck you from your everyday life and place you gently in one of our four writers’ houses, insulated from the busy outside world of email, internet and mobile phones. Whichever house you choose – in Devon, Inverness-shire, Shropshire or West Yorkshire – we will give you the freedom of time and space to write, supported by expert practical tuition and the encouragement of a community of writers.

It all sounds great, but before you reach for the plastic and click my link you should consider a few things.

Arvon centres can’t guarantee a single room or IT facilities. Now, the two essential conditions for writing are: a) a room that you can close the door on and b) something to write with. This means that Arvon are charging people to work in an environment that is not conductive to writing. (And those charges are high – the standard course fee is a cool £550, although in its defence Arvon does have a grant system for people on a low income).

And think about that phrase: ‘a community of writers’. Writers, as Terry Pratchett said, are as antisocial as cats: to talk of a community of writers is like talking of a individual bee or a renegade sheep. Yet the Arvon ethos seems to be that writing is a committee-based rather than an individual act. This attitude isn’t exclusive to the arts: business disciplines also stress the importance of teamwork and the superiority of the group to the individual. (Anyone who’s been on any kind of management training course will already have some idea of what a week devoted to this philosophy would be like.) A love of solitude and a desire for personal space, major traits in the creative personality, appear to be viewed with suspicion.

The workshop is another concept that straddles the corporate world and the arts. The prevailing wisdom is that all problems can be solved by sitting in a circle of plastic chairs (many aspiring writers confuse the literary seminar with group therapy) and the writers’ workshop is treated as a nurturing environment where talent can flourish and grow. In reality, human nature sees to it that any such group is quickly dominated by one or two chronic attention-seekers, and then descends into factionalism and schaedenfreude. (A friend of mine who teaches creative writing once told me he’s horrified at the unashamed hatred that develops every time a workshop participant gets a book deal.)

Stephen King’s On Writing contains a nice chapter on writers’ retreats. He warns against the fallacy of the magic feather – believing that one can write brilliantly if an exact set of conditions obtain. These conditions – a Yorkshire retreat, an oak-panelled desk, the right kind of swivel chair – may help you gain the confidence to write, but these conditions will not always be there. It’s always good to get away from ‘the busy world of email, internet and mobile phones’ but in life, you will not always be able to escape the sinful clutter of modern civilisation. What I object to is a dependence on the abstract external; the idea that you need silence and space so that God, Pan or the Buddha can tell you what to write. It reduces the role of the artist to, in King’s words: ‘stenographers taking divine dictation.’

Arvon’s website lists successful writers who have been on the courses but it’s reasonable to assume that these people made it because they are good at writing, not because of Arvon. To paraphrase King: you don’t need the magic feather to fly, the power was inside you all along.

So is there a point to Arvon other than giving a secondary income to established writers? Without having been on one, I’m going to say that there isn’t. The Tuscany retreats may be different – the weather would be better, anyway. And having your work read by Capel and Land is a good prospect – but should you really have to endure an Arvon course to obtain it?

Of course, one obvious benefit is social – creative writing workshops and courses allow shy and sensitive people to get laid. Even if it does nothing for your writing skills, isn’t Arvon worth the money just to have a good time with like-minded men and women? But there’s a culture of purism that is growing in society, and especially in the literary world. You can all but guarantee that the Arvon studios are entirely non-smoking accommodation and approximately several light years from the nearest pub.

The natural world is beautiful, but cities are beautiful too. The city has certainly given me more ideas for storytelling. By not going to Lumb Bank or Totleigh Barton, I can sit in my room, write all day and then go out to the pub – and still have £550. (I’d probably spend it all that same night, but what the hell).

40 Responses to “Writing retreats – a waste of time”

  1. The Writer’s Pulse » Wherever you write, there you are Says:

    […] A lot of writers talk about they’re favorite places to write: in their den, at Starbucks, outside on the patio. They preach about how important it is to find a quiet, solitary area and completely remove themselves from the outside world. Hell, some even go on writing retreats. […]

  2. stephen May Says:


    You haven’t been on one… and yet you make a lot of assumptions about them. Nearly all of them wrong I have to say.

