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Writing Retreat 2022



Plus, enjoy a tight-knit community, opportunities to dance, cook, and explore Colorado’s great outdoors.

  • WHO
    8 to 15 writers, ages 18-24
    Paonia, Colorado
  • WHEN
    June 5 to July 10, 2024
  • COST
    $2,800 plus travel

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 of 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.

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 four 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.

Life at the High Desert Center

The two age groups, 13-16 and 17-23, will live separately during the Writing Retreat. Most activities and all writing feedback sessions will also be separate. However, we will have group dinners and share some opportunities, like engaging with guest speakers.

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 3 AM, feel free.

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 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.


  • 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.


  • 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


Day 1: Arrival at Denver Airport, group shuttle to Paonia, move-in, and orientation. Writing starts at midnight!

Day 34: Cleaning party. Writing ends at midnight.

Day 35: Early morning shuttle from Paonia to Denver Airport. Sadness!