Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part Five (Lessons Learned)

Photo by Rahul Sharma from Pexels

If you’ve been following my most recent posts, you know all about how my Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat (ROTR) to Vancouver, BC, went WAY off the rails and why I’m writing about it here… to let you know you’re not alone if you’re a retreat leader/planner, to reflect on the lessons I learned, and to offer a few tips to leaders and participants, alike, to help ensure your best experience, regardless of what transpires.

My first post in this series was about how ROTR was born. The second post was about the planning that went into the most recent ROTR in Vancouver, BC that went way off the rails. The third post was about the execution – the most lengthy post in this series – and what went wrong.

My last post was about the aftermath – what occurred between me and one of my retreat participants after coming home and why she went after me legally. With the story told – from my perspective – and it now behind me, I’d love to offer the lessons I learned and what I’ll do for future retreats, as well as some things I encourage you to consider for your own future retreats, whether you’re a planner/leader or a participant.

For participants –

  • Read the web page for the retreat thoroughly. Retreat leaders create web pages so you’ll have all the information you need to make a sound decision about whether the retreat is right for you. If there is no web page, take the initiative to contact the retreat leader and ask for the hotel name and address. Then, do your research. In the end, it’s your responsibility to determine if the accommodations, group activities, restaurants, and all else are right for you.
  • Be prepared to “go with the flow.” Know that, despite the most earnest planning, on your part and on your retreat leader’s part, sometimes things go wrong. People make mistakes, things get by them, the planets decide to do some wacky dance in the heavens… When this happens, trust that your retreat leader has done everything she could to provide you with a good experience, that she’ll do what she can to make things right, and if she doesn’t, tell her what you need or do it for yourself to make the most of the situation.
  • Read all documents you sign carefully. Know what you’re agreeing to.
  • When going on a writing retreat, go with a writer’s mind. View life as an endless provider of fodder that will feed your creative practice. (Most writers don’t write about everything that went well… they write about life’s struggles.) Embrace surprises, the unsavory, the detours. It’s all life, and that’s what we write about.
  • Take responsibility for your experience and your emotions. All the retreat leaders I know do what they do because they want to provide memorable experiences for their clients and participants. And even in the remote circumstance when/if this isn’t true, remember that your experience and what you get from it is up to you, regardless of what happens. We all go through difficult times in life. If you are at a place in life where you find yourself “in recovery” and easily “triggered,” consider forgoing trips, retreats, and overnight activities. Stay home, take care of yourself.

For retreat planners and leaders –

  • Do thorough research. This is a no-brainer, I know, yet I still encountered a problem. It isn’t practical or financially feasible for many of us to travel to the place we’ll hold our retreats beforehand. Search online for reviews of the hotel (which I did), info about the neighborhood and street of the hotel (which I did not), and ask people you know who are familiar the area (which I did not). Had I done the latter two, I would have known about Hastings Street.
  • Create a web page for your retreat and provide links. I did this for my retreat and still had problems, so in the future, I will…
  • Remind participants and potential participants to follow the links provided and to read about the hotels, restaurants, and other venues included in the retreat. I will also encourage them to research the area on their own to make sure it’s right for them.
  • Maintain a business mindset: Carry liability insurance, and require that participants sign legal documents. We, unfortunately, live in a litigious society, and many people these days have a profound sense of entitlement. This isn’t to say that we ought to be cavalier or thoughtless about what we offer our participants, but for those who have this sense of entitlement, many require perfection from everyone around them. They allow no room for human fallibility, and many lack compassion – for themselves and for others. Remembering the business side of the retreat will protect you from potential oversights (errors and omissions).
  • Pay attention to red flags. I saw a few red flags when I first started working with Ophelia… before she had even signed on as my client, yet I let them go because she was a referral from someone I thought I resonated with enough to trust that a connection with Ophelia would be within some sort of workable realm. I was wrong. And as I learned, due to Tracy’s quiet complicit-ness, she and I don’t resonate as I first believed.
  • Don’t let yourself be bullied. We’re all going to encounter people who are grappling with issues that have nothing to do with us, and many of them have become skilled in using manipulation and bullying as survival mechanisms. The best thing we can do for ourselves and for them is to stay in our emotional lane, stay in our integrity, and not be pulled into their chaos while maintaining compassion for them and their struggles.
  • Take responsibility for what’s yours. I never once tried to pass off the hotel as “acceptable” after we stepped across the threshold. I apologized many times, and I made all the efforts I could think of to compensate for extra costs and discomfort. That, I was willing to take on. To me, this is not only good business sense, but it also creates a positivity around us and within our lives when we own up. But being responsible for someone else’s emotional response is not our burden to bear.

