Time to decolonize and diversify the writer’s retreat?

Time to decolonize and diversify the writer’s retreat?

Trigger warning: unpopular opinion. I have long despised the idea of writers’ retreats. I entirely agree with the concept itself but felt it was in desperate need of diversification in order to suit different personality types and minds. Perhaps owing to a childhood living in rural Benson, the stereotypical concept of a writer’s retreat is something that doesn’t sit well with me. The idea of going somewhere peaceful, remote, and quiet to pump out words is the very opposite of what fuels my pen. Birds chirping in the morning, fresh air, no sound pollution, stars in the sky… have, for a long time, been the very definition of what I consider to be hell.

I am a city guy. I love living in cities, I am inspired by cities, and I write about life in cities. I love the excitement, the unpredictability, the occasional adrenalin rush, the cuteness and crassness, easy access to plantain, the cars, the trains, the buildings, the billboards, the shops, and, above all, the people. The vast diversity of people creating interesting things, complaining when things go wrong, pulling together, and sometimes falling apart. Cultures intermingling and possibly clashing. The inconvenience and complexity of cities create and fuels stories.

Sometimes when I am struggling for words, I hop in my car and go for a drive across town in pursuit of that elusive spark of inspiration that will help me find words. Other times I jump on a bus and go for a ride. Occasionally I go to my gym’s sauna and steam room to spark up a conversation with semi-naked strangers in the hunt for inspiration. Sometimes I go to a bookshop and read till I get thrown out. Sometimes I do even more peculiar stuff.

For my first book, Think Like A White Man, I decided I needed a writers’ retreat. So, I hopped on a plane all by myself and went to Vegas, Atlanta and Miami to write. Eventually, I found myself in an empty mega Hip-Hop strip club learning about the strange commercial management of sexual politics in such a venue… from Cece, a dancer who I became good friends with and, to my eternal surprise, one of my favorite childhood rappers, Akinyele (the titles of his hits are unprintable in this esteemed publication), all while the recently deceased Prince Markie Dee of the pioneering rap group, The Fat Boys, DJed for an empty auditorium. It was a surreal experience. It made for great content and inspired me endlessly. It is the type of stuff you can only find in these concrete jungles we call cities.

So, for me, personally, a traditional writers’ retreat – as it is widely known – seemed undesirable. Slower life and fewer distractions may not be for every writer – what some of us need are faster life and more distractions.

And then came Covid. After 18 months of uninterrupted city life, my family and I had no choice but to spend our summer holiday in a dreaded staycation in the countryside. A family friend owned a place in Snowdonia, North Wales, so we gratefully decamped there for a few days. To my shock, Snowdonia was easily the most beautiful place I have ever been to in the United Kingdom. Breathtakingly scenic. The people were absolutely lovely. The fresh air, sheep, cows, rabbits in the wild, and lack of noise and light pollution were surprisingly… tolerable.

After a stereotype-affirming disastrous yet immensely fun experience kayaking and canoeing, in which I had to be saved to get to the other side of a lake, I returned to our residence to write and found myself producing work at a higher rate and level. Also, for the first time in a long time, I unplugged myself from the grid. And it really helped. I felt calmer and a little more gathered. I started speaking and typing at a slower and more reflective pace. I started to savour the words I was reading (the excellent Raceless by Georgina Lawton if you must know) and writing more fluently. And my sleeping was better too.

Eventually, it dawned on me: I had been colonized by the countryside. Or maybe I had been proven wrong about the need for and nature of writers’ retreats. Perhaps it was not the concept of the writers’ retreat that needed diversification, maybe it was me who needed diversifying away from city life. It may well be both.