Portsmouth’s New Writing Retreat: Fruitful or Fruitless?

Writers’ HQ launched their new writers’ retreat in Portsmouth at the end of July, and S&C’s Emily Priest went along with her developing novel to put it to the test. 

Writer’s HQ (WHQ) are the new kids on the writing block in Portsmouth and last Saturday they made their mark with their first writers’ retreat in the city.

WHQ have been running for over 5 years now and was started by Sarah Lewis as a way to escape her screaming children and crack on with her writing. She launched a monthly retreat in Brighton and found that a ‘whole load of writers…were desperate for help’. With jobs, families and just life in general, we can all get bogged down and find it difficult to find time to do what we love. Writer’s HQ had this in mind when they created an informal, fun company to provide an ‘anti-procrastination butt kick’ for writers struggling with all the usual challenges. In 2016, they applied for and won an Arts Council grant, and since then WHQ have introduced their writing courses online and their writing retreats to several towns and cities across the UK, including most recently, Portsmouth.

Writer’s HQ are something different that I think Portsmouth needs. Although writing is a career choice for some, it doesn’t always have to be serious. WHQ has an element of fun that makes it easier to help people feel supported and to get through their mental blocks. With funny pictures, informal support, gold stars and the occasional swear word, I think they make writing more accessible and less daunting. As someone with social anxiety, I sometimes find it very difficult to go to local writing talks and workshops and Writer’s HQ’s informality helps me overcome those barriers. That said, I have also occasionally found myself grinding my teeth as I read their blog posts, as sometimes it feels like the peppering of ‘amazeballs’ or variations on the word ‘f*&k’ are being traded with substance.

But style differences aside, let’s get on to the retreat itself.

A month or so ago I booked my place on the WHQ Portsmouth writing retreat. I was partly curious as I have never been to a retreat before and I really needed to knuckle down and edit my novel. At £35 for a 10am-4pm day with food and drink included, I was very impressed with the great value for money. It was easy to slot into my busy schedule. Writing retreats are a great form of inspiration but sometimes we can’t take a whole weekend off family or work, so the one day format was perfect for me.

As the days counted down until Saturday 29th, I noticed some negative comments on social media about the emergence of Writer’s HQ in Portsmouth. Some people loved it but many were put off by the informality and teen-styled marketing. There were also comments questioning the professional credibility of Writer’s HQ.

However, the organisers took it all in their stride. Poppy O’Neil, the Portsmouth retreat coordinator, said, ‘there will always be pockets of resistance to something new but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. On the whole, people have been very supportive and enthusiastic…We’re not for everyone and that’s cool but on the whole Writer’s HQ is a big huggy community of badassery.’

The retreat itself was held at Friendship House on Elm Grove and as we turned up there was free tea and coffee waiting. We started promptly at 10 am and we briefly spoke about what projects we would be working on and what we aimed to write in those 6 hours. The cheerful, sweet Poppy wrote each one on the board and then we wrote in silence, non-stop for 20 minutes. After we were done we stated our progress, which Poppy recorded on the board, and then repeated. In the morning, there was a punnet of grapes and croissants for us to keep the blood sugars high, and at 12.30pm we stopped for lunch.

Lunch was very nice with plenty of sandwiches and wraps with nice fillings such as hoisin duck or chicken salad. There was also some couscous, crisps and biscuits to help ourselves to. Tea and coffee was kept topped up throughout the day. We chatted for a little and then we were back to writing for 20, 30 or 40 minutes, stating our progress, and then repeating.  When we made some impressive progress, we were given a gold star which, as a 20 year old, I thought was a little patronising. And yet, something deep inside me still strived to get one.

We finished just before 4 pm and we had all made some incredible progress. The woman next to me had written over 7,000 words. For myself, I edited 21 pages. I certainly finished the day feeling proud and productive but I couldn’t help but think that, if I was organised, I could have easily done the same at home.

As a retreat virgin, I had expected an element of work-shopping to be included. I thought that, after writing sessions, we would talk for a few minutes about what we were writing and our strengths and weaknesses.

Instead, we sat in a room for 6 hours, wrote in silence for most of it and ate nice food. Sounds great but it wasn’t what I expected. I wanted to talk about writing and to share my worries with like-minded people. I had also anticipated some different activities to keep the day fresh. I found myself getting a little ‘word blind’ to my own work and perhaps some physical activities or prompts would have helped.

The retreat model would be easily to duplicate at home: just unplug your internet router and set a series of alarms to go off every 20 minutes. Set your own targets and give yourself as many flashy stickers as you see fit. However, by actually attending the Writer’s HQ retreat, you are guaranteed no distractions. At home, you may not have the same supportive environment (especially if you have screaming children in the background).

Overall, the retreat was good value for money and very productive but I couldn’t escape the feeling there was something lacking. It was okay but that’s all. Nonetheless, I warmly welcome Writer’s HQ to Portsmouth and I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop their retreats for the future, and what else they might offer our vibrant writing community.


Their next writer’s retreat in Portsmouth is on the 26th August at The Friendship House and can be booked here.

Photography by Philip Hugo Wurlitzer.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Emily. Pleased you had a productive time at the retreat and it sounds like everyone else did too. Hurray – mission complete! Just to clarify, we’re very clear on the website that there is no workshopping element to the retreats. The day is just for writing and we don’t want anyone to get bogged down in trying to make their words perfect for sharing. Additionally, about half of our retreaters are full or part time professional writers, not always writing fiction, and it isn’t always appropriate for them to share. However, there is plenty of opportunity to talk about your work during breaks and our thriving social community is another option for that – come join our private Facebook group which is full of beta readers, idea-mulling and general writerly chitchat. As for feeling patronised by the gold stars, I mean, they are kind of joke. We will, however, admit to being partial to one too many fucks. Sarah WHQ 🙂


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