It was on the remote Scottish island of Jura that George Orwell found the perfect “extremely un-get-able place” to write 1984. Virginia Woolf wrote her stream of consciousness novels from a shed at the edge of her family’s Sussex estate Monk’s House. Ian Fleming wrote his pacy James Bond thrillers in the languor of his estate in Jamaica. Barack Obama chose the South Pacific island of Tetiaroa, an estate once owned by Marlon Brando, to write his post-POTUS memoir.
For as long as writers have been writing, they have been retreating — away from the daily grind, far from the madding crowds, cut off from urban noise. But solitude, it seems, is not necessarily what modern-day writers’ retreats are offering; nor is it necessarily in demand.
For Yagna Balaji, carving four days out of her busy schedule to decamp to Cabo Serai in South Goa, had less to do with isolation and more with seeking inspiration. “As a journalist, writing has become more a function of our jobs, formats, patterns… We are commissioned to do things,” says the former editor and CEO of DT Next, and now marketing professional. “I wanted to reconnect with the kind of writing that drew me to a profession like journalism in the first place.”
Balaji found what she was looking for at KYO Spaces’ first writers’ retreat in mid-September. She was one of a group of 16, who were under the mentorship of Kolkata-based writer Karuna Ezara Parikh. “Cabo Serai was the perfect sort of organic, pollution-free, isolated space. Karuna is a very generous, very involved guide. Unlike most artists’ retreats, KYO Spaces didn’t have rigid rules as to who could attend. So, the biggest revelation for me was meeting this collective of people — scriptwriters, poets, filmmakers — who were just passionate about writing.”
Leveraging books and purposeful travel
Writers’ retreats are often luxurious, even expensive experiences. Unlike the more serious-minded writers’ residency — a longer-term, structured commitment that allows a writer to focus on a project, in the company of like-minded folk, with a hefty price tag that is occasionally supplemented with financial aid — the retreat is mostly open to anyone who aspires to be a writer of any sort or even simply to improve their storytelling skills. Remote, beautiful backdrops are mandatory, they last for fewer days, and there’s often a lifestyle element involved — KYO Spaces’ retreat also focused on yoga; others are leveraging the destination as a travel incentive, or incorporating food trails and such.
“I’ve never attended a writing retreat myself, and I think part of the reason I wished to create one was because I have yearned for something similar in the past. I imagined that being in the company of other writers, and having some level of guidance and discipline, that I could then carry into my daily practice, would be the goal. So that’s what I tried to create, along with Meghna of KYO Spaces.”Karuna Ezara ParikhAuthor and mentor
Retreats such as this have punctuated the subcontinent’s landscape for a lot of 2023, resorting to picturesque Himalayan valleys and the Arabian seaside alike. In March, award-winning author of Shambala Junction, Dipika Mukherjee, led a course in “international immersion writing” at the Himalayan Writing Retreat in Nainital. In May, Mandodari author Koral Dasgupta led one at Te Aroha, Dhanachuli, in Uttarakhand, around the theme of ‘Power Women in Indian Mythology’. In September, Meera Ganapathi, editor of Soup magazine, helped a small group understand the “why” of writing at Slow Garden, Leh.
“Each retreat has a different flavour,” says Tara Khandelwal, founder of Bound India, an independent brand that helps writers get published, which began with a writers’ retreat five-and-a-half years ago in Goa. “We chose Divar Island because it was still very ‘writer-ly’ and isolated back then. Someone I knew had just opened a boutique hotel inside a 200-year-old Portuguese villa. I wanted to organise a retreat with 12 writers and three mentors, and the villa had exactly that capacity. It felt like serendipity.”
The participants at Bound India’s retreats have been “curated” to include people of all ages, from all walks of life — marketing executives, advertising professionals, students, artists and more. For that first edition in 2018, Clouds and Arzee the Dwarf author Chandrahas Choudhury came on board as mentor. Journalist and now curator of the Serendipity Arts Festival Vivek Menezes conducted a guided tour of the island. Khandelwal also invited writers and book industry professionals living in Goa, such as Jessica Faleiro, to dinner “so people would get the chance to meet them”.
“I had seen that there were a lot of writers who wanted to get published or increase their skill level, but they didn’t have access. There were lots of programmes abroad — residencies and MFAs [Master’s of Fine Arts] — that weren’t accessible to writers in India because of the price, the travel, the geography,” she says. “But I felt that there are many potential mentors in India, right from bestselling authors to professors.”
