How to Get a Free Writing Retreat (Or Almost Anything)

2022.04.22 - Me and Dog Boomer

Penland Craft School offered the chance to sit around melting glass on blow torches into beads for two weeks in the mountains of North Carolina. To commune with other artists. To be in what felt like another world.

And I could have never afforded to go. 

But! Penland offered a work-study.

At the end of each day of my residency, I helped make salad for 200 people and serve it up in the wild rainbow of the artist-made ceramic serving bowls. I was happy to do it. 

With a tuition of about $2,000, (as I remember), I was able to instead pay $400, using another kind of value: my time and labor. 

This introduced me to bartering in the real world. 

Psst: This site uses affiliate links.

If you’ve ever been a child, you know how to barter.

Like early man, children have no money. They use what they do have to get what they want. 

A juice box to ride your bike for 15 minutes. 

You can wear my new shirt if you do the dishes tonight.

I won’t tell my mom you threw me in the recycling bin, as long as you carry my backpack. 

(Ok, so that last one might be extortion.) 

By offering work-study programs, Penland gave me a side door to get around the brick wall that had stood between me and so much I wanted to do, see, and buy while young — money. 

Before, I had applied for scholarships.

When I was 13, I filled out paperwork and did interviews for a program to travel to Finland for the summer. I wanted it so badly the desire beat with my blood for weeks. I didn’t get it, and I hated that the decision lay entirely with this other entity. I felt just so at someone else’s whim. 

With work-study, there’s no feeling of hand-out charity. Though I do believe scholarships are still a necessary part of the ecosystem where social justice is concerned, for me, there was something empowering about the equal exchange of value. It feels more natural. It does not place one person over another. You come together as partners in a mutually beneficial exchange. 

Bartering is something I still do. If a writer needs a coach but can’t afford my program, they have before helped me with social media, admin, or other projects. Of course I can’t afford to do that with everyone, but I love having a few of these arrangements going at all times. 

Bartering is how I’m moving through the world right now.

My friend Annalis asked me if I would cat sit for her, and got me on the app Trusted Housesitters. It opened up a whole new world for me. It’s like AirBnb, only all it costs is my dog-feeding skills and there’s a little cuddle buddy to hang out with.

Would I give a cat its meds each night to spend four days in Taos? Yes I would. And I did. 

As I write this, I’m overlooking the water in a gorgeous 4-story house, watching the ferries lull back and forth. I’m getting ready to head over to the UK for a month at four different sits. I find beautiful houses and fall in love with each of the pets. I’m not paying any rent, electric, or other house-related bills right now, so I’m paying off that pesky France 2017 debt, saving for wherever I move, paying for the flights, and letting myself go out to some pretty fabulous dinners with old Seattle friends.

Tech has enabled us more than ever to get what we want through bartering. Not only can you connect with people who might need you, you can use free online classes to learn a skill that could be of value.

If you’re low on cash but high on time, give it a try.

Here’s how bartering works.

  • You shouldn’t have to beg publicly for it. I don’t like that some people make applicants post videos asking for scholarships or work-study. 
  • You should be excited and they should be excited. The benefit to both parties should be balanced.
  • You don’t have to wait for someone to post an opportunity. You can create your own.

Here are some bartering ideas:

  • Need a new headshot? Offer to re-write a photographer’s website. 
  • Need a writing coach? Find a writer you love and offer to handle their social media or write pitches for them in exchange for editing. 
  • Need a new website? Offer to write some proposals for a web developer. 

Need some help making the ask? Click below for an email template to get you started in bartering.

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