‘Writing retreat helps unlock writer’s block, boost creative flow’

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Retreat curator Deeba Irfan tells 24x7Qatar that living, eating and sharing one’s raw, unpolished writing with fellow writers helps one get over the fear, and gives aspiring writers the confidence, as well as the chance to develop friendships with fellow writers for a lifetime. “You may find writing buddies who are working on similar genre,” she says, in an exclusive interview
By Ahmad Hamood

Mark Twain used to write in bed. Ernest Hemingway, as we know, often wrote standing up. Vladimir Nabokov was used to writing with index cards – basically, draft on index cards. For American author Dan Brown (Angels & Demons; The Da Vinci Code; The Lost Symbol, Inferno, Origin), it’s about hanging upside down: he attributes his prolific writing to inversion therapy, which involves hanging upside down using gravity boots. And, for Aaron Benjamin Sorkin, the American playwright, screenwriter, actor, television writer, television producer, and film director, the writing process involves acting out dialogues.

In short, writers – many of them – from the past and present have been known to inculcate what we are prone to see as weird habits, with an aim to write better.

The common thread here is “write better” albeit none can confirm how their weird habits helped them write better. It’s something that they, and only they, the writers, understand.

Then, there is the Writing Retreat.

To the uninitiated, it’s about some faraway and scenic places where the writers retreat into to finesse the craft, to carve out their ideas into a finished product etc. etc. It’s something we often hear about, read about, but often are unaware about what it entails.

If we look at the retreat from an expert’s eye, it’s a well-established practice that translates into something concrete. According to Rowena Murray, professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland, writing retreat is “a total immersion experience, writing support and mentoring, focused engagement in the writing experience and a community of practice and reflexivity”.

To understand the concept better, this writer did an email interview with Deeba Irfan, an author, brand expert and retreat curator.

Deeba Irfan (2nd from right) during a writing retreat she curated in Kangra in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. [Picture provided by Deeba Irfan]
An award-winning poet, Deeba’s poetry coffee table book, ‘Charcoal Blush’ was the finalist at the 2017 Book Excellence Awards in Canada. Her latest novel, ‘355 Days’ (Crime-Legal Fiction genre), has been inspired by true events. Running a portal for aspiring writers, Deeba is the curator of writer’s retreats in places like Slovenia and in Kangra Valley, Himalayas.

Excerpts of the interview:

What does your work as a curator of writer’s retreats entail?

A dreamy, stunning and a serene location, dedicated time to immerse yourself in writing, sessions to enhance your craft and a one-to-one feedback on your writing from industry professionals. This essentially sums up the writing retreats, I curate.

Location! Location! Location. Everything else comes next, for me. So, first I finalize the location and the availability of rooms. Then, I check the availability of my guest, and then I put it all together and begin the branding for my retreat and advertise it to invite participants.

The first retreat I curated was in Velika Planina, Slovenia.  It is the site of one of Europe’s few surviving high mountain herdsmen’s villages where traditional Alpine herdsmen’s culture is still alive. This scenic high mountain plateau, part of the Kamnik-Savinja Alps, is famous for its breathtaking natural beauty.

The retreat was at foothills in Slovenia Eco Resort, a modern take on herdsmen wooden hut. We had trips to Velika Planina in areal cable cars. The retreat was an interaction of cultures.

Kangra Valley Writing Retreat is held every year in the Himalayas. Aspiring writers get an individual hut for three nights in the lap of Dauladhar range. From every window, the view of the majestic peaks is phenomenal. We had the Commissioning editor from Penguin as our guest and we have had registrations from the US, the UK, Middle East and India.

How useful is the retreat in the writing process? How do the aspiring writers find it?

Writing retreats are deep transformative experiences, at least for most. Writers leave behind all that distracts them from writing, like to-do lists, daily chores and other engagements of life, and concentrate on what they love to do the most: to deep dive into yourself and create.

The beautiful place and a nurturing retreat host can help you unlock your blocks and help your creative flow. Living, eating and sharing your raw, unpolished writing with fellow writers help you get over the fear and give you confidence as a writer. You may develop friendships with fellow writers for a lifetime. You may find writing buddies who are working on similar genre.

Writing retreats are for a very small group of writers and the purpose is to get an intimate time with self to create – whether to complete what you are working on or to self-edit your work.

A writer spends months and years to finish their novels and when they start to query, most of the rejections just have a one-line email telling them that the manuscript does not meet the needs of the editor or the one line consists of wishes to find the right publisher. And many a time, this one-line feedback can take months.

Therefore, to get a detailed feedback from an editor of an international publisher, face to face, in my view, is priceless.

Every participant I have had at my retreat has thoroughly enjoyed the experience and gained immensely in their own way, some in terms of the feedback, some by getting published, and others by honing their writing craft.

Writers can find retreats by searching online, though not everything is listed in the top three pages of Google. Many retreats can be reached though social media pages.

Our retreats are limited to 5-7 writers.

One assumes the retreats would’ve come to a grinding halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How is the scene now? Are you back to organising writer’s retreats?

We did not have our retreat in 2020 due to Covid restrictions. We are planning to have our Kangra Valley retreat in November 2021, but we will announce the dates after carefully monitoring the pandemic situation and only when the travel protocol eases as safety comes first.

You have had extensive experience in advertising and events. What drew you to writing?

Yes, I have over two decades experience in advertising and events. I have been at the helm of brand building, product launches and mega events ranging from film awards, and fragrance awards to fashion shows and weddings. I was writing since college but it was kept on back burner until a serious life event made me focus on writing.

A yoga camp is progress at a retreat curated by Deeba. [Picture provided by Deeba Irfan]
Globally, how is writers retreat seen by the publishing industry? Is it looked at as more of a marketing tool than a genuine effort at boosting creativity?
In my view, the publishing industry per se does not have a view on writing retreats. Publishers don’t host or promote any retreats. They do not promise to publish any participant of any retreat. Publishers and writing retreats are different ends of the spectrum. The publishers want a well-crafted, sellable, page-turner. They do not care whether you wrote or edited your manuscript at a writing retreat or in your own backyard or on your kitchen table.

Editors may want to help writers and may visit retreats in personal capacity to either give feedback, to take ‘writing craft’ sessions or to scout talent. But most editors are so busy that they do not find time to do so. Therefore, if there is a retreat where there is an editor from the publisher/literary agent, it should make the retreat more sought after, in my view.

There definitely exists a counter narrative: people who do not trust the judgment of editors and would rather join a retreat run by authors. There are countless retreats around the world to match an individual writer’s ideology and need.

You are a writer yourself. Isn’t writing essentially a kind of retreat for every writer?     

To me as a writer, writing is definitely a treat and a retreat. Writing is personal to me, akin to breathing. I love to hide in the mountains and find a nook to hide in and write. I can write amidst a bustling coffee shop as well, but my go to place is, mountains.

What is a retreat? It is defined as a quiet and secluded place where one can rest and relax. Writing per se – for most writers – is essentially that. That secluded part of their being, where they enjoy roaming the most, and from that secluded part stems the most beautiful expressions, poems, fiction, memoir and more.

And that’s why, writing retreat appeals to me the most, because it is the place of like- minded people, finding inspiration at a location and doing what they love the most – write.

[Deeba Irfan can be reached at deebairfan@me.com]
Featured/Main Image by PJ Cruz from Pixabay

Ahmad Hamood is a freelance writer

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