Writing Retreats, or: Why I Can’t Teach Anyone A Damn Thing About Writing

My most vivid memories of Wizard World are of the times I disagreed with people.

Of course, it wasn’t always a wise choice. On one panel, offering strategies for writer’s block, I quoted an audience member from an earlier discussion: “Drinking and drugs.” (Which was meant as humor, of course, but I think the moderator wished I’d found a different joke.)

But sometimes I learn that my experience is completely different from everyone else’s. And at those times, I feel like I have to point out that conventional wisdom isn’t the same as You Must Do This. Which is exactly what I did when people started talking about writing retreats.

The panel was about launching your creative career, and the topic at hand was what kind of education might be helpful. There are professions, I learned–notably many areas of filmmaking–where it’s not just the degree, but the specific school that can make a difference. For writing, though, the panel immediately gravitated toward talking about MFAs, and then to writing retreats. Panelists discussed how lovely it was to have all those weeks dedicated to writing, meeting people, making contacts.

I didn’t know anything about the people who in the audience, but a lot of them were young. Some of them may even have been in high school. And I tried to imagine myself at 15 or 16, being told the key to becoming a writer was more school–and more debt.

I didn’t get an MFA. (I didn’t even know, until a few years ago, that you could actually get a master’s in creative writing.) I didn’t attend Clarion or Hedgebrook or any of the lovely writing retreats. Had I known about them, I’d have pined for them, but when I was 22 and right out of college, I didn’t have the money. And even if I’d managed to borrow it or get a scholarship, the job I had didn’t accommodate a six week leave of absence.

So what do you do if you’re a writer, and you can’t afford a retreat, and you can’t take time off from your job without losing it? Are you supposed to give up? Are you supposed to stop calling yourself a writer, let it all go?

Yes, that’s meant to sound ridiculous. But that’s the message a lot of people hear when you say things to them like MFA. To be blunt: Writing has a class problem, and it hits from all sides.

Better people than me have written about the income and diversity problem in the publishing industry. It’s not intentional exclusion, but when you have an industry largely based in cities with expensive costs of living, where careers are built on internships, the majority of your professionals are going to be people who come from (relatively) financially privileged backgrounds. I haven’t spoken to a single person in the industry who wouldn’t like to see it more diverse, more universal–they love stories, after all, and more stories are always wonderful–but we’re talking about a business that basically brokers art. Altering the economic structure is neither fast nor easy.

But on the writing side of it…extolling the virtues of master’s degrees and elite retreats is the same problem. Except that on the writing side of it, it’s rubbish, and you can’t even make the economic argument to support it.

You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. You don’t need a writer’s retreat to be a writer. To be a writer, you need a way to record your words, and that’s it.

And please understand, I’m not suggesting an MFA isn’t valuable. I would have loved dedicating years to writing. I’d have loved a writing retreat, spending six weeks with other authors, sharing struggles, learning from them, even if I’d had to live in my car. (And having said that–I wouldn’t have had to. When I graduated from college I was itching for independence, financial and otherwise, but if I’d approached my family they’d have made me a loan. So I’m privileged even in my lack of education, because I had a choice.) I have no doubt that being able to concentrate so thoroughly on writing can provide tremendous benefits, can present incredible opportunities to learn from fellow authors, can help to build your voice with confidence.

If you can afford the time and money for these programs and they speak to you, pursue them. Fling yourself into them with your whole heart, just as you have to do with anything if you’re going to grow as a writer. Work and work and work, and take everything you can from the experience.

But for pity’s sake–if none of that is in your future, don’t stop writing. Because whatever your framework, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

It’s probably part of my particular brand of neuroatypicality that leads me to analyze my own writing process. I’ve thought about the stages I went through, how I went from telling myself bedtime stories to being able to take a few months to draft a novel. (Finished a first draft yesterday, and boy are my arms tired.) I’ve been writing since I was five years old, but I was closing in on 46 before I figured out how to complete something novel-length, and it was another three years before I finished something I could sell. This makes me wonder if everyone goes through the stages I went through, just much more quickly–maybe too quickly to be able to see the changes. I had the benefit of creeping through the process in slow motion, allowing me to recognize what was happening while I was going through it.

Or maybe that’s bullshit. Maybe my growth was mine, at my pace, in my way, and nothing that’s happened to me will make sense to anyone else. Maybe, if I’d gone to a retreat, I’d have leapfrogged most of the stages I went through and learned much earlier how to regurgitate an entire novel.

But just in case any of this is worth it to anyone else, here are the lessons I’ve learned since the age of five:

It’s more important to gain confidence in your work than it is to be critiqued. One of the most common questions I see on my writing group is “How do I know which critique I should listen to?” Critiques are by nature subjective, and without a solid sense of what your objective is, it’s nearly impossible to make a reasoned assessment about what someone else has told you to change.

To that end, I think it doesn’t hurt to have your first critters be people who aren’t going to give you a lot of negatives: your mom, your friends, a reflexively supportive online group. Because positive feedback makes you want to write, and the more you write, the more you’ll fine-tune your own sense of what you’re accomplishing. Once you can stand up and say with confidence “I want this work to provoke X response” that’s when you hand your manuscript out for more objective critiques.

When push comes to shove, you only get better one way: by writing. A lot. Over and over again. Don’t do anything that’s going to make you want to stop.

