Writing Retreats: Madness and Seclusion

Some time ago I wrote a critique of creative writing retreats. My argument in summary was that the retreats don’t necessarily provide ideal writing conditions (the very idea of ideal writing conditions is a little dodgy in my view) and that you can improve your writing simply by reading and writing a lot, and spend the £300 in course fees on something more fun.

Blog posts have the half lives of mayflies but this one seems to be popular with loads of page views despite being written three years ago. I’ve just had a comment from a participant on a popular creative writing retreat, which I found informative and fascinating. The author has allowed me to put it up as a guest post as I think his insights deserve a wider audience. This is one man’s experience and subjective opinion, but I have no reason to doubt what he says.

Whatever your views, I think you’ll find my commenter’s piece, well – startling.

Dear Max,

I have to say that am 100% in agreement with what you say on your blog about creative writing courses being a waste of time. Having been on a number of courses/retreats (mostly songwriting ones but exactly the same principle applies) I do think that the whole ‘creative writing/songwriting’ course thing is an unwitting scam — although I admit that some dependent type people can benefit from it personally as a result of the elation they feel by being there plus there is the aspect of receiving a self-esteem boost (that is, if they manage to get on the right side of the course leaders!).

There is a well-known quote: ‘Never underestimate the power of one stupid person in a large group’. One of the courses I went on was dominated by an attention-seeking crackpot. Then there were those who just wanted a therapy group and kept crying all the time and everyone has to keep hugging them while the ‘leaders’ (who patently don’t know the first thing about therapy except what they’ve read in some pop-psychology book or what they’ve experienced in some other self-indulgent plastic-chair circle group) keep back-patting the cryers to ensure that they get some self-esteem! At one course I went on (not Arvon, where such a thing wouldn’t happen as they are more professional), one of the course leaders announced to all participants on the first day meeting that ‘most if not all of you will cry during this week but that’s okay as it’s just about clearing away old stuff’. That, to me, was blatant suggestion and manipulation. Sure enough, at the ‘in the circle’ meetings every morning most people on one day or another did wind up blubbing as they gave their presentations, with all the associated group hug-ins, validation processes, etc. It was sheer emotionalism and emotional manipulation. In fact, the message I received was that full acceptance in the group was more or less dependent on whether or not one broke down in the group. Not to break down is perceived as holding back and holding back is perceived as being individualistic and even hostile to the cohesion of the group, which must be maintained at all times. Needless to say I was just about the only one who didn’t do any public blubbing — although, I hasten to add, I shed many tears in my private thoughts and they lie behind many of my poems, one of which has the title ‘I am Never Far from Tears’. I share that just so you don’t think I’m some hard, uptight guy who is threatened in crying groups or who thinks that crying isn’t manly! 🙂

On this same week-long course, we were told each day by the leaders: ‘Look in the mirror every morning and tell yourself how wonderful and beautiful you are’; then we had to report to the whole group on how we felt when we did that. If I wanted a therapy group or a vanity workshop I would have gone to one. The level of manipulation there — using many off-the-peg, New Age, Esalen Institute style pop-psychology exercises — was atrocious. But evidently that’s what many of the participants had gone there for. In fact, many had been there before and knew the ropes and what was expected of them — and that is a key because meeting expectations is a big part of these courses/retreats. But nowhere was this encounter-group approach mentioned in the publicity literature. (Incidentally, I write this as someone who practised family therapy and run therapy groups for many years).

The standard of the course leaders at all the courses/retreats I’ve ever been on was extremely questionable. Just because someone has been published doesn’t make them qualified to teach (not that one can really teach writing anyway!). That’s like saying all footballers are qualified to be managers, which they are not. But I did also notice that many of the participants were overawed by the ‘famous’ leaders, who could do no wrong in their eyes, even when their leadership skills and materials were so obviously poor. In fact, one of the best ways to get ahead at these gatherings is to flatter the leaders or suck up to them (as in any school or cult setting). One participant at one gathering I attended actually wrote and sang a lyric dedicated to one of the leaders, with the title ‘You are my Superman’. One gets a lot of kudos and strokes for that kind of gesture.

A big part of the ethos of these courses/retreats appears to be about conformity. There is a very strong group dynamic which, if you don’t adhere to it, gets you ostracised subtly if not actually. Once you understand about how group dynamics work you don’t get so easily taken in; but most participants don’t seem to have a clue about what is really going on and they just get swept up into the extremely heady process. This is especially true in the world of poetry and poetry ‘workshops’, where conformity and imitation is the name of the game. You have to fit into that if you want to get on. Another thing is that acertain kind of person who goes on these courses (even though s/he may have no real talent) is easily able to dominate the group. Furthermore, the Teacher’s Pet Syndrome abounds in these groups. It quickly becomes clear which participants are good pet material and which ones are likely to be persona non grata. Generally one’s propensity to be the pet depends on how much one is willing to ass-lick and the likelihood of being persona non grata depends on how much of an individual or non-conformist one is. Moreover, if the leaders feel like you are assessing them in any way then they quickly become threatened and often respond in a very immature manner — especially if they suspect you may have more natural talent than they do! That can be quite hilarious and I’ve observed it on a number of occasions with people in the groups. When that is the case people can find themselves being subtly put down or ignored altogether by the leaders. And it works well because so many of the participants have been softened-up to such an extent that they follow the cues like puppies do with a father dog or ducklings with their ducky mum.