    Yes, good writers make it without Arvon. But Arvon saves them time. Years sometimes. Ian McEwan would no doubt have got his stories out without going to uea, but they wouldn’t have been the same stories and there might well have been far more wilderness years than there were.

    The thing about Arvon is that it works. Getting all the irrelevancies out of the way for a little while (I mean, work, spouses, children… all that nonsense) and just focusing on your work pushes people along further and faster than they thought possible. Add to this the input of skilled craftspeople like Alison Kennedy, the energy and ideas of the other writers and you get huge and unexpected developments in the individual writers’ imagination. Much of the focus of an Arvon week is in persuading emerging writers to pay close attention, both to the work they read, the work they write and to the world around them. And some times you have to be away from that world to get a true perspective on it.

    As for writers being as anti-social as cats… This isn’t right surely. Bars and pubs and gigs and readings and literary festivals and kitchens and dining rooms and bed-sits are full of writers talking and arguing and rehearsing their material before setting it down. The act of writing is usually solitary but the preparation is often profoundly social.

    Obviously I’m hugely biased because I work for Arvon. But I think the truth is that I work for Arvon because I am a believer in it rather than the other way about. I know my own novel (published October 1) benefitted more from a week at Moniack Mhor (the Scottish Arvon) than it did from two years on my MA course… And it was partly the insight of Suzanne Berne and Marjorie Sandor (the tutors), partly by own self-discipline and determination to use the time away from home andpartly the sheer joy of nights getting rat-arsed with lovely lovely people none of whom I would have met in the normal course of things.

    And that is a benefit of Arvon that you don’t deal with in your piece. On a typical Arvon you meet and form reasonably intimate relationships with a fabulous array of people, all of whom are becoming their best most creative selves. On any one course you might have a judge, a parliamentary spin doctor, a Lord, a junkie, a credit controller, a shop assistant, a career criminal, a teacher, a social worker and a retired sheet metal worker. e’ve had call girls and rent boys; expop stars and vicars; lesbian strippers and CEOs of major corporations. Not only are these contacts the purest gold for a writer but you see them in the context of mixing with all the others. And the food and the views are good too.

    One other thing I can’t let go> At Lumb Bank at least we have PCs for everyone and single rooms for 14 out of 16 students. And everyone who needs financial assistance generally gets it. Our course may cost £560 but you can get up to £300 off if you’re skint. The point about Arvon really is that it is not a holiday, but a genuinely democratic communal experience. It’s more like a 5 day people’s university or a seminary. It’s one of the last democratic anarchist relics of 1960s optimism (we started in 1968) and a world away from the other money-grabbing Johnny Come Latelys like TLC et al.

    Come on a course Max (written in haste before goingg to watch the footy with my mates so may contain a huge array of spelling and grammar errors) Best

    Steve May

  3. maxdunbar Says:


    Many thanks for commenting. You make good points. I’d like to put this exchange on the front page. And congratulations on the novel – I note from your website that you will be doing some events in Manchester, and will try to attend one of your readings.

    I don’t doubt that your Arvon tutors are talented creative people. I think it’s positive that you are providing them with a secondary income.

    And I’ll take your word for it that Arvon can save writers time – you say it’s worked for you and that’s great. I’ll also take it on trust that Arvon is a ‘genuinely democratic communal experience’ and ‘one of the last democratic anarchist relics of 1960s optimism.’ Although I can’t help but note your irritation at ‘the other money-grabbing Johnny Come Latelys like TLC et al.’ What’s wrong with TLC? Surely you can handle a bit of healthy competition.

    But I have reservations: do you know for a fact that writers become published simply because they’ve been on a course? You can point to published writers who have been on a course – but is that the same thing? And do you want attendance on an Arvon course to be a precondition of publication? Should writers have to stay at The Hurst or Totleigh Barton before their work is taken seriously? God, I hope not.

    ‘Getting all the irrelevancies out of the way… and just focusing on your work.’ Fair enough – but we are back to Stephen King’s point about the magic feather. You can’t always get rid of the irrelevancies. Most writers are in this for the duration. They have jobs, families and lives. Unless you plan to let people actually live at your centres year round, you must concede that writers must learn to focus on their work outside the Arvon environment. If people get the impression that they need the Arvon environment in order to write, this may inhibit their ability to write outside of it.