Every word you put down has value. Please don’t mistake me here: This doesn’t mean everything you write is going to be brilliant, or even readable. A massive amount of what you write is going to get tossed. Even for long-term published authors, a huge percentage of what gets written down is just plain rubbish.

But it’s rubbish that serves a critical purpose. Sometimes you have to build the scene badly to figure out how to build it well. Sometimes you have to write far into a novel–even all the way–before you can see that the project isn’t worth pursuing. Sometimes you have to write the wrong words before you can unearth the right ones.

Writing is a non-linear process. You’re not rummaging through a box of Legos and picking out bits to build a house; you’re creating something that only you can create. It’s art, for real, and more often than you’d like you’re going to have to cough up absolute crap to get to the stuff you want.

Finishing is a different skill than writing. Here’s where an MFA might have accelerated my progress. I’m a magpie: I always want to write the shiny thing. And of course I want to write it perfectly, to have it be as beautiful as it is in my head. I spent so much time writing the first chapter or two of something, and then revising it into bland, horrible death.

There’s value in writing partial stories, in scenes and vignettes. As above, it’s all writing. I do it a lot to work through characters (I send them to therapy now and then when I need to get at where they’re coming from). But getting to the end of a story means it has to hold your interest for a long time. Stephen King may be able to write a book in a weekend, but most of us can’t.

For me, that meant learning how to push through without turning back. It’s not a method that works for everyone, but with my skill set, it was NaNoWriMo that gave me the last piece I needed. Being obligated to move forward no matter what my feelings about what came before felt strange–but being able to write THE END was weird and astonishing and wonderful and addictive.

I’ve finished seven drafts now, including my first trunked NaNo novel and the two that got combined into THE COLD BETWEEN. It’s no easier than it was the first time–but now I know, if I focus on the means and not the end, I’ll get where I need to be.

Editing is a different skill than finishing. There are some people who tell me their first drafts are very close to finished quality. I’ll take them at their word, but that’s not true for me. My first drafts are full of trial and error and dangling red herrings and blind alleys and dead chapters and whole scenes that need to be longer.

Once I have a first draft, then I actually have to pay attention to the story.

This is not, as a rule, as much fun as letting your imagination go bananas because you know you can get it in editing. This is the nitpicky stuff, the research and the continuity checking, the purging of those beautiful passages that you love but that are repetitive or bog down your narrative. This is the place where you worry about pacing and structure and making sure each scene has a purpose and a shape.

This is the part where it helps to be a reader. So much of pacing and structure is instinct and personal taste. The more you’ve read of books you love, the easier it’ll be to see when your own work is (and isn’t) flowing the way you want it to flow.

But when push comes to shove? This is the fiddly phyllo dough portion of constructing a book. It’s difficult, it’s often unfun, and it’s very easy to get wrong. And it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes out the other end.

If you can’t tell the truth, don’t bother. Years ago, when I was in a bad relationship, I stopped writing. I spent every day of that relationship lying to myself, telling myself it wasn’t what it was, convincing myself that it would improve and turn into something positive. I tried, during that time, to write, but nothing would come out. For-real writer’s block, for the first time in my life.

Fiction is nothing less than the absolute unvarnished truth of your heart. If you can’t look into yourself and admit what you find, nothing you write is going to feel authentic. And if you look into yourself and feel you can’t write it down…look at your life. Really. Pretty good chance there’s something there that needs a change.

If you don’t love it, nobody else will, either. Remember that trunked NaNo novel I mentioned? I liked it. A lot. I loved parts of it. (I borrowed bits to create Volhynia for THE COLD BETWEEN.) I wanted to edit it and turn it into a real book. And I worked on it pretty seriously for a couple of months, before I realized I didn’t care enough. Making it what it would need to be was going mean steeping myself in the story day after day for a very long time, and when push came to shove, I didn’t want to do that. I liked the story, and that’s not enough.

We’ve probably all had the experience of reading a favorite author’s latest book and wondering what the hell happened. Some writers seem to just fall off a cliff, going from compelling, irresistible storylines to bland cardboard. I have to think, in cases like that, that they’ve just stopped loving what they write. The craft is still there, the plots still worthwhile, but the writing itself has lost passion, and the reader can feel it.

This theory would hold more water if everyone agreed with me on which authors fell off the cliff, and they don’t. But my point still stands: if you don’t love your work, it’s going to show. And that’s a risk, if you want readers.

Write what you love. It matters.

I’ve always been a writer. And at the same time, I feel I’ll never be a writer. When you’re an artist, it’s hard to separate yourself from a dependence on your audience. But here’s the truth of it: if you write, you’re already an artist. Maybe a beginner, maybe a pro, maybe an MFA, maybe a weekender. Doesn’t matter.

If you write, you’re a writer. If you write, you’re learning. Your path is your path. Don’t give it up just because it doesn’t look like anyone else’s.

I said this, in Philadelphia. I told the audience they didn’t need an MFA. I told them they didn’t need writing workshops. There was a bit of an awkward pause at that, but there’s no rebuttal to it, because it’s the truth. Programs are valuable, and can give some people a real jump-start, and if that’s your dream, find a way. But I couldn’t sit there in front of people looking for answers and tell them they were doomed if they weren’t going after a secondary degree. There’s enough class stratification in publishing; we don’t need it in writing. Every path brings with it different experiences.

As a reader, I want them all.

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