Okoboji Writers’ Retreat: Romance Your Craft at Iowa’s Blue Water Lake

Participants meet outdoors at the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat.

Maybe it’s true love. You can’t imagine your life without it. Maybe it’s a secret crush. You play it close to the vest, only sharing it with a trusted few; it’s mostly just for you. Maybe it’s a torrid affair. Delicious, demanding. You swear it off, but it won’t let you go. Or maybe it’s a practice. A prayer. A job. A dare.

Whatever your relationship is with writing, you are welcome at the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat.

September 22–25, 2024, brings the fourth annual Okoboji Writers’ Retreat (OWR) to northwest Iowa, where a gathering of writers and guest speakers—whose collective expertise spans many literary genres—will descend on the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory campus of Okoboji’s West Lake to immerse themselves in the craft, the business, and the pure fun of writing.

This four-day retreat, the passion project of Julie Gammack, founder of Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, really is all about serving writers. And it must be working, because the writers keep coming back—and they’re bringing their friends.

Julie Gammack (right) and participants at the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat

I chatted with Julie on the phone to get the OWR scoop and to not-so-secretly scope out whether or not the retreat was something I should pursue to give my own writing projects a shot in the arm.

I found myself completely at ease talking with Julie—she’s funny, down to earth, clearly well connected, excited to be of service—and on top of everything she’s got going on, she did our interview with a dog on her head. “I’m 73 years old, Meredith, and we got a puppy. It is insane!”

A Serendipitous Start

Julie tells me, dog and all, that after a long career that bounced between Iowa, Illinois, and Maryland, and included both professional journalism and business coaching, she was about to retire and move with her husband to Florida, like you do, when the pandemic brought the world “to a screeching halt.” The universe conspired for something else entirely, and Julie found herself thinking about writers, and about Iowa.

Dawn on the campus

Gammack had organized writers’ retreats in the early 1990s, and despite it being a lot of hard work, once the Covid vaccines began rolling out in 2020, she started thinking to herself, “People are probably stir crazy, maybe it’s time for a real-time event.” She started calling around.

“Having been a columnist for the Des Moines Register,” she says, “I knew writers all over the country, and everybody said, ‘That sounds like fun.’ I had the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, and playwrights in California and Washington D.C., and all these amazing people said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll come!’ Before I knew it, I had this impressive roster of speakers. Wait. All these people are coming to northwest Iowa? What???”

Julie is continually amazed at how many people have some kind of Iowa tie. “And Okoboji has this mystical draw to it,” she says, “so the thought of hanging out with a bunch of writers for a few days on Lake Okoboji just has this kinda magical pull.

“The first year, I thought we’d be lucky if 40-some participants came, and I finally had to cap it at 100 because we’d outgrown the lodge I’d reserved.” She laughs, “And it was kinda frustrating that I had to tell people, ‘No, you can’t come.’”

In its third year, 2023, the retreat accommodated 300 writers, and this coming fall Julie expects to be able to welcome at least ­­­­that many. “Three hundred may sound like a lot, but it doesn’t seem like it,” Julie says, “because we do these small-group workshops in all these little buildings. It feels very intimate.”

A Day at Okoboji

How does it all work? I asked Julie to walk me through the first day.

After a volunteer-run campfire and wiener roast/potluck overlooking the lake Sunday night—“There’ll be singin’ around the campfire and guitars, it’s a hoot,” says Julie—the retreat kicks off in earnest on Monday morning with speaker introductions.

View of the lake from the dining hall

“Each speaker gets up and talks for one minute, no more, about their background and what they’re going to be doing that day,” she explains. “There are some people who are really well known, you know, Rekha Basu, who’s a columnist for the Register, and Courtney Crowder, and Art Cullen, but there are lots of speakers people might not have heard of. Once they hear them speak, they’re like, “Oh, I want to take that workshop.”

From there, the group breaks into panels, where participants can begin to delve into their desired area of focus. “We’ll have a panel on memoir,” says Julie, “a panel on fiction, a panel on flash fiction, a panel on journalism. . . .” The list goes on. Genres this year also include nonfiction, editing, blogging, poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, children’s literature, songwriting, storytelling, writing for visual media, marketing, and more.

Monday afternoon begins with another panel, followed by two small-group workshops, where attendees gather with a handful of other writers for a hands-on, intimate session with the facilitator of their choice. Workshop titles range from “How to Make Others Care about Your Memoir” and “The Business of Playwriting” to “How to Write a Plot Synopsis without Losing Your Mind” and “Writing for Lunkheads.” That one makes me laugh.

