travel

Writers’ retreat? Not for me, thanks.

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Photo by Julie, used with creative commons license via flickr.

By Jeffrey Allen Mays

Pick up any magazine for writers, and you’ll notice the lush advertisements for getaway writers’ retreats. These photos always feature smiling young women with laptops in glamorous locations, mountain getaways, cruises, and other ostensibly inspiring and secluded resorts.

The frequency of such ads must be an indication of the proliferation of these retreats. And it only makes sense. Bowker says that over 300,000 print books were published in 2013 in the U.S. alone, and that was triple the number from 2009.

The number of people with dreams of writing their book has grown so much that this group constitutes booming new business opportunities for companies providing services to self-styled writers: promotional tweeters, writer’s associations, editorial services, writing coaches, cover designers, publicists, MFA programs, vanity publishers, word processors for writers, book trailer videographers, book fairs. I’ve used some of them myself.

But those ads with pictures of a terracotta veranda, fruit basket, and pitcher of cucumber water overlooking the Tuscan Sea can seem like just the ticket to break that writer’s block. You can hear the collective gasp across the nation, ”Ah! Three weeks (or more) away from kids and bills and the hubbub of city life! I’m a writer! I need that kind of time and space to perfect my craft!”

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Shereen M. Used under creative commons license via flickr.

While I’ve never jetted away to a Norwegian fjord under the auspices of a “writing retreat,” I have taken small getaways by car to a location away from my regular responsibilities. And you know what I’ve found? I wasn’t any more creative there than at my favorite coffee shop in Austin, Texas.

What’s more, when I get out in the world, I want to encounter human stories, personal tales of things I could not have imagined. I think that I would rather spend my writer’s retreat with a group of homeless people or immigrants or junkies. I would hang out and talk with a mortician. I would follow an ER nurse at 2 a.m. in the hospital. Some person or group of people who are sure to have great stories.

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“Coffee” by Martin Gommel. Found on flickr using the creative commons license.

I wrote my novel while unemployed, sitting at the same little table in the same coffee shop buzzing with a murmur of activity for six months. I think the low noise gave my mind focus, something to block out. I reentered that setting I was inventing in my mind every day, and it didn’t matter what my surroundings were. In fact, I think I would actually get less done in a cottage overlooking a coastal Irish sward than my own little nook at Strange Brew Coffee Shop in south Austin.

Could it be that writers’ retreats are counter-productive? God bless you if you’ve found them to be beneficial. I am happy to be proved wrong. But for my own brain and writing style, the place needs to be rather bland. To me, that’s the best flavor for getting any real work done.

About the author:

Jeffrey Allen Mays has published in Catapult Magazine, Topology, and God and Nature. His short story “Malefic” appeared in the 2013 eco-horror anthology Growing Concerns by Chupa Cabra House. His debut novel The Former Hero was published in 2014 by AEC Stellar Publishing and was the winner of the 2015 Texas Association of Authors Book Award and finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards. He lives in Austin with his family.

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