The peer advantage
Intersections of lived experience
Access is also key to the mission of Silk Road Slippers, an all-women initiative, whose writing masterclasses, led by Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah and Booker-winning author Shehan Karunatilaka, will take place in Marrakech in November. “We wanted to do something that did not imagine Europe as the centre of civilisation,” says London-based freelance editor Faiza Sultan Khan, part of the founding team.
Writers from Haiti and Panama, a Syrian lawyer, academics from Harvard and Sweden — it’s an eclectic mix of participants. “We wanted a place along the Silk Road, a really rich and cultural city,” says Khan, adding that the retreat would be held at the boutique hotel Jnane Tamsna, and also involve a session called ‘Learn with Your Sixth Sense’. “We will go out into Marrakech and touch and smell and see things to figure out how one can learn to capture immediate lived experience.”
Meanwhile, Meghna Kapoor at KYO Spaces has been keen “to create experiences where wellness and learning intersect”. This means yoga and permaculture retreats, alongside the writers’ retreats, which was a result of Kapoor’s market research — people are now hungry for purposeful travel. She discovered the potential for such events at their first writers’ retreat, especially when it got booked out within a day.
“Writing is such a solitary venture,” says Kapoor. “You need peace and quiet. Very often, you don’t share your work with others. As I discovered, it is great to have that community of people where you can bounce ideas off each other, make friends, and meet like-minded people.”
A change of pace
Writers’ retreats and residencies have as many critics as evangelists, who wonder about what value they can add beyond networking and bragging rights. Writer and editor Anindita Ghose says she used to find the idea of such getaways pretentious. “I never understood why one needed to go to a beautiful location, and eat exotic food, if they wanted to write. Just write at your desk!”
Ghose, however, realised their value while crafting her debut novel, The Illuminated. “I started writing my first novel in 2015, alongside a full-time job. Four years in, I was feeling terribly stuck.”
A chance phone conversation with William Dalrymple, who was at lunch at a writers’ residency in Scotland at the time — where the great English author Jeanette Winterson was walking around — led her to attend Hawthornden. The elite residency hosted at a castle in Scotland was founded in 1982, to “provide a peaceful setting for creative writers — four sessions across 10 months a year, with six writers at a time — to work without disturbance”.
“When it comes to writing fiction, it’s so much about a change in pace,” observes Ghose. “A change in geography, routine, diet, environment and the lack of certain everyday responsibilities can help bring about subtle shifts, which is crucial for fiction. The idea of seeing the world differently is crucial. I wrote 40% of my book in that one month; every big thing in the book arrived in that period.”
Mumbai-based author Shunali Shroff believes the craft of novel-writing is something you can go on learning till your last day. “[At Silk Road Slippers] I’m also keen to get an insight into the creative process of a Nobel laureate like Abdulrazak. How is a story conceived in their head? Do they share your fears or insecurities as a writer…,” says Shroff, a mother of two and author of bestsellers Love in the Time of Affluenza and Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother.
By invitation only
Looking beyond just print
And yet, despite this winning combination of community, creativity and travel with a purpose, it can seem paradoxical that writers’ retreats are popular at a time when readership is in sharp decline. How does the starving author stereotype co-exist with this seemingly rampant desire to become an author?
Khandelwal traces the rise of reading and writing in 21st century India to the arrival of Penguin in 1985; followed shortly by other international publishers in the early 2000s. Shroff notes the spread and impact of literary festivals, beginning with the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006, which led to “writing being seen as an aspirational profession, even if not a practical one”.
Now, as the book-to-screen phenomenon has caught speed, she notes that “a lot of writers also write thinking of the commercial translation of that book. And why not? There’s very little money in publishing in India. It’s a good time to be a writer because there is greater possibility that books will go on to live beyond the print medium”.
“In my writer’s retreat [Unfestival 2022 in Ratnagiri], out of a group of 10, there were only three men. It does seem like writing retreats attract more women than men. Maybe that’s because writing comes more naturally to women.”Nadeem KhanTeacher and translator
Khan considers the spike in online masterclasses and workshops, and the ensuing rise in more accessible writers’ retreats, as a sort of levelling of the playing field. “Increasingly, people come to writing from non-traditional routes at different stages of their life and those people now have options that don’t require the commitment or financial investment of an MFA, for example.”
It is heartening that there’s been a pushback against gatekeeping in the industry, she adds. “That’s allowed people to be more confident of the validity of their narrative. People now feel they can tell their story.”
Retreats to bookmark
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai, writing on culture, lifestyle and technology.