Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Four (The Aftermath)

In my last post, I wrote about how my Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat to Vancouver, BC went WAY off the rails. I outlined the details of the events that led to a less-than – even disappointing – experience… not at all what I had in mind or would ever want for my participants.

The six weeks that followed the retreat were fraught with an ever-devolving encounter between me and Ophelia. Ultimately, what happened was that, for the first time in my life, I got sued. Here’s what happened…

We returned home from Vancouver, BC on a Sunday afternoon and parted ways at Union Station in Portland. I headed home and focused on my own self-care – unpacking, getting settled, and relaxing while doing my best to remove myself from the fallout I sensed was around the corner… and the self-beating I was holding at bay. Just one night, I thought. I’ll give myself one night to not be ensconced in the drama.

The next morning, I woke up and set to work calculating the difference in hotel bills for Ophelia and Tracy, as well as their cab fares, based on the receipts they had given me on the train and the difference in U.S. and Canadian currencies. I sent them their money via PayPal and drafted a long email to each of them by, I believe, the Tuesday of that week.

In my long email, I again apologized for the condition of the hotel and let them know that their relationships mattered to me and that I wanted to do what I could to make things right with them. I asked that they view the circumstance as a mistake made by a well-meaning fallible human rather than a malicious act to deceive or disregard anyone’s needs and/or feelings.

I offered them each a complimentary hour of coaching and 10% off any future trip I might offer, indefinitely. I also, in an effort to empathize and let them know I understood how they might be feeling, wrote that I could understand how it might feel that trust had been broken. Little did I know, my choice of words would be used against me.

Beyond a “Thanks!” email from Tracy for the money I sent them, I never heard from her again and have not to this day. She neither accepted or declined my offers. I heard from Ophelia soon after when she wrote to tell me that she wasn’t ready for her pre-scheduled coaching with me that Friday because the whole incident in Vancouver had triggered her CPTSD, which had activated her autoimmune disorder. She said that, because of this, she was not ready.

The reality was that she hadn’t done any work on her book to date – even before the retreat. I wrote back to say I was sorry to hear that the weekend had had that effect on her and that I was happy to schedule her next session for the end of the month to give her some time to recover.

I didn’t hear anything for a few days, and when I did, she informed me that my offers weren’t going to work for her. She expressed that she had been triggered and that she felt abandoned on the trip. She asked if I would be willing to process her emotions with her – because trust had been broken.

My day was full with other clients and obligations, and I didn’t see her email until later that evening. I wanted to make sure that’s what she asking of me before responding, so I decided to sleep on it. She wrote me the next morning, frustrated (angry?) that I hadn’t responded yet. I explained why and promised she would hear from me soon.

Meanwhile, I had scheduled an email to my list on a variety of topics, one of which was the train retreat. I didn’t feel ready to talk about the retreat as a whole (the sub-standard hotel part of the story), because I didn’t know where the situation was going to land with Ophelia, so I held off on that facet of the trip. No out of denial and not to be sneaky or disingenuous, but to give the situation time to breathe, evolve, and settle inside me.

What I did mention in the email were some of the highlights from my perspective, which happened to be our afternoon activities at Queen Elizabeth Park and our group dinner at Chambar on Friday night… activities Ophelia and Tracy had opted out of. Between my lagging response to Ophelia’s email (in her opinion) and my email to my list, which Ophelia was on, she became enraged (my perspective). What followed was a show of aggression that comes from, in my opinion, a striking sense of entitlement (and other things I’m not professionally qualified to label).

She informed me that my email was “distasteful” and that she “took it personally.” She said that because trust had been broken and because of this email to my list of people, she could no longer work with me as a client. She unsubscribed from my list and requested a refund for coaching.

I wrote back to explain that I could understand feelings of being “triggered.” I also reminded her that she had signed an agreement with me stating she could stop coaching at any time and that there were no refunds. Still doing my best to understand and empathize with her fragile emotional state, I offered to give her a three- to six-month pause so she could process her emotions and feel stable enough to begin coaching again. She responded with threats of legal action and a public review.

I decided to stop engaging. I had done everything I could think of to make up for her discomfort and dissatisfaction.

Two weeks later, I received a demand letter from an attorney. I didn’t read it (I had been exposed to as much caustic energy as I could handle), and I promptly acquired an attorney myself. I knew Ophelia didn’t have a case, but I wanted to put a bow on the entire situation and move on with my life.

My attorney submitted a letter to Ophelia’s attorney recapping the situation, detailing all my offers to make up for the hotel, and a reminder that she had signed a coaching contract stating there were no refunds, as well as pointing out that her emotional responses were not a provision of the contract. (I had also received signatures from all participants prior to the retreat stating, among other things, that they were psychologically and physically well enough to take the trip. More about these in my next post.)

We received a second demand for part of the money being requested in exchange for a non-disparagement agreement. Our answer was ‘no’. By this point, I was over the emotional charge of the situation, and I didn’t care (never did, to be honest) that she might write a “public review.” To whom? She was/is one person in a big world. And while she may have smeared my name (may still be, for all I know) to people we have in common and beyond, I felt comfortable knowing that aware, stable people would see the bigger picture.

I wasn’t worried about my public image because, despite my mistake of inadvertently choosing a sub-standard hotel, I know that my level of integrity is high. I know I’m honest, that I care about people – especially my clients and retreat participants – and that this was just one blip on the heartbeat of my work and my life. And I trusted that people who really know me would know this, as well.

My attorney wrote back to the other attorney to say that Ophelia was free to write what she liked so long as it wasn’t something that would damage my business. I don’t know what she’s written, if she has written anything, and I don’t ever care to know. It has nothing to do with me. It’s none of my business.

