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’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.
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.
Do you ever people-watch? As I write this now my mother is sitting in our first floor apartment, with her chair turned to the window. She is looking out on the street below. Just sitting and watching.
I love looking out the window and when I eat my breakfast I gaze over the road at the café opposite. I notice the old man creak as he dismounts his bicycle and leans it against the wall before going into the post office. I watch a grey-haired lady in pearls, white shirt and jacket drink her coffee, read the paper and smoke a cigarette. I think she looks like Theresa May. My mother disagrees.
“Can you imagine Theresa May leaning against a wall having a fag break?” I ask.
As I sit and stare I notice the boxer dog opposite, nose pressed against the pane as he, like us, surveys the street. The jogger crosses the road, belly forwards, bottom back. He is shaped like an S. A For Sale sign has appeared on an upper floor. I muse about whether I have ever seen the occupants of that place.
The other folk sitting outside the café are looking at their phones. Like so many, these days, our default action, when left with an idle moment, is to distract ourselves by scrolling through screenloads of inanity. ‘Chewing gum for the mind,’ my friend Dave calls it.
In all of my writing classes I encourage students to stop, listen, look, smell and feel what is in front of them. I inspire them to pay attention and to step away from the chatter of social media, to feed their souls by simply being in the moment. It is only when we allow ourselves to decompress in this way that we can make the space in our minds for creative thought.
Next month, in France, we will pay attention among the fields and vineyards and the delightful grounds of Praana Wellness. We will eat slowly, enjoying our food and good conversation. We will fill our artist souls with chateaux and old stone towns. And we will write. In Devon, in July, we will take our fill of nature, down by the millstream, the wetlands and the willows, way way down the winding lane that feels like we are entering a magic rabbit hole.
Today, perhaps, give yourself a treat and look out of the window for a while.
My second Writing Me-Treat ended just two weeks ago and though I have been teaching writing for more than 20 years now, I never ceased to be amazed by the positive feedback I receive at the end. Sure, I had planned it carefully, ensuring that we had a mix of lessons, excursions, free time, homework, feedback, writing in cafés, walks and healthy food. I had a hunch that visits to art galleries would inspire the Me-Treaters and was thrilled to see they loved the Panorama Mesdag and the Vermeer Centrum as much as I do. It was my first time running it in The Hague, where I live and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I admit that I was nervous.
Allow me to share here some of the surprises…
What surprised me at the last Me-Treat in November in Penang and surprised me just as much this time, is the way everyone seems to get along. Perhaps it is a given that people attending a writing event only come because they like words and thus, connected by a common passion, soon bond.
2. Brave writing
In a safe place, everyone gets braver about their writing, pushes their envelopes and embraces writing exercises that are designed to stretch them. During the five days we worked on poetry, mindful writing, metaphor, character, place, history and fiction. They gamely attempted new genres and dared to bare their souls at times too.
It was a small group. Frankly, I would never take more than eight people anyway and this time we had six. They were Canadian, Indian, British and American. They lived in India, Switzerland, Australia and The Hague. All were mothers. All had an open mind.
But what surprised me most of all was the laughter. The new friendships. The way words shared in this safe space are sacred, important.
We ate out at lunchtimes, but in the evenings I had planned a mix of dinners in restaurants or at my home. What surprised me here was that they preferred home-cooking, embraced the fact that the mealtime conversations could not be overheard by strangers. So, I cancelled the dinner reservation for the last night and worked on a third three-course menu with my son, Joshua, who was our cook and bottlewasher for the week.
I am so relieved that the retreats In France (May) and Devon (July) feature the same dining privacy and home-cooking.
6. To hotel or not to hotel
This time three Me-Treaters lived locally and three stayed in the wonderful Mozaic Hotel across the street from my home. I was surprised to learn that it was just as much of a retreat for the locals, despite the fact that they returned to real life between 10 pm and 10 am each day, as for those in the hotel.
We experienced a number of lessons and I learned that my Me-Treaters like lessons very much but that my creative ideas for venues don’t necessarily work. I taught inside at our dining table, sitting cozily by the fire, in a café (can be noisy), on a tram on the way to Delft (very noisy – note to self not to do this again!), at a gallery (hard to teach and be heard when you have to whisper) and in the street (no fun in the rain). I was surprised, when reading the feedback forms, that everyone rates lessons higher than food and excursions. Another note to self for next time – more learning.
And so, as I look forward to my third Writing Me-Treat, held at the glorious petit chateau of Chez Vallée, home to Amanda Graham and Praana Wellness, in Charente, France, I am relieved to know that it will be a safe space, with delicious home-cooked meals enjoyed on our own terrace, a private barn in which to take lessons, yoga morning and evening to ease us into the most creative mood and special places in which to bond, make friends, expand our writing envelopes, relax, share and laugh. Oh, and if you live locally to Amanda, in Jonzac, you can also join in the fun.
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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