I had planned to write a short but triumphant entry a day or two after the first retreat. It would, I was sure, talk about one or two awful moments, but the overall tone would be ecstatic that the retreats were up and running.
I have found myself, however, reluctant to say anything about it. Perhaps that’s because I think from a business and marketing perspective I ‘should’ be ridiculously upbeat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that it was awful. It’s more that I can’t do marketing-speak on a project which, while it’s both a business and a service for writers, is also so personal. Because it’s about how writers write and how we feel about writing, it needs to be personal (and honest), so the only way I know to share the story of UWR is to show the journey as I’ve experienced it.
So that’s what I’ll do instead of the ‘ooh isn’t it amazing’ marketing stuff – after all, what’s the point in having a blog and not mentioning the first ever event which is the reason the blog exists?
First of all, the things that have made me reluctant to post. When I arrived at the venue, it was an absolute building site. It wasn’t like this when I saw it in summer! The loo was in another building (due to the building work) through a narrow tunnel of building equipment, which I wasn’t expecting either.
Unwanted items present in the room: a sofabed, multiple half-full Coffee Republic paper cups, a carton of off semi-skimmed milk, plastic bottles, takeaway cartons, a bottle of nailvarnish remover, unpleasant stains in the loo, one dead mouse.
Requested items not present in the room: desks, chairs, bin, adequate extension cords for laptops.
Then on Sunday, after the teething problems, nobody turned up until almost an hour late. Lesson: 10AM is very early on a Sunday, and actually although being able to go home at the end of the day was brilliant I’m not sure it helped the writing as it was harder to get back into the intensity of the writing the next day. Anyway, by 10:40 I thought everybody had hated it so much they’d run away, and I had to force myself to soldier on so that if anybody turned up they’d find me productively working rather than sobbing in a heap somewhere. Not that I could concentrate.
Now onto the good things. First of all, my guinea pigs were fantastic. They were patient, helpful, and gave me a ton of feedback which will be incorporated into future retreats. The room did have a kettle and some easy-chairs in, so we were able to use the lower-level of the room as a break-out area as I’d hoped. And the random coat stand was sort of useful, as was my flatmate who ran around helping me fix things. At first, and in occasional moments of loss in writing, it seemed odd sitting among 6 other people all working away silently. I’m still considering bringing music along next time, but actually it was an oddly hypnotic experience working alongside other people and I definitely found it easier to sink into focus when surrounded by other writers. My housemate likened it to group meditation, which she says is a very different experience to solo meditation because of the group dynamic and sense of community (I may have to go so that I can see the parallels). Despite the issues with the venue, I still love it and some of the other participants agreed that the room itself has a nice feel for writing.
And at 10:45 on Sunday (I had given myself until 11 before I was allowed to panic) people started to trickle in. The first person sat across the room from me and began to work, then the second, and suddenly the energy that you get when people are concentrating together returned and everything got easier. We had agreed to have an unstructured Sunday to compare ways of working, and so they had simply come at a time that felt less demanding.
Most importantly, every single person – regardless of whether we spent a lot of time reading, felt inadequate and scared at times or ploughed through a plan single-mindedly – left feeling like we had achieved worthwhile progress on our writing. We found the experience uplifting and left believing in our ability to write and get things done, with a new determination to dedicate more time to our craft. For some of us coming into contact with other writers without fear of work being judged was almost as important, and it was a fantastically productive weekend for all.
So the theory works. The retreat, by and large, does what I intended it to do and I can continue to tweak things. The experience isn’t actually what I thought it would be – I’ve never been to a residential retreat in the country, and think this is less similar than I expected. Again, not in a bad way. I’ve discovered this retreat is its own animal, different to anything else with its own uses and advantages. Next I’m going to work on refining it and trying out new things – this is part of a much larger project in my head but I want to find out what is most useful for writers and how I can best serve their needs within the current retreat format. So in October I have an agent, consultant and bestselling author (Jacqueline Burns of Freethinking) coming in for a chat and to join us writing, and I’ve decided to offer a one-day option for the November retreat.
I thought holding the first retreat would somehow mean I’d done what I set out to. I certainly didn’t always believe I could make it happen and I was still thinking in the back of my head that it would fail and I’d probably give it up after the first one and write it off as yet another of my daft ideas. But though I am embarassed to jump headlong into Cheesy Cliche Land, running the first retreat and getting so much supportive feedback has mfinally made it sink in that this is just the start of the journey.
Cue soaring violins.