I support her right to share her experience from her perspective, and I trust that it might even take care of some pre-qualifying of clients and retreat participants for me because anyone who might read her account, if written honestly, would know that in the big picture of life, unfortunately, mishaps occur and people – even retreat leaders and coaches – make mistakes. Or, they were to consider me a thoughtless piece of shit, I wouldn’t want to work with them, anyway.

So, the “story” ended there, in terms of our interactions with each other. I confirmed with my attorney that I could write about the ordeal – from the perspective of a “retreat gone wrong” and what I learned from it (because I know I’m not alone when it comes to retreat mishaps), so long as I didn’t use Ophelia’s real name.

My hope in sharing this story is that if you’re a retreat planner/leader and have experienced something similar, you won’t feel so alone. Or if you haven’t had a similar experience, maybe mine and what I learned, which I’ll share in my next post, will help prevent you from ever having to navigate this kind of predicament.

And… if you’re a retreat participant, I hope some of the tips I have in my next post will help you in choosing future retreats to ensure you can have the best experience possible, even when things go “off the rails.”

Please check back for my next post – Lessons Learned, which offers a few points for retreat success and other thoughts about what it means to be a retreat leader and a retreat participant, and well as a writer and a human… all from my humble, limited perspective.

As always… I send you mad writing mojo.

Bright Blessings and Creative Courage,



Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Two (The Planning)

Photo by from Pexels

As promised in my last post, I want to share my experience of the Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat to Vancouver, BC that went way off the rails.

I’ll start by saying that my ROTR retreat to Vancouver was my first overnight retreat. I had decided it was time to branch out from the one-day train retreat I did last fall to Seattle and give one a little further out on the west coast Amtrak line a go. Vancouver, BC seemed like a great place to start.

I spent a lot of time scoping out locations for activities that would align with the topic for the retreat: The Heart Chakra and Antagonists/Supporting Characters (content from my Writing Through the Body™ method). I wanted to be mindful of finding locations and sites that wouldn’t require a lot of travel time within the city. I also wanted to provide everyone with ample alone time to explore in Vancouver because I know we writers LOVE our alone time, and getting out to take in unfamiliar sights is a great way to freshen our perspectives and our writing practice at the same time.

If you’ve planned a retreat of any size, you know that this part of the process is a bit like playing a chess game. You think ahead, strategize, anticipate all the possible needs of your participants and all the possible things that could go wrong, with the number one goal being to give them an experience that will get them closer to their desire – in my case: to make progress on their books.

I wanted to find a way to visit ALL the parks in Vancouver but quickly realized that wasn’t realistic given time constraints and travel time, so I landed on Queen Elizabeth Park as a location for one of our group activities. I figured with it being the highest point in the city, it would be a nice reprieve from the bustle down below on the afternoon of our first full day there.

We were scheduled to arrive at the King Street station at 11:30PM on a Thursday. Amtrak offers only one direct trip from Portland to Vancouver, BC, and it seemed the best option, given that all the other trips going that direction required a transfer to a bus. Writing on the bus was not what I was offering, and to be honest, it didn’t sound appealing to me at all. So, I figured it wouldn’t be to my participants either. I wanted us to have the full eight hours up and back to write on the train… that was the point of the entire trip, after all.

Because I wanted to give everyone a chance to sleep in the next morning (Friday) and revel in a slow start to the day, especially after our late arrival the night before following an eight-hour train ride, I planned two activities at Queen Elizabeth Park for Friday afternoon, as well as dinner at Chambar, one of Vancouver’s top restaurants, for Friday night.

For Saturday, I planned an open day for participants to explore the city alone or together and/or wander off to get some more writing done. Saturday night, our last night there, I planned another group dinner at Joe Fortes, another of Vancouver’s highly recommended restaurants.

(I knew that at least two of the participants had dietary restrictions – as do I – so I was sure to find restaurants that would allow for substitutions and make accommodations for those who needed it.)

When searching for lodging for us all, I wanted to find a hotel within walking distance of many of Vancouver’s top sites and attractions and that would not require a lot of costly travel time for those who wanted to venture further out. I also wanted to keep the overall cost down and keep the focus on the writing rather than bill the retreat as any kind of “luxury” experience. The “luxury” was about being able to experience immersive writing time on the train.

This proved to be a challenge. I looked at a few large Airbnb rentals, but the 30-minute travel time back to the city for all the rentals available at the time that would accommodate us all was more than I wanted to tack onto our days, and I thought this would, again, create more cost for participants. It would have also made transportation to group activities trickier.

I found that, despite my planning this retreat several months in advance, I couldn’t find hotels with enough vacancies for all of us (I was hoping for a max of 10 and a min of six) that were within what I thought was a reasonable price range.

I finally found a hotel that seemed to fit all the requirements needed for the retreat, so I reserved a block of rooms and included information about it on the website for the retreat.

With all the planning details taken care of, I could now advertise the retreat and plan for the virtual pre-trip class I would offer on the content – The Heart Chakra and Antagonists/Protagonists.

I had hoped for a minimum of six writers. I got four, and I was happy with this because it was, as I said, my first overnight retreat, and I knew all the people who were going: two were clients, one was a person I knew from networking who had referred one of my clients to me (they are friends), and the other had gone on my last one-day train retreat to Seattle.

Knowing the people who would be going, having some already-established mutual respect and familiarity between me and them gave me a sense of security about executing the retreat.

All seemed well. And it was… until we reached Vancouver, BC, at 11:30PM on that Thursday…

To learn about what went wrong – even before we had made it through the customs gate at King Street Station in Vancouver – read The Execution, my account of our time in Vancouver.

In the meanwhile… as always, I’m sending you mad writing mojo.

Bright blessings and creative courage,