Review: One-day Urban Writing Retreat, London

It’s quickly clear that Charlie Haynes has hit on an entrepreneurial concept that works: writers will pay good money to sit in a room without the distractions of the phone or the Internet.

We’re in The Cube, a large open-plan office a few minutes’ walk from Liverpool Street. Twelve of us are zigzagged across four long desks (Charlie’s insisted we don’t sit beside each other). We each share our goals – get 5,000 words done by 5pm, edit work for a competition, complete a backstory for a novel (mine), move on to the next chapter – before we get cracking with our work. The atmosphere at the one-day Urban Writers’ Retreat is snappy and focused. There’s a nice mix of writing levels; the retreat is plainly targeted at busy professionals, but a few younger faces are dotted around the room too.

We’re surrounded by intricate black-and-white paintings with a mystical, otherworldly feel. It’s bright and airy, though slightly chilly. The tang of coffee permeates the air. Cacti huddle on the tables and a wilting flower sits on a ledge, flanked by John Lear’s Kepler’s Dream and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Are those the works we’re supposed to aspire to? My fingers flex for the mouse to research them but I have to settle for not knowing.

The temptation to check the Internet isn’t as overwhelming as I’d thought. Once you know it’s not an option, you forget about it. The impermeable atmosphere of concentration isn’t off-putting: it actually helps you. Charlie’s given us a goal sheet on which to write today’s targets. With this in the back of my mind, it’s easier to structure my time. Her aim is to encourage commitment to the craft, not to give guidance. There aren’t any therapeutic read-out-loud sessions at the end. It’s simply to do as much as I can and be pleased about what I’ve accomplished.

There are a few regulars who greet each other but, before long, everyone’s engrossed in their work. John, 32, is working on the final draft of his contemporary fiction manuscript and frowns as he types on his red laptop. Folders, pens and notebooks scatter the table. He’s not looking to be published just yet – “I want to wait until it’s perfectly polished.” Another man is tucked in the corner, large headphones planted on his ears, nose inches from his computer screen. Yvonne is wrapped up in a grey jumper and drinks tea from a matching mug. She’s writing a film script from her sheets of longhand. She sweeps back her blonde hair as she miserably checks if there’s any way she can access Wi-Fi.

Sarah, an advertising copywriter in her mid-twenties who struggles to find time to be truly creative, says: “What I’m really looking for is deadlines. Paying for something means you have to commit.” Katie is a medical secretary and working on a few different projects. “I’m treating myself to this for my birthday. I’ve been coming for five years.”

Dedicating a couple of hours to just writing sometimes feels impossible. If you fancy a break, you can relax on the sofa or pop downstairs for a cuppa, but once you turn up here, you feel like you have to get on with it. Charlie takes care of lunch and offers suggestions to boost creativity if you’re stuck.

Though she oozes a mixture of awkwardness and bravado, Charlie describes herself as an Olympic-level procrastinator. Motivated by a quote from Catch 22 author Joseph Heller – “every writer I know has trouble writing” – she set up the weekend retreats nearly six years ago.

“Without the time or money to go on a traditional writing retreat and inspired by sharp exercise bootcamps, I decided to deal with my procrastination issues by creating short retreats in London that would fit into my everyday life,” she says on her website. “I wanted to feel less alone in my writing, so I took a deep breath and hired a room for a couple of weekends. When professional writers booked places and repeat visits, it confirmed that Urban Writers’ Retreat was a good thing.”

She has an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Sheffield and she’s currently working on a book for young adults. She runs one-week country retreats in Devon, too, as well as a four-week online course, but this central and short hideaway really works.

With almost seven hours stuck in this place to write: is it worth the 45 quid? I’d say yes. While you’re essentially paying for a quiet space to write and you don’t always get that – someone will move a chair loudly or sip coffee – there are constantly going to be small distractions. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve financially invested in being productive and believing you’ll leave with a substantial amount of work done, but something motivates you here: having those hours ahead of you where you can actually just write.

Urban Writers’ Retreats run each month. Costing £45, including lunch and refreshments, you can check the website for availability at bit.ly/KER5jK.

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