Writing Retreat 2018

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The Writing Retreat is Back

From 2009 to 2014, Unschool Adventures ran five Writing Retreats for teens. Since then, we’ve struggled to find the right location for our next retreat. Today, we still don’t have a good location.

Luckily, our friends at the High Desert Center offered to make their beautiful outdoor campus in Western Colorado available for the next Writing Retreat. Then we thought—why doesn’t the High Desert Center just run the whole program? We all agreed it was a wonderful idea.

While this isn’t an official Unschool Adventures program, you’re in good hands. Dev Carey, the director of the High Desert Center, also directed our two most recent Writing Retreats (and staffed two before that). The rest of his team is well-known to Unschool Adventures and many have worked with us before. We fully endorse the High Desert Center Writing Retreat, and we’re thrilled to help make it happen.


Sept 12 – Oct 17, 2018


Paonia, Colorado


18-24 writers (ages 14-21)


Dev, Marian, Lainey, Milla, and Alex (bios)


$2000 + travel

Apply Now

Priority Application Deadline: April 5th

Click below to apply on the High Desert Center website.
(This is not an Unschool Adventures program—we are just helping promote it.)

The following is a copy of the High Desert Center Writing Retreat page.
Please visit that page for any updates that may not be reflected on this page.

Welcome to the Writing Retreat

The purpose of the Writing Retreat is support budding writers in accomplishing an ambitious, self-paced writing challenge. This program was previously run for many years by our friends at Unschool Adventures. This year, we at HDC are running the program, borrowing from the Unschool Adventures model and adding a few of our own twists. (We’re doing this with the support and blessings of Unschool Adventures, who is unable to run the program at this time.)

The Writing Retreat is modeled after National Novel-Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo: the challenge to write 50,000 words in one month) with a community of like-minded aspiring writers. This is your opportunity to set your sights high and expand the limits of your creativity.

The goal of the Writing Retreat is rapid production of a first draft—not the careful editing and refining a final draft. Everyone at the Writing Retreat (including staff) choose a specific numerical goal for what they’ll write during the month. Then they turn off their inner editors and focus on hitting their daily word count. That’s how we roll at the Writing Retreat.

The Twist

This year The High Desert Center is excited to offer a few extra options based on excitement for outdoor adventure, dance, cooking with local foods, and fitness. Throughout the week you’ll be free to join workshops in these areas or to climb a mountain on the weekends. If any of the following excite you, you’re in luck:

  • Bake your own artisanal bread
  • Learn how to lead and follow on the dance floor (see two of our staff dancing here).
  • Pursue a fitness goal with group support to keep your motivation up
  • Go hiking (and maybe do a quick overnight trip) in the beautiful mountains of Western Colorado.

The High Desert Center believes that these activities support the creative process and can breath excitement and passion into your writing.

Trick or treating on Halloween. Writing Retreat 2014. (Photo by Damian D.)

Our Community

During the Writing Retreat, students write at their own time, place, and pace. But perhaps more important than the actual writing is the Writing Retreat community itself. Where else can you live in a diverse group of fellow peers and adult staff who embrace self-directed learning?

Our group will spend five weeks living at the High Desert Center just above Paonia, Colorado (location map). Tucked between the mountains and the desert, Paonia is a picturesque small town in a valley full of organic farms, orchards, ranches, coal mines, and diverse, community-minded people. The property is located a mile and a half above town. We’ll offer daily shuttles to town, or it’s a short walk to access the local cafes, shops, and library. The property offers an incredible place to live, grow, write, and explore with access to hiking trails, stunning views, gardens, and neighboring goats.

Many non-writing activities also take place at the Writing Retreat: not only the “twists” described above but we’ll watch movies, journey into town, organize talent shows and story nights, do readings from our manuscripts, and learn constellations around the campfire. Students at the Writing Retreat are free to create spontaneous fun for themselves, whether it’s offering “free hugs” downtown, organizing write-ins at a nearby farm, recording music, or making friends in town. The lightly structured nature of the retreat makes this kind of spontaneous adventure possible; the adventure fuels our community; and the community fuels our writing.

On the top of Mount Crested Butte. Writing Retreat 2014. (Photo by Max C.)

Life at the High Desert Center

Our High Desert Center campus has an emphasis on sustainability, so you’ll have the opportunity to use solar heated showers, take a dump in a composting toilet, be outside a lot, eat food straight from the garden, collect eggs from the chickens, and be surrounded by neighbors who talk about goats, solar panels and making one’s own electric bicycle.

Group living is a little crazy and a lot of fun. To keep the place in order, we organize students into small chore teams to assist with daily cleaning. We cook our own dinners (lead by staff and assisted by students) and provide do-it-yourself breakfast, lunch, and snacks available 24/7. We enforce quiet hours but not a bedtime, so if you do your best writing at 3AM, feel free.

Reading, writing, and dreaming in the park. Writing Retreat 2014. (Photo by Monica W.)

Small Group and Feedback Sessions

Writing is a lonely affair, and it helps to share your words with others. That’s why we have  daily small group meetings with optional writing feedback sessions.

Every evening you’ll have the chance to share some of your writing with a group of roughly six other students and one staff member. We encourage you to use this opportunity to ask for feedback on your content, story, style, technique, or overall feel. The important part is that you share and talk openly about how your writing challenge is going.

Another place to share your writing—and your wacky stories from the retreat—is the group blog. Browse the Unschool Adventures 2012 group blog and the 2011 blog to get a feeling for what you might share.

