I often think about Susanne (not her real name). She was a regular on all of my workshops, eagerly signing up for courses on writing articles, books, life story and even blogs. But in all that time, and all those hours getting to know, and I hope, trust, me, she never once shared a sentence of her work.
“I never stop writing,” Susanne would say, telling us that she was now well into the third novel in a series.
“So, when are you going to show me?” I would weedle.
But Susanne would just bow her head and avert her eyes.
Even in class, whenever the students settled down to a writing task, she would take part with gusto. But when the time came to read out what they had done, Susanne stayed silent.
After a few years Susanne moved away and I naively thought that she might then email me some work to look at. But no, it seemed no one would ever get a glimpse of her work. Not even a potential editor or publisher. This really saddened me. How would Susanne find out how good her work was? Or how she might improve it?
In all my classes feedback and sharing are an important component. It can be tough listening to someone read work in progress and having to come up with comments right away. But I think it is invaluable for the student not only to hear what I have to say but also from the other students. Students tell me that this is empowering and helps them to increase in confidence. It is also valuable for the students to feel that their opinions are valid too.
Whenever I give feedback I can always, and I mean always, find something positive to say, and I start with that. I then go on to suggest what might be improved. I never say that something is downright terrible.
When, back in 2007, I attended a residential writing retreat in a Scottish castle, we all sat down over gins and tonic before supper and shared the work we had been doing during the afternoon rest-periods. I think I speak for all of us when we say that this was the highlight of the day, leaving us all feeling optimistic.
On my Writing Me-Treats we too always reconvene after the rest-period over a drinkie for feedback. And, at The Watermill, in Tuscany, when I run a life story writing course for the same folk who organised that Scottish retreat, the feedback happens over sangria on the vine terrace. I tell you, sharing is a treat. I only wish I could get Susanne to believe me.
Last May I had the good fortune to visit Praana Wellness, run by Brit, Amanda Graham, about an hour inland from Bordeaux. Running a retreat had been her dream for many years while she, much like me, travelled the world as an expatriate accompanying partner. Like me, she has created and grown a portable career along the way. Five years ago she turned her dream into reality and set down roots in the Charente region of France. Amanda is an Ayurvedic practitioner, yoga teacher and psychotherapist and all she has expertly brought all these together to become Praana Wellness in an exquisite petit chateau, called Chez Vallée.
For me, a few days at Amanda’s provided the perfect antidote to our recent move back to Holland from Malaysia and the setting was so idyllic that I was not too interested in driving out to explore the surrounding area. Instead, I took advantage of twice-daily yoga, the fabulous food and just sitting and looking.
I never fail to be inspired by nature and it was not long before my fingers twitched to write poetry. Last May I shared one I called Nirvana with you over on my JoParfitt blog, but here is another that is an example of how beneficial attending a retreat can be for the writer’s soul:
Chez Vallée, Chez Moi
If you fancy a slice of heaven at Amanda’s Praana Wellness then join me on a Writing Me-Treat May 11-15 and feast on a slice of wonderland.
I love reading memoir and two of my favourite memoirists also happen to be musicians. Maybe it is the fact that they have a natural rhythm that makes the difference?
For years I kept Alex Kapranos’ Sound Bites in the loo. I apologise if that is a little indelicate. The short pieces he wrote about his eating experiences on the road with his band Franz Ferdinand are perfectly crafted morsels of delight, with just the right balance of scene setting, description and character to make them memorable.
I got hooked on Patti Smith’s writing with Just Kids, first. This is a memoir of her early days in New York, reading Rimbaud on park benches, working in book shops and hanging out with her soulmate, the photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. More recently, I adored M Train. Now in her 60s and a widow for many years, Smith writes mainly of mundane things. Of her routine, of her daily walk and coffee in the café over the road and of how she spends her time, hanging out mainly on her own.
Both writers are experts at evoking a scene. Not necessarily an unusual or awe-inspiring scene, but just day-to-day stuff. A café with faded flocked wallpaper and dark furniture, where he ate pork knuckle; the way she would pat the bald pate-like head of her coffee machine as she walked into the kitchen, then dressed in her watch cap and pea coat and went downstairs to the pedestrian crossing and waited for the light to turn green.
Like Natalie Goldberg, writer of my beloved Writing Down the Bones, both these writers could make something worthwhile out of just sitting down in a café or restaurant, watching people, thinking, looking out of the window at the weather and musing.
Good writers, may I be so bold as to say ‘real writers’, can do this. They can go out alone for a coffee or sandwich, sit down, open their notebooks and just write. They may wait a few moments but soon the pen will start to move. They may not write anything life-changing at first but before long something will appear on the page. It may be a fragment, the germ of a story, an idea or the description of the couple on a nearby table whose silence speaks volumes.
On the Writing Me-Treat I am running in March in The Hague, we are going to sit in the city’s oldest café and practise being Patti Smith, Alex Kapranos or Natalie Goldberg. We will do this in a café in Cognac in May and in one of the quirky coffee shops in Totnes in Devon in July. But you don’t need to attend a Me-Treat to start the habit of writing about nothing. You could start now, today, if you wanted.
Terry Anne Wilson is a writer who is passionate about people and history. If you have ever looked at her excellent blog, Notes on a Boarding Pass, you are likely to be amazed at how easily she appears to get the people she writes about to open up, share their stories and agree to be photographed.
Last November Terry Anne attended a Writing Me-Treat in Penang. One of our excursions was a trip to Chow Rasta food market. Her fellow students were in awe of the ease with which she had the stall-holders ‘eating out of her hands’.
Afterwards she agreed to share her tips with us in the following video:
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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