Last month I ran my How to Write Your Life Stories residential retreat at the glorious Watermill at Posara. Next week I shall run it again – a second time this summer. Last month’s course was without a doubt the most magical one so far. It seemed to be special for a reason none of us could really put a finger on.
We were lucky enough to have students from a range of backgrounds: some lived with illness; some knew divorce, bereavement, transition, abuse; some were artists; one a therapist and we even had a lay preacher.
Towards the end of the course as we sat on the Vine Terrace in the early evening for our daily feedback session, it was Dave’s turn to speak.
Wow! That was quite a phrase, but yes, that is exactly what happens on a Me-Treat. I am not so immodest as to think that it happens because of something I do specifically, but as a result of many many things: the environment; the people; the lessons; the fact that those who come do so for themselves and are hungry for what is to come.
“I lift thee and thee lift me!”
I was thrilled and grateful that such a massive phrase was attributed to my work, but yes, this is exactly what I want a Me-Treat to be.
If you would like to try one for yourself, and are ready to give yourself a gift, then maybe you would like to come to Italy next June for this very same course, or come to Stamford in England for a taster weekend in May or try the one in France next September?
Me-Treats can be booked on this website at www.writingmetreats.com.
Last weekend Ian and I visited the nearby city of Rotterdam for a 24-hour break. The weather was glorious and so we decided to take advantage of our host nation’s efficiency and hire bicycles direct from the train station. It was cheaper than taking our own bikes on the train – our usual train cards could simply be swiped and we’d be on our way.
Only, it was not that simple.
The Dutch are tall and can cycle straight from the womb. They pootle around the country’s cycle lanes with their arms folded. Their bikes don’t mess about with handlebar brakes. Oh no, they just back pedal a bit while keeping those long old arms folded.
No one would describe me as a robust driver. I find it very hard to look over my shoulder and not turn the bike (or steering wheel) in the same direction as my eyes. Even when I do manage it, my varifocals present me with a useless blur.
I am short. Even with the saddle set to child height my feet could not touch the floor. Stopping the darn thing meant I had to back pedal and then jump. I soon realised that I was used to slowing down (using handbrakes) before looking over my shoulder to check for overtakers before coming to a total halt. How on earth was I supposed to brake before I needed to brake, then? So, I didn’t, I fell off.
This is just the start of a gorgeous weekend somewhat blighted by bruised elbows and egos. It was a shame because I love cycling so much I quote it as the best thing about this country.
Could you spot ten ideas in two days?
The day before our trip I had set some of my students the task of noticing things that happened to them in the context of living abroad and making a note. It is these seemingly mundane experiences that can be the catalyst to an insight or a parallel that could become a blog post or article. I had asked my students to spot 10 things over the course of two days and so in good humour I decided that it was only fair that I did the exercise too. Indeed, I gleaned at least 10 ideas from the bicycle fiasco alone.
Let me give you three examples of how the writer’s mind should work, taking a fragment of what happened that weekend and using it to create a larger piece:
On a Writing Me-Treat I encourage students to pay attention and notice where ideas are lurking. If you want to be a real writer and want to get published and paid for it then you need to be able to come up with ideas all the time.
I ran my first online writers’ circle last week and was discussing the writing of articles with my students.
“I think I am more of a gardener,” said Nikki.
“Eh?” I think I responded. I had never heard this phrase before, well, certainly not in the context of writing.
“I am more of a gardener than an architect,” she continued.
I was none the wiser so asked for more explanation. And after she had explained I asked her to repeat it so I could take notes.
You see, some writers like to plan it all out first – to create a structure and then start writing. Others are more of the ‘put the pen on the paper and just go’ type of writer, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her book Writing Down the Bones, like me.
Nikki told me that the original concept is attributed to George RR Martin, the guy behind the Game of Thrones novel, who wrote:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.
George RR Martin
The gardening bit
In the online writers’ circle, in my workshops and on Me-Treats I always include plenty of spontaneous exercises where I present an idea and immediately give students five, 10 or 15 minutes in which to write something. I give them with a seed of an idea, let them start gardening and just see where it takes them; how it grows.
For me, I start with the germ of an idea, one that is not yet fully formed, put fingers to keyboard and go with the flow, writing from my gut until my ideas run out. I work out what I am going to say while I am writing it.
The architect bit
After a break (a few hours or more) I return to the piece to put some structure onto it, adding subheadings if I feel I need them, maybe moving the text around a bit and cutting unnecessary words. I always ensure I include some kind of insight or takeaway because I like my readers to feel that my words are worth reading enough to come back again.
It makes no difference whether you are a gardener or an architect, or, better still a bit of both. It is okay to start off with a detailed plan or with just a seed. What matters is that you accept who you are and learn to craft your natural style into a coherent piece worth reading.
I’ve just finished preparing the notes for my next Writing Me-Treat. This one will take place in Charente-Maritime, about an hour inland from Bordeaux. We are going to take advantage of the incomparable hospitality and setting of a 19th Century distillery called Chez Vallée that is now home to Amanda and Fraser Graham and Praana Wellness.
As usual on a Me-Treat we are going to take our cues from the place in which we find ourselves. We will take mindful walks and remind ourselves how to pay attention and really take in our surroundings, not just so that we enter a peaceful state of mind but in order to allow the inspiration to flood in. And it is while we are away from our normal routines that we will notice things that are ‘out there’ and find resonance with our own stories. Which is just the beginning.
I’m currently reading and loving The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr and taking tons of notes. Boy, that woman is wise. Mind you, she is the English Literature Professor at Syraceuse University and her memoir classes are woefully over-subscribed.