Songwriting small-group sessions will be brand new this year—and something Julie is very excited about. Speakers include five-time Grammy-nominated artist Justin Roberts, Kevin Boggs of East Coast Oyster Boys, and Iowa songwriters Chad Elliott and Katherine Severin Fox. “It’s a great group.”

Monday night finishes off with an (optional) catered pasta buffet dinner, wine included, “because so few restaurants are still open,” Julie says. “And this year, because we’ve got the songwriters there, we’re gonna have them do a jam session. Does that sound, like, magical?” It does! And that’s just day one.

An Ideal Setting

The beautiful location is certainly part of the draw. Okoboji is a “blue water lake,” a feature that has created a thriving community with robust arts infrastructure and a bustling summer tourist scene.

“But because all of the tourists leave by Labor Day, this entire area with all these incredible venues is just vacant,” says Julie. The Lakeside Laboratory Board of Regents-run campus that the OWR has been enjoying since its first year is complete with little stone cabins built by the WPA, used for the workshops.

“It’s just like time stopped,” Julie says, “and there are these trails in the woods—an incredible piece of property that very few people know about. And the campus director, Mary Skopec, couldn’t be easier to work with. She has been so supportive of the event.”

Julie is also beyond grateful for husband, Richard W. Gilbert, “my partner in all things, the epitome of support,” she says. “Richard is a retired media exec, but here he is on his hands and knees putting name tags together.” She mentions, too, how humbled she is by the countless volunteers who help her make it all happen there at the lake every year.

For a gal (moi) whose favorite thing in the world is floating on water, the setting seems especially ideal. I tell Julie about my slight paddleboarding addiction.

“Oh! Well! We started this last year,” Julie enthuses, “this session called ‘Listening to the Lake.’ I give scholarships to environmental writers, and they lead canoe trips in the evening and at dawn.” Um … sold!

There are also sunset cruises available for those who don’t wish to paddle—a great opportunity to do some relaxed sightseeing or connect with other participants.

Networking opportunities abound, Julie explains. “I can’t tell you how many people have found gigs, or jobs, or an agent, or clients, or a this or a that.”

Serving the Writers

Browsing the impressive list of this year’s new and returning industry experts—with more yet to be announced—I ask Julie if there are particular speakers she’s excited to be hosting. Her response is delightfully democratic.

“It’s like saying who’s your favorite child! I’ve been very careful not to have a headliner. I mean, one of our speakers won the Pulitzer Prize, I have Grammy-nominated artists, Emmy-winning writers, bestselling authors—but there is a culture in this place of: nobody’s better than anybody else. And we all have things to learn from one other. I really believe in that.”

A handful of the names I recognize on the roster include poet Caleb Rainey, columnist and author Chris Jones, children’s author Abena Sankofa Imhotep, publisher Steve Semken of the Ice Cube Press, and fiction author Nicole Baart.

Julie hosts numerous Zoom calls with her speakers in advance “just to make sure everyone really gets that this is all about serving the participants. And that there’s no right or wrong. Some people come in just to write a better holiday newsletter, somebody there is gonna produce books, but there’s no grading. That said,” she adds, “if somebody wants to bring a manuscript, there are opportunities to meet with literary agents and publishers.

“I firmly believe there’s a story in everyone. And if we can help them tell it, whether it’s for an audience of family or a larger commercial audience, the world will be a better place if we understand where people are coming from.”

Looking Ahead to Autumn

If you’re thinking about going but are not sure you can swing it financially, don’t be discouraged! There are some scholarships available for those experiencing financial hardship, for environmental/climate writers, and for emerging voices in journalism. Julie is committed to making the retreat accessible to anyone who really wants to be there, and affirms that a diverse mix of emerging writers and professional writers creates a richer experience for all.

According to the participant survey results after last year’s retreat, 4 out of 10 participants are from outside Iowa, the numbers of professional writers vs. amateur writers who attend the OWR split right down the middle, 98 percent of attendees recommend the retreat to other writers, and 59 percent come back for another dive.

To learn about this year’s lineup of 50-plus speakers, to read testimonials, to browse the FAQ page, or to enroll, visit OkobojiWritersRetreat.com. But beware. You just might get inspired.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!