My lessons –

  • Be willing and confident enough to charge more. Because I wanted to keep costs down and make the retreat more appealing and doable for people, I went with a lower cost hotel. What I thought was doing people a favor, in the end, created a problem. Some might say that this approach comes from a scarcity mindset. I’m open to contemplating that more than I already have.
  • Create an application for all people interested in future retreats. This is a great way to qualify people and determine if they’re a good fit for me and my retreat. By asking the right questions, we can learn a lot about people.
  • Add a new section to my retreat web pages that offers a list of reasons why “This retreat is for you if…” and “This retreat is not for you if…”
  • Qualify my clients. After this experience, I will provide all potential clients with a questionnaire to learn more about them, where they are in life (emotionally, spiritually, mentally) – how mature they are, and how prepared they are to delve into the long journey of writing a book.
  • I’ve come a long way. There was a time in my life when I would have royally beat myself up for a long time for the hotel mis-step. And while I certainly didn’t disregard the unfortunate circumstances that occurred or take it lightly, I was ultimately able to practice what I was teaching on the retreat: self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-love.

I found it profoundly ironic that the retreat’s focus and content – the concepts specific to the Heart Chakra – came directly into play. We were all being presented a first-hand lesson in the Heart Chakra concepts. While I was in the middle of it all doing my best to do my best, I was also able to step outside it all and notice how each person on the retreat – myself included – managed the situation and was able to (or not) practice forgiveness and compassion – for each other and for ourselves – as well as who became protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters, depending on each person’s point of view. (There was far more to tell, but these posts were already lengthy, and I wanted to spare you even more detail.)

The reason I offer retreats is that I like to give people experiences that will take them outside their usual go-to mindsets and day-to-day experiences. The reason I’m a coach and teacher and the reason I’m a writer is that I find humans, human behavior, and the human condition fascinating.

We all have our individual, like-no-other experiences in life that shape us and cause us to desire, fear, and behave in the ways that perpetuate our programming. When we write stories, we explore what re-programming might look like and what it takes to make it happen. And when we live life, we can do the same.

Writing is about life, and if we’re to write from a deep place that seeks to grapple with its difficulties, we’ll be called, time and again, to face its nitty gritty underbelly. And when this happens, we can either continue to do what we’ve always done, or we can do what we expect of our characters: elevate, grow, and transform.

I do have regrets that the hotel situation occurred on the retreat. I also know that, in the end, a lot of good happened on the retreat. My research on the chakra system hasn’t been solely to create my Writing Through the Body™ method which serves as a tool to help my clients and workshop/retreat participants write more deeply… I’ve research the chakras because it’s a system that helps me live my life better.

It helps me see the big picture, and it helps me understand people in a way I wasn’t able to before I found it. It helps me understand why people react as they do, even when their reactions and behaviors seek to hurt me. And it helps me to forgive and feel compassion for myself and for them.

If you’ve read this entire series about how my Vancouver, BC, Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat went way off the rails, bless you. And thank you. I appreciate you taking the time.

I hope you’ve read something in here that will help you be a little kinder to yourself and to others when they make mistakes. And I hope something I’ve said will help you have a quality retreat experience next time and in the future.

Thanks for reading, and as always… I send you mad writing mojo.

Bright blessings and creative courage,