I have been on ‘courses/retreats’ with ‘famous’ people leading and, to put it bluntly, their leadership skills were total crap — let alone the thorny issue of whether they even deserve to be ‘famous’ or not (which in most cases they don’t!). And what they ‘taught’ was crap too — mostly a pile of boring exercises which they must have got out of some handbook. One course I went on in a well-known University in the UK was absolute rubbish. I was amazed. Really amazed. There was no real space for genuine creativity; it was all about conformity to what the leaders expected — writing exactly how they wanted, using the structures they delineated and if you didn’t fit in to what was expected then you could even find yourself being publicly humiliated to ensure that others got the message and became sufficiently suspicious of you.

I went on those retreats/courses primarily to meet and interact with other writers/artists. I did meet some people who were interesting enough not to conform to the party line: but for the most part most of the events wound up being very cliquey with most participants being very easily manipulated by the leaders (both in terms of their output and also in terms of with who they hung out with and who they snubbed). Only on one course was there an exception to that (one at Arvon), where most of the participants were individuals who could think for themselves — although the leadership skills of those running the course were very inadequate.

Most participants at these gatherings come away thinking that they’ve had the greatest experience of their lives, going on about how high they are for weeks. There’s almost a competition to see who can keep the feeling going for the longest! Emails will be exchanged weeks later saying things like ‘I still haven’t come down and am riding on Cloud Nine’. Others will express their terrible disappointment when eventually they do ‘come down’. One person even told me that she felt suicidal and despairing because she had lost the high feelings. (More than a few relationships break down when course participants go back home as it all seems so mundane compared to the feelings that have been kindled in them during the course — not to mention the feelings some have when they get it together with one of the other course participants!) However, this is typical of the elation felt when one has successfully fused into a group in a hothouse environment. This can happen in any strong group situation anywhere, whether it is Alcoholics Anonymous, a church tent healing meeting or Weight Watchers! It is a big mistake to make that feeling of elation into some kind of yardstick by which to judge the standard of the course. That hothouse environment is, I believe, relied upon in just that way by the people who organise the courses. Let’s face it: Elation = repeat bookings.

We were also clearly told not to go out to the pub. One day, three of the group decided they needed to get away for a bit so they went to the local pub for lunch (about 3 miles from the course venue). When they got there, the leaders were also apparently having lunch at a table and when they saw the three group members enter the pub they looked distinctly displeased, presumably because the course members were ‘out-of-bounds’. Apparently, they ‘felt like they were school truants wagging it who had been caught by the headmaster!’

I should stress that I was never a trouble-maker in any way at these gatherings. I went out of my way to be affable, humorous, helpful and kept a completely low profile about my disgruntlement. (Although at the course at the university I left after two days and demanded a refund, which I got.) I didn’t even fill in the assessment forms afterwards so as not to be antagonistic. I just marked it all up to experience. The bottom-line? I would never go on any such courses/retreats again. I think those things may be helpful to some dependent type of people with low self-esteem who need a cathartic quasi-therapy experience in a hothouse environment or who maybe need to have their writing ability validated (although even that is dubious) or who — as Max said — just want to develop their love life (although that isn’t guaranteed!). But beyond that, I believe that they serve little use to those with passionate wordsmithing in their bloodstream. I realised that I preferred passion to programmes.

Anyway, I just wanted to register agreement with Max, as he has no doubt received some flak for his refreshingly unfashionable views, and to thank him for saying what he said. There will be many who will disagree as the elation of the courses (plus flashbacks!) lives on in them but it is a point of view which needs saying nevertheless.

I did write a poem that is kind of about the whole conformist issue in the world of the arts. I’ve put it below for your amusement. 



Do it how it’s always been done!

(that is, if you want to get along).

Never rock that stationary boat!

(that is, if you want to stay afloat).


[Stage direction: Pause…

while we wait for the strains

of a grovelling applause]


Fuck the rules, I say.

They aren’t really rules anyway.

Some fossilised turds

carve their ossified words

into pseudo-granite structures

which —

at any conjuncture

in history’s golden chain —

t  h  e  y

decide should be




in the rain.




Y do they ensure that?

& (more to the point)

Y do we accept it?


First questionanswer

is they covet control;

they know so well how

to harness a soul

(undo its uniqueness)

andblandify its goals.

Exploiting weakness

they carve out our roles

and render our works

into meaningless ‘wholes’.


Second questionanswer

is that we love to roll

over for them

like submissive little puppies

(artworld yuppies)

lying on our backs

while they stroke

our little egos

with their

platitude placebos.


It’s nothing new this

curbing of runaway minds

which threaten the grasp

of the wilfully blind.


It’s all so smooth

and smartly designed

to ensure that the phoenix

which soars in the heavens

unfettered and free

will fail to reach home

where it harbours the key

to the fiery breath

of the treasureful depths

of the soaring blue sea.

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