    Personally, focusing on the work has always been easy for me, wherever I am. A laptop and a private room generally does the trick.

    This brings me to the point about accommo and facilities. Thanks for clarifying re Lumb Bank. If you can guarantee single rooms and IT facilities, I’m happy to apologise and retract my statement that you can’t. I think this needs to be made clear, however, in promotional material. At the moment, the site says this:

    Courses do not rely on the use of a computer and it’s worth noting that computer facilities vary widely from centre to centre. There is no IT support available at the centres, but centre staff will aim to fix any problems as soon as possible. You are welcome to bring your own laptop.

    Put simply – I believe that to write well you need only two things:

    1) A private room with a door you can close
    2) A computer, to write on.

    If Arvon can’t guarantee these two basic things – then why should people pay to go on its courses? Like I say, I can write at home and keep my £560. But I acknowledge the point that you are doing your best, and may not be able to provide single rooms and IT despite massive efforts to do so.

    And re finances: again, I appreciate that you will give discounts for people on low incomes and that you try your best to be inclusive. But £260, if you’re not a high earner, is still a hefty chunk of change.

    I like this sentence: ‘The act of writing is usually solitary but the preparation is often profoundly social.’ True enough. I work for an arts magazine and I organise and attend readings and launches. I meet and drink with writers and poets on an almost daily basis. In addition, I get out as often as I can, I’ve been around a bit and, in the normal course of things, I have known people of the range and diversity that you say come to Arvon. As you say, it’s fantastic to get together and get drunk with like minds.

    What I’m objecting to here is not nights out, parties, pubs and bars. It’s the culture of the workshop: the ethos of fiction by committee that you see in so many creative writing programmes. This idea that everything has to be workshopped and endlessly discussed is the reason why these programmes have such a low graduate publication rate. I love being in a bar with writers and poets, talking about literature and life. Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs for two hours is a very different experience.

    Plus: at bars, gigs and readings you can walk out if the night isn’t to your liking. At an Arvon retreat in the middle of nowhere, this isn’t so easy. Sorry mate, but although art is long, life is just too short.

    I just don’t think it’s worth the risk and hassle. You’re right that I have made assumptions – but, when it comes to experiences we haven’t had, we all make these assumptions. I just have to trust my gut instinct, and what others tell me about their experiences with Arvon.

    Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to take up your kind offer of coming on a course, and I’ll do so with an open mind.

    Again, thanks for commenting. Feel free to respond to this; but if I don’t hear from you, best of luck with your novel.

  4. Arvon redux « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] A while back I wrote a post that was critical of Arvon and writing retreats in general. It has a response from Stephen May, a novelist who works for the […]

  5. Sally Spedding Says:

    Stephen, I loved your novel, TAG. Mistyann is a terific creation, and it’s good you credit Arvon with the help it gave. Am about to go on film writing course – as part of an Aesthetica prize – and am like a kid all over again, excited and nervous. I agree, it’s those you mingle with there who can give your life new edges.
    My one negative point is that a terrific course set for July – again in Screen writing – was cancelled owing to Peter Flannery and Martine Brant’s committments, and now another excellent tutor has left this current course for similar reasons. It’s not Arvon’s fault, but I guess, in this field, the more successful experts are going to be in demand…

    Looking forwards to your next novel.
    Best Regards,

  6. Deborah Dooley Says:

    I love what the Arvon does – it inspires people. I run a writing retreat in Devon – just a retreat, no tutors. All our guests say the same thing – ie that just getting away from all the pressures of home, work, family etc, and having the freedom to do nothing but write, results in enormous productivity. For most people, writing retreats work.

  7. maxdunbar Says:

    Would you mind if I guest posted this?

    It is a fascinating comment, and poem

  8. Anonymous Says:

    I sent it to your eMail address, Max. It should be with you now. If you like (and can) you might as well delete the smaller version here now. Up to you.

  9. j mellor Says:

    The grant for an arvon writing courses is usually very small. no one on low income could go without great sacrifice. They more or less askyou not to ask for much when you fill in the form. I’ve been on several and not met anyone on very low income. The participants are usually well heeled and middle class.