So, there I am, writing notes from almost every page it seems when one of them leaps out at me:
“Truth is not the enemy – it’s the bannister you grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs.”
Wow! Many budding, talented writers struggle with their truth, with finding it in the first place and then with teasing it out into a piece of writing that has some meaning.
“You get a fragment of a ‘something’ and hang on for dear life until the ‘end’ appears and you can pull and untangle into something that just might be useful,” writes Karr.
It’s a big ask and it’s ambitious but this is my hope for all the students who attend one of my Writing Me-Treats, that somehow, through being in a safe, gentle and inspiring place, a fragment of a something will emerge, and then, thanks to a small group of generous-spirited like-minded cheerleaders to lend a hand, the untangling can begin.
Yes, a Me-Treat will help you to find your voice and it will help you to believe in yourself and your story. It may be a little challenging and you may not be quite sure of the colour of the wool that you start to extract, but you will start to find the meaning you have been searching for.
Talking with Olga Mecking was a bit like chatting with myself 25 years ago when I was just a few years into my fledgling career as a freelance journalist. Olga is a polyglot, Polish by birth and living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three young children. She is totally dedicated to making it as a freelancer and her drive and passion make her the ideal role model for other new writers.
We meet in the coffee shop of The Hague’s Filmhuis and I almost miss her. I find her with her back to me, head bowed, reading a book on her iPad, sitting behind a pillar. But that’s typical of Olga I guess, for, despite living in the same city I have never bumped into her in the flesh so to speak. Online however, it is another story. That’s where I find her all the time.
I mentor new writers and have done so for more than ten years. Mostly they start by taking my Definite Articles course either online or in a live workshop and then I do my best to help them get a career off the ground, first with blogging, then writing articles for free and then moving to source hidden paid-for markets. I suggest my mentees and students write for six different places.
“I had been published in fewer than six, I think,” she tells me before taking a sip of her ginger tea. “Maybe six places but some of those were guest posts on other blogs.”
It is gratifying to find that the ‘rules’ I have been bashing my students over the head with for years still hold true and more gratifying still to discover that she, like me a few years ago, is pretty good at finding paying markets. Like me, she recognised that getting published, albeit for free, for a reputable publication would really give her career a leg up. My launchpad publication back in the 1980s was the Weekly Telegraph.
“I wanted to write for Huffington Post,” she explains. “They pay now by the way.”
Being able to say you have been published by a big name does wonders for the ego as well as the portfolio. Of course, Olga maintains her portfolio, over at OlgaMecking.contently.com and an impressive sight it is too. She began by blogging as EuropeanMama for seven years. She then moved up to being paid as a freelance and has three years under her belt.
“You need to read and write a lot,” she advises. “And to pitch and pitch. I have about three successes for every ten I send out and I try to pitch most days. Oh, and you need to think of yourself as a writer too.”
Now that is dedication, motivation and being serious about what she wants.
“It’s not just about pitching, though,” she continues. “You have to follow up once or twice too. I follow up first after a week. Many pieces were only picked up after my second follow-up call.”
We both agree that it’s vital a writer can ‘see where the stories are’. I believe that a writer can spot a paying market too. This is why Olga spends so much time online.
Like me, Olga gets bored quickly. She has found it hard to stay within one niche and finds the expat issue niche to be too limited. She rarely writes for EuropeanMama now. But one thing that never bores us is writing in any form or genre. Olga has produced an anthology of posts by bloggers in the Netherlands, called Dutched Up and has just translated her grandfather’s holocaust memoir into English. One Chance in a Thousand is now available on Amazon.
It is impossible, for me at least, to live in the Netherlands and not visit the Keukenhof gardens. First established in the 17th Century this 20- hectare site becomes aglow with fragrance and colour as it opens its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors to its displays of spring flowers. We visited on Monday.
Having been in Malaysia for a few years it had been more than five years since my last visit and this time I noticed a change. Instead of swathes of block colour created from hyacinths, narcissi and tulips, they now had a joyful abundance of mixed beds. Beds with seven or more varieties in them, as varied in height and hue as an English country garden.
“Did you bring the SLR camera?” I asked Josh, half hoping he’d take a few photographs that would be better than mine and suitable for a blog.
“No,” he said. “I’m going to write word pictures instead.”
That’s my boy, I thought.
“I challenge you to a poem-off!” he declared.
And so, as the day went on we dueled with descriptions of the cherry trees, “with icy fingers stretching towards weak spring sunlight that turned its blossom into summer snowflakes,” and “the grass skirts” of the fritillaries among other things we failed to write down.
Then we were over by the lake, a favourite spot of mine.
Josh pointed at a deep pink hyacinth. “What colour is that one, Mum?” he asked.
“Pride!” I said and battle commenced.
Rich indigo was “pomp”, pale pink was “first love”, a peach one, “wedding day” and so on We had soon collected “pity” and “greed”, “shyness” and “obsequiousness” and with each appropriate word we were filled with an increasing sense of achievement and fun. Oh yes, that reminds me, a vibrant yellow was “glee”.
Yes, to me, this kind of exercise is simply fun. I made a mental note to add an exercise I shall call “A Flowering of Emotion” to all future Me-Treats. Join us in France (May) or Devon (July) to try it for yourself.
author, journalist, teacher and poet
'Sharing what I know to help others to grow.'
Jo Parfitt has published 31 books, helped more than 100 authors get into print and more than 1,000 to begin writing. She's an inspiring, compassionate and encouraging teacher.
Jo has run Summertime Publishing since 1997. She has lived abroad for almost 30 years – in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia. She specialises in inspiring others who write about expatriate issues.
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