Wednesday 25 November 2020

Writing Retreat Review: Unworkshops at the Highlights Foundation

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently, as a published novelist with a demanding day job, is how I have time to write. I very much admire those authors who can and do write every day, but I’ve never had a lifestyle that can support that sort of schedule. Instead, I’ve written before about the importance to me of making time to write i.e. setting aside intense periods of productivity, devoid of competing demands and distractions.

My cabin!

Over the last few years I’ve adopted a pattern of going on spring and fall retreat weekends with one of my writers’ groups. We (a group of 10-15 people) typically rent an Airbnb somewhere within three hours’ drive of New York City (e.g. in the Hamptons or in upstate New York). We spend our days writing in companionable silence, and our evenings drinking while making far too much noise. It’s cheap, fun, and effective. However, in 2020, retreats like this (often with crowded sleeping quarters) have obviously been impossible. 

This was why I was delighted when my friend and fellow historical novelist Kris Waldherr introduced me to the Highlights Foundation, a retreat centre in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The Highlights Foundation normally runs workshops for writers of children’s books, with time dedicated to learning together as well as writing alone. However, during this pandemic period, the facility has pivoted, becoming a destination for “Unworkshops”—unguided, socially distanced retreats for writers. I attended an Unworkshop there in mid-November and wanted to share my thoughts on the experience.

Cosy in my cabin

Is it safe?

The Highlights Foundation has gone out of its way to make their Unworkshops the least risky retreat possible in our current circumstances, and, while I was there, all attendees were scrupulous about following Covid-19 protocols. 

Accommodations are mostly private cabins—each with twin beds, a writing desk, a fully equipped bathroom, and a snacks and beverages station. There’s no need to go anywhere else.

Meals are served at the central barn. You can order your food to go, eat outside (there are heat lamps, as well as crackling fireplace), or dine in the barn, spread out and behind Perspex dividers. I ate almost all meals outside so I could safely socialise between writing sprints. Yes, it was a little chilly, but as someone who’s been alone for most of the pandemic, it was worth it.

Walking in the woods

Is it inspiring?

The Highlights Foundation facility is in a beautiful location, so if you’re inspired by walking through the woods before returning to a cosy cabin, this could be the retreat for you. The books and artwork in the cabins were all focused on kids and children’s literature, so I imagine children’s book writers would feel even more at home.

The view from my writing desk

Is the food good?

Hard yes. The staff was also really accommodating to those with particular dietary needs. Wine and beer was served with dinner (though perhaps not in the quantities of my usual writing retreats!). I brought extra (and harder) liquor for late night nightcaps by the heat lamps.

Is it worth the money?

Everyone has a different tolerance for what they’re willing to spend on a weekend away. This retreat was certainly pricier than the DIY retreats I’ve done with my writers’ groups in the past but, in this case, a) I had much more personal space, b) food and wine was included, and c) there was no need for arguments over who was doing the dishes! 

For me, it was pretty priceless to enjoy a retreat experience safely during the pandemic. I’d even consider going back to the centre in a (hopefully) post-Covid reality, especially if they expanded their workshop purview to include writers of fiction for adults.

The Highlights Foundation

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