  10. Emiliano Says:

    Who says you need good facilities for writing?, with nice temperature and solitude and great views and bla bla bla… Come on guys! Look at the Great writers!, look at them… it is the uncomfortable things, the problems and the unnaceptance of the world that leads you to write.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I’ve just been on one. If I’d known I would be spending 3 days ‘workshopping’ with 15 upper-middle class self-obsessed fucktards and 2 tutors with pound signs behind their eyes but not a lot else, I would have smoked my £250. It would have been much more satisfying.

  12. Laura Says:

    I’ve been on two Arvon courses, and got a huge amount out of both of them. For me, they provided valuable periods of time where I could relax and be “allowed” to be solely a writer for a week, away from normal routines and day job. Both courses certainly provided welcome boost to my creativity (and yes, I have had work published) and time away from my busy daily life, which I found extremely useful. I had my own room to work in, and most of the courses do. They also helped increase my confidence as a writer, something that a lot of emerging writers like myself, working pretty much entirely alone and without the support of a writing group, for example, can lack. The sense of camaraderie was great too, although this does depend on the group. Good for you if you don’t feel you ever need that sort of thing, but not everyone is the same. Personally, I see these courses as a booster rather than a necessity – I think the idea of an MA as a necessity is far more pernicious and damaging at the moment. Yes, you will get one or two people coming along who have the money and aren’t really interested in the writing, but the vast majority will be! Incidentally – neither course I went on involved workshopping in the traditional sense. They did involve tutored sessions in the morning and writing time in the afternoons, also one to one sessions with tutors to discuss work individually. This I found extremely helpful.

  13. Mark Hoult Says:

    Dear Max

    Really enjoyed this piece.

    I’ve quoted and name checked you in a piece I’ve written here:

    What really goes on at a writers’ retreat

  14. Habeeb Marouf Says:

    A good write up. I think the central point is the social aspect you identify. Communal “retreats” appear to be cleverer versions of holiday camps or clubs. And what’s wrong with that, except perhaps the easy way people who go there claim the mantle of writer. This may be uncharitable, but can everyone who can put pen to paper (or is that finger to key?) fairly call themselves a writer, in the sense that we’d all like people to understand the term?

    Anyone who claims to be a writer should stay at the Diogenes for a couple of weeks. It’s a pretty bare apartment in an isolated village in the Cilento – http://www.italyallyear.com/index.php/property/the-diogenes.html – though there is the compensation that it’s in the Cilento in Italy. If you are easily distracted and a procrastinator, what you don’t need is other people.

  15. RSNELL Says:

    I attended a creative writing course in Cambridge University and it was a complete waste of time. It’s the only occasion I’ve been away from home to a ‘writing retreat’ and certainly my last. If you can write – you can write. Although peace and quiet helps; the imagination for ideas comes out of the blue at any time. Not holed up at your own expense with people making polite noises. The main enemy for writing is time in which to write.

  16. shelley Says:

    Hi Max, I work for The Writers Bureau and I loved this piece. In fact, I’ve used it to write my own blog on the subject – crediting and linking to you of course – which will be published later this week.

  17. Getting Away From it all! | The Writers Bureau Blog Says:

    […] organisers think is conducive to working is, in fact, the opposite. For example, in this article Writing retreats – a waste of time Max Dunbar examines the way retreats work and what exactly the benefits are supposed to be. In it […]

  18. A Response To Why A Writing Retreat Is A Waste Of Time | Vivienne K Neale Says:

    […]  I have come across a blog post about writing retreats being a waste of time and the author takes particular issue with The Arvon Foundation who run brilliant writing retreats in the UK at one of four locations. https://maxdunbar.wordpress.com/2008/04/26/writing-retreats-a-waste-of-time/ […]

  19. lozzierozzie Says:

    Hi Max,

    Speaking from the point of view of one who has recently been on an Arvon course, I think I would probably have to concur with you blog.
    Before I went I read your blog and thought to myself that I hoped what you said wasn’t true but deep down I think I have reservations from the start – only I wanted to try something new.
    So I went and I met a bunch of people who were nothing like me, which can be taken either way depending on your point of view, but for me it was a little uncomfortable. Knowing that I was in the company of people who had already been published, those who had been given grants to write poetry for Literature Wales, even those who had been on an Arvon course beofre, all made me feel slightly intimidated from the off. Add to that the fact that the majority of the people were older than myself, I felt that there would be at least one person similar to my age who I could bond with. Having said that, all the people I spoke to were very friendly, just of a different breed. I’d never heard of the tutors that were on my course before I went but there were people who had specifically chosen the course because of the tutors. For a four and half day course I was even more intimidated when the tutors told us the layout of the week: workshops everyday from 10 until 1, on Wednesday the guest tutor would read to us in the evening from half 8 onwards, we would choose a poem of our choice from an already published author and read it aloud on Thursday and then everyone would have a discussion about it and Friday we would read out a poem we had created throughout the week. Alongside this we would have to complete an anthology of poems by the end of the week, we would have to cook with 4 other team mates one of the nights and we would have 2 half an hour tutorials with each of the tutors. The rest of the time would be our own free time, just there is a severe lack of it. To cap it all this was my first holiday away on my own so I was a little anxious and I think having no phone signal, no wifi and nobody within a few miles made my experience even worse. Needless to say the first night I had was sleepless, partly due to the snoring of the person I was sharing with and partly because I just wasn’t happy. By the morning I had already decided that I didn’t want to stay another night and that I wasn’t likely to be able to write anything half decent, so I got up early, had a quick cuppa, told my roomie I had a family emergency that I had to get back for and legged it home with my ego a little dented and my wallet a quite a bit lighter.

    An expensive learning curve.

    All the best,

  20. Thinking of running your own writing retreat? | Dr. Penny Shutt Says:

    […] https://maxdunbar.wordpress.com/2008/04/26/writing-retreats-a-waste-of-time/ […]

  21. david Says:

    Really helpful Max, and all you other contributors too who’ve filled out the picture. I had thought it might be good to go on a course to learn about some different aspects of writing, and also gain more feedback on my work.

    The insights and opinions here have freed me up to realise that I have enough contacts around [via friends, the local community and business] to find someone in publishing/writing to help. As to the challenges of self- or publisher publishing that too can be addressed through contacts, and just getting stuck in.

    I can see that a course may help speed things up, though as some have suggested if you can and do write that should be fine. And I do.

    As to being with people in the same situation, as a number of people have commented, just because you go to any course doesn’t guarantee you’ll relate to or get on with everyone, or that you’re even there for the same reason. I’ve been lucky on a couple of courses to have found people with whom I’ve become friends. But there are also many more courses where I couldn’t tell you who anyone was even if you gave me a photo of them.

    If you need space to focus and work then perhaps Deborah Dooley’s service is more appropriate, offering accommodation oriented toward people who want space and perhaps a bit of one-to-one feedback and encouragement.

    So…that’s saved a week off work and the cost of the course!
    And all the best to folk whichever route you choose.

    PS: After all this I feel the urge to start writing on a current project, only it’s midnight and I’m working tomorrow…today!

  22. Haydee Mar Says:

    Neither you nor Stephen King has been to any writer’s retreats so I don’t think you’re authorities on the subject. I haven’t been to one either, but I’ve been to different writing events looking for inspiration and motivation. The only time I became productive as a writer was when I took a novel writing class. When the class finished, however, I found myself procrastinating and lost. I realized that I need to be pushed and that I need other writers’ support. It might sound lame to you, but that’s how it is for me. I don’t know if a writing retreat is good or not for me, but I’m willing to try it because at the moment I’m not writing and it feels like I’m in some kind of hell.

  23. Playwright Says:

    This was an interesting piece. At first I railed at your singling out of Arvon, given that you haven’t set foot over its gentrified, shabby chic threshold. However, you have good instinct!

    I speak as someone who has been on two of their courses (the first I presumed was badly chosen by me so I plunged in a second time). I then went on an Advanced Playwriting course led by two successful writers who focussed on those participants who were most in-yer-face while ignoring the quieter ones. The former group jostled to sit with the tutors at dinner and dominated the ‘workshop’ discussions. As far as improving confidence and developing skills, I was told during a one-to-one session that if I didn’t have the balls to ‘make it’ in theatre by teling myself I was better than the rest of them then I should give up writing. (I’d already had an off-West End play produced as well as several in other towns.)