The Role of the Staff

With regards to writing, our talented staff offer inspiring workshops, lead small group feedback sessions, provide one-on-one writing mentorship when asked, and undertake their own writing challenges. What they don’t do is police students’ writing. The goal of the Writing Retreat is to provide a supportive and free environment for passionate, self-directed writers to do their thing. The staff encourage writers to accomplish their stated goals without ever guilting or shaming those who aren’t meeting their targets.Staff also organize “power hours”, intensive focus times during which we crank out a huge number of words. (Student attendance at all workshops and power hours is optional.)

Our staff’s role also extends far beyond writing: they check-in with students every day, direct meal preparation, manage the chore system, lead all-group activities, help students strike a healthy balance between writing and not-writing, organize hikes and walks, and generally set the tone for a happy, healthy, and productive community. The Writing Retreat staff are experienced self-directed learners and community-oriented leaders who receive unanimously positive feedback every year from the students.

Taking a staff-led writing workshop. Writing Retreat 2014. (Photo by Monica W.) Please note that this same indoor space is not available at Writing Retreat 2018 — see the section below titled “Where to Write?”


  • September 12: Arrival at Denver Airport, group shuttle to Paonia, move-in, and orientation. Writing starts at midnight!
  • October 16: Cleaning party. Writing ends at midnight.
  • October 17: Early morning shuttle from Paonia to Denver Airport. Sadness!

Where to Write?

HDC Common Areas: our main building is a straw bale structure built by former students. It has a cozy, earthy feel.

At a coffee shop: For being such a small town, it’s remarkable the number of places you can grab a “cuppa” and write up a storm. Students love Backcountry Bistro, Nell’s, and Remedy.

HDC outdoor spaces: we take advantage of our astonishing views and have many comfortable outdoor spaces that balance comfort with natural beauty. This includes a spacious covered deck, a large hammock that can fit over ten people that past students created out of up-cycled netting from a boat, our outdoor kitchen, our swimming hole, as well as our fire pit. The weather in Paonia in the fall is optimal, the leaves will be changing colors, and the mountains will be capped by snow.

Sweet Spots in Paonia: Paonia has a great town park with deciduous trees and picnic tables. The Gunnison River passes through town and there’s a great public spot to stick your feet in or sit on the river bank and write. We are also surrounded by organic farms, and if writing while listening to goats bleating and roosters crowing is your thing, we can help make that happen.

Taking cafe of business in a local coffeeshop. Writing Retreat 2014. (Photo by Blake B.)

A Day in the Life

  • Wake up and create your own breakfast
  • Write in your best atmosphere: the deck, the strawbale, cafe, library, your bed, etc.
  • Join a spontaneous mid-day adventure with other students
  • Eat lunch (lunch spread provided in outdoor kitchen from 1-2pm)
  • Write more!
  • Do a chore (average 30 minutes each day)
  • Join the afternoon workshop or a power hour (always optional)
  • Eat dinner with the group and attend the nightly meetings (both large-group and small-group — always required)
  • Enjoy evening writing, games, dancing, power hours, or special events
  • Shhh! Quiet hours start at ten PM
  • Go to sleep at the hour of your choice

Going for a hike. Writing Retreat 2014. (Photo by Monica W.)

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the extra costs for this program?

The Writing Retreat program fee covers all food, lodging, and group activities. The fee does not cover travel to and from the High Desert Center campus. Most students who don’t live within easy driving distance of Colorado choose to fly to the Writing Retreat.

If you do fly, we recommend that you arrive at Denver airport in the morning where we will pick you up with a bus or van. Alternatively, you may fly or take the train to Grand Junction airport and arrange a shuttle or a bus to Paonia. No matter where you fly, please do not book any flights before consulting with trip staff!

In addition to travel, we recommend that students bring $100-$200 for snacks, toiletries, and other incidentals during the retreat.

I’ve never written much before. Will I be prepared to write a whole novel?

Yes! At the Writing Retreat we believe that virtually everyone can write, but very few people motivate themselves to write. This retreat offers you a chance to write in a supportive atmosphere of fellow novices without every-day distractions.

Can my friends or family come to visit?

Yes, visits are possible.  Normally we ask people to only stay for a day or two and to not sleep in our cabins.  Finally, it is important that visitors get themselves to and from Paonia.  Generally we are unable to be pick up visitors at airports or bus stations.

What if I have special food needs?

We are  accustomed to meeting the needs of vegetarians and vegans, although you should expect to eat local beans and walnuts rather than avocados and soy cheese.  We can also minimize gluten, although it has proven challenging to serve those who are strongly celiac (we have done it).  If you have special food needs that aren’t easily met with a local, whole foods diet, you might need to supplement with your own snacks.  Please talk with us well in advance about your special needs.

What is the sleeping and laundry situation?

Our campus has cabins with 4-6 dormitory-style beds each. Students and staff will stay in different rooms, and all rooms are gender-segregated. Each student will have a small amount of personal storage space, so plan to live out of your duffel bag! We provide a mattress cover and pillows, so be prepared to bring a sleeping bag and and a towel.  We will make a trip to the local laundromat in Paonia once a week.

What policies and procedures will I be asked to agree to in this program?

We will ask you to sign an agreement form that includes:

  • No use of drugs (including tobacco and marijuana) and alcohol.
  • Doing your share of cooking and cleaning.
  • Abiding by fire and general safety procedures.
  • Participating fully in program activities unless there is agreement otherwise.
What’s the weather like?

Variable! In September and early October, Paonia most likely will be sunny and in the 70s or 80s during the day, and it might drop down in the 30s at night. Sometimes we’ll even get a dusting of snow, but it’s unlikely.  In any case, bring a varied wardrobe that will work when it’s hot and when it’s cold.

How do I know if my young unschooler is ready?

This challenge does take a certain level of emotional maturity to navigate living around other teens of widely varying ages and personalities. Please drop us a line to discuss whether your student is ready.

“We want YOU to apply to the Writing Retreat!” (Writing Retreat 2014)

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