Sound the Retreat! Why Workshops and Retreats Can Be Inspiriting Stations on the Writer's Journey

By Sheila Webster Boneham

Writing is a solitary pursuit. Even those of us who like to write in a cozy coffee-shop booth surrounded by a human buzz are alone in the work itself. (I could argue that we’re never alone, of course, because we have all those other voices in our heads, but I’m not sure I want to mention that.) We move into the work itself alone and naked, armed only with our minds and our writing implements. Writing is a quest of the highest order.

But writers also need people. Our work needs people. We need readers, editors, caregivers, brainstormers. We need people who encourage us. We need people who say, wait, this isn’t working, but maybe you could try this. (For most of us, these people should not be spouses or blood-relatives. ) We need the members of our tribe.

Some of us are lucky enough to belong to excellent critique groups that meet frequently and regularly. Finding or assembling the right group can be a challenge, but once you do, the benefits of mutual support and critique are incalculable.

Another way to find our people is through workshops. Unlike the ongoing critique group, workshops usually meet for a limited time, from an hour or two to a week or two. Workshops tend to focus either on individual members’ works-in-progress, or on some specific element of writing (dialogue, perhaps, or point of view, or character development), or on a topic (nature or world building or food in narrative). If you’re lucky, you may have access to workshops close to home. If you’re even luckier, you may get to go to an inspiring workshop in a wonderful place! (You can find listings for writing workshops all over the world at )
If you are thinking of signing up for a workshop (an experience I highly recommend!), here are a few things to consider.

·         Focus: what is the primary focus of the workshop? Is it craft, or a broad view of a specific genre, or time and inspiration to help you generate new material, or perhaps a combination?
·         Size: some “workshops” are quite large; others are small and intimate. And size does matter. If you want to listen and learn, but work mostly on your own, a large-group event may work well, If you want more opportunity for individual feedback and interaction with the instructor and other participants, you’re probably better off with a smaller workshop.

·         Facilitator: the leader of the band of writers not only directs the content of your experience, but also sets the tone. I have been to workshops in which the facilitator inspired supportive, useful criticism, and others where the head honcho’s main purpose seemed to be to strut her own stuff and humiliate participants. I recommend paying attention to the facilitator’s bio (which she probably wrote herself) or artistic/teaching statement as much as to her or his credentials. The worst experience I even had was with a big-name writer at a big-name conference. In other words, don’t be blinded by the glitz.

·         Schedule: workshops, especially residential workshops, often have daily schedules with varying amounts of time devoted to different pursuits. In some, every minute from early morning until late evening is stuffed with classes, readings, and critique sessions. Others offer a two or three hours of work-shopping and lots of free time for writing, sightseeing, napping. Some workshops and retreats try to strike a balance. So it pays to think about how you want to spend your time at the workshop. Personally, I like blocks of time in which I can reflect and write or revise, and I build those into the workshops I lead. But I know people who feel they aren’t getting their money’s worth unless they are “being taught” for eight hours a day. So think about what will work best for you.

·         Your own agenda: Different kinds of workshops work at different points in our individual journeys as writers. If you are at an early stage in your career, or you are venturing into new territory as a writer, a workshop geared toward intense basic instruction may be just what you need. If you are more experienced and want to regroup in an environment that feeds your creativity, you may want more freedom in the schedule.

I think every writer should try a workshop or retreat at some point in her career. Simply spending time in the company of people who understand what we’re up to can elevate our writerly mood for weeks or longer, and no matter how long we’ve been at it, we can always learn something new. In fact, I don’t think we can NOT learn something from gatherings of writers.


Sheila Webster Boneham writes across genres, and much of her work focuses on animals, environment, and sense of place. Her short work has appeared in a variety of literary and commercial magazines. Sheila has published seventeen books of nonfiction about animals, siz of which have won major awards from the professional associations for dog writers and cat writers. Her second novel, The Money Bird, came out September 2013. Sheila has taught writing at universities in the U.S. and abroad, and often teaches classes and workshops, including her annual Retreat for Women Writers in Pawleys Island, DC, in March.

 You can find Sheila online at the following addresses:
Website and blog:

The Money Bird
Animals in Focus Mystery #2

Animal photographer Janet MacPhail knows that trouble is in the air when Labrador Retriever Drake fetches a blood-soaked bag holding an exotic feather and a torn one-hundred-dollar bill during a photo shoot at Twisted Lake. One of Janet's photography students reports seeing a strange bird at the lake, but he turns up dead before Janet can talk to him. When she learns that the mysterious retreat center near the lake is housing large numbers of tropical birds, Janet is sure there's a connection and decides to investigate between dog-training classes, photo assignments, and visits to her mom at Shadetree Retirement. With help from her Australian Shepherd Jay and her quirky friend Goldie, Janet is determined to get to the bottom of things before another victim's wings are clipped for good.

"A photographer must rely on her loyal dog and cat companions to solve the case of a murdered colleague...Equal parts mystery and dog appreciation, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure, this second case for Janet and her pals (Drop Dead on Recall, 2012) is accessible to fans of all three." ~ Kirkus Review

 Thank you so much, Sheila, for visiting me today.


Sheila Boneham said…
Thank you for having me, Marilyn!

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