    One half-day was completely lost by sweating over a two-course dinner for a dozen people – we were paying £600 to cook and serve. Despite my disability I was told to ‘sit in a chair and peel vegetables.’

    It was a nightmare, from pretentious wannabe writers to drunken idiots running down corridors at night. There were no working-class or minority writers on the course, just the worst kind of white middle-class egotists.

    Now I write at the kitchen table at home.

  24. Angelina Says:

    I had felt initially elated and then dreadfully sad when I learned that I had no chance of booking a place on an Arvon writers’ retreat led by Monica Ali (only just announced but already ‘fully booked’ it seems). I convinced myself that I would benefit enormously from the guidance of the vastly experienced writers running the course. I was surprised by the news that there would be no IT facilities at the venue but thought, “Oh well, they must know what they are doing.” I also learned that – although I am broke – I would not quality for an Arvon scholarship as the criteria (being on benefits etc) certainly do not apply to me. Then, I was delighted and relieved to stumble upon your article as anyone who googles the Arvon Foundation can. On reading it I realised that what I was engaging in was clearly ‘displacement activity’. Yes, you are absolutely right about ‘a room that you can close the door on’ being only one of two essentials for writing. There are those who prefer typewriters, or pens and paper, or even pencils and paper but, as they exist, word-processing devices are infinitely easier, and quicker, for the manipulation of text. So you are right about that too. I also realised, much to my embarrassment, that I had succumbed to the cult of celebrity, a cult for which I had previously declared my contempt. Monica Ali is undoubtely an original and wonderful writer. But I confused the desire to have some time in her company, perhaps even a few words and a smile from her about something I had written (!) with getting down to writing and getting on. Incidentally Max, since you posted your comments in 2008, the cost of Arvon courses – certainly the writers’ retreat I wanted to go on – (4 nights, I think) has gone up. It’s £750 now. If I ever do manage to acquire £750 I think I might take a good holiday. So thank you Max. I now understand about ‘the magic feather’. I’ll go back to my 90,000 approx. words and start pruning, in my office, with the door closed.

  25. Miranda Says:

    I have been on two Arvon courses, ‘Writing for Radio’ and ‘Starting to Write’. The latter was full of people who already had or were writing their Phd’s …there was no, ‘Starting to write’ about it. On our first night we sat in a room with our backs against the wall. Each person spouting forth about their favourite novel. War and Peace was one. I was last to go and by the time they got to me I couldn’t even remember my own name never mind what I had read. I said that my favourite novel was Bridget Jones (for fun) and I am sure one person nearly passed out with disgust. The first course couldn’t have been more different. The tutors were so enthusiastic and threw themselves into each and every one of our hopes and dreams with so much passion. It is like 50 shades of font, if you like to be abused about your writing then the Arvon is for you but you may strike lucky and get a tutor who has a beating heart.

  26. Lance Greenfield Says:

    Reblogged this on Lance Greenfield and commented:
    I have no opinion one way or the other. I’ve heard great things about the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, which I would attend this year had I not already been booked for something else. But that is a course, with tutors, speakers, wifi and structure. This article discusses retreats, which are a different beast. So I take Max’s point.

    So what do you think. I am genuinely looking for opinions. Should I sign up for a course or a retreat? Tell us all about your experiences and opinions.

  27. katharinequarmby Says:

    I’ve been on two writing retreats with Arvon and am now doing the after dinner speech talk at a non-fiction Arvon course this year. I think you make some good points about writing per se – Stephen King is right that there are some moments at which the door (when you are writing) should remain closed. But at other times (the editing phase) it can open, as he says himself. That bit of the artistic process is much more collaborative than the first draft, in my experience, and it’s there that tutors/editors/friendly critical eyes can really add value. There are other points as well – I did a ‘starting to write’ course with Arvon which was memorable in many ways. One of the tutors was not very well in mental health terms during the course, but the other tutor was magnificent. There was quite a lot of conflict on the course and some rivalry between writers, but the one tutor taught me a lot about finishing a text. As I’ve gone on to write several books since with her voice in my head, I suspect I learnt something. The second course was also memorable and I learnt a lot about writing to picture in fictional terms. I wouldn’t personally teach a course if I didn’t think it had inherent value. However, I learnt a lot from both courses I attended. And the first ever writing course I went to, as a teenager, led by a prize-winning author, helped too. She told me I had the makings of a writer in me. That, for a child from a minority ethnic background, adopted and feeling quite rootless at the time, gave me the encouragement I needed to carry on writing. So while you are right that writing courses are expensive (tutors need to be paid, premises kept up and so on), I think for some people they are a worthwhile investment.

