On September 10, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program welcomed 15 dedicated writing students to the UCLA Conference Center at Lake Arrowhead, a beautiful facility nestled in a mountain with pristine lake and alpine views. Each student brought with them a project, in which they were determined to make considerable progress on over the course of the next five days. The schedule, left largely unstructured to facilitate each student’s personal creativity, offered some opportunities to connect in an afternoon “craft talk,” where students could discuss writing questions and issues together, and an evening open mic, where they shared the work they had in progress.

The students and staff facilitators at the Writers’ Program retreat at the UCLA Conference Center at Lake Arrowhead.

This was the first time the Writers’ Program attempted such a unique course. I came up with this idea last fall because for most Writers’ Program students who are juggling jobs, families, and other responsibilities  it’s not feasible to go off to a month-long retreat. One student’s evaluation summed it up best: “This is a bold experiment that fits a busy world where most writers are doing their writing in addition to their day jobs.”

The retreat students’ writing ran the gamut, including a duo of sisters who wanted to work collaboratively to write down their family history for other relatives, several novelists, a therapist collecting the ten most frequent lessons she gives her clients, two screenwriters, a poet, and an essayist. Despite the variation, “in this supportive environment, I think we all blossomed,” one student wrote on the course evaluation.

At the retreat orientation, held just after students arrived, I led the group through an exercise that helped them set a goal for their retreat time, as well for each work day. They were encouraged to identify milestones — a word count, number of pages revised, etc. — that would let them know they were on track to meeting their overall goal. The conference center’s group meal times and the retreat’s craft talks and open mics gave everyone an opportunity to discuss their progress and hold themselves and each other accountable.

 Students wrote in their conference accommodations, in the group work room in the Cedar Lodge, or out in nature. One student became partial to sitting on the Conference Center’s “Zen Deck,” which offered a panoramic view of the mountainside and the lake beyond, while others enjoyed the fresh air on their patios.

The student discipline and focus paid off. “I was so productive that I completed the project I took up there within time and with great enjoyment,” one wrote, while another noted, “I tackled the most challenging pieces of the rewrite of my novel.” Some students found they had more than just creative breakthroughs, but instead learned more about their own process. “I now know that I need to put life on hold for at least a day a week,” a student wrote.

The last evening of the retreat, the students shared a celebratory toast before dinner, and that night’s open mic reading was lively, invigorating, and laudatory. The following morning, they said their goodbyes and made arrangements to stay in touch over the next several months. Reflecting on the experience in the evaluations, students shared some overall impressions. “I would recommend this course to anyone looking to explore their writing habits in a different way,” one wrote, while another expressed a broader view: “I only wish every writer had an equivalent opportunity to grow.”

For more information on this year’s retreat, visit http://writers.uclaextension.edu/writing-retreat-at-lake-arrowhead/.

This article was written by Program Director, Charles Jensen.

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