  28. MWoolf Says:

    I’m due to go on an Arvon course for the first time this August and, having been looking forward to it, I now feel thoroughly apprehensive. All I was hoping for was a bit of helpful advice, some unbiased criticism and a few days to focus on writing. Now it looks like I’m in for a week of hell with a group of middle-class sociopaths – and that’s only the tutors. I’ll try to keep an open mind until after the event. I’ll take a notebook as backup in case of IT failure, earplugs in case the promised single room doesn’t materialise, walking shoes and a torch for late night escapes to the pub or – if all else fails – to the nearest station, and above all my ability to switch off when someone inevitably starts wittering on about (a) how wonderful they are or (b) how crap everything else is. But, you know, even at £750 or whatever it cost, it’s still a week to focus on something I really want to do for myself; a week without duty, obligation, housework or the day job. It might turn out to be an expensive waste of time. But then again, it might not. Sometimes you just have to give it a go.

  29. Austin Hawkins Says:

    I don’t adree with the general premise that writers retreats are not up to much . I have benefited from untutored writing retreats in Devon which I arranged after a very bad experience with Arvon and would not consider re-booking with them.

    Arvon is a registered charity but I consider it to be a money making operation. I wanted to postpone my booking months in advance of the retreat date but they refused to allow me to transfer the deposit because it was late in the year and there is some petty rule about not being able to transfer to another course. They resold my place on the course immediately. I protested and was given a name in London to write to. Never had a reply. Even corporate hotel groups do better than that.

  30. Narky Knickers Says:

    God, this made me laugh.
    Had just indulged in some daydreaming about Whitby…. then wondered if I could dignify my urge to go off alone to my family by going on a ‘retreat’, then did an idle search, then found this. And you are completely right. Especially about the pressure to open everything out to a committee. Allow everyone some suffocating “feedback”. Anyway, thanks. Saved me 550 quid and possibly a stroke from trying not to be rude to overbearing people in the circle of plastic chairs. One Dante should surely have foreseen. Hey ho. I’ll get back to work then.

  31. Austin Hawkins Says:

    It seems that most of the downside to Arvon in the above comments relates to the problems with having to be tied into tutoring sessions which may not meet your expectations, and the social mix of those you are ‘banged up’ with.

    As a part time playwright I struggle at times to get enough isolated writing time. Untutored retreats are clearly a better option. Charlie at Urban Writers provides excellent day facilities in London and residential in Devon which I have benefited from. She does all the catering (very good too) you can close your door and write in isolation or uninterrupted in a communal lounge, socialise with the others in the evening or not. Also in Devon Deborah Dooley provides a similar facility without any of the intrusive pretensions of Arvon.

  32. Rip Bulkeley Says:

    A writing course, and I’ve been on some, is not a retreat. Clubbing it with tutors and fellow-writers is not a retreat. A retreat should be an opportunity to work hard in relative isolation, ideally with the mechanics of life sorted for you, and above all away from other commitments. It should be a place to learn from yourself, not others. At least that’s what I think I need in the nearish future.

  33. Ed Graves Says:

    The Writers Retreat at the Hemingwa-Pfiefer Museum in Piggott, Arkansas is excellent. I have attended two and will do so every year. The writers who conduct the retreats here are professional, published authors. Cost is $200.00 for the Retreat, Monday thru Friday. Lodging is around $350.00 at the delightful bed and breakfast in Piggott. Around twenty persons, most polished authors, attend. One has much time to write ones own pieces and a delightful woodland environment.

  34. Writing Retreats: Yay or Nay and a List of Current Offerings Says:

    […] Writing Retreats – A Waste of Time by John Rickett […]

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