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.
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.
Every year, in The Hague, a Feel at Home in The Hague fair is held in the stadthuis. It’s a fun event, with food stalls, lots of clubs, a busy programme of performances and a bunch of workshops. I signed up for one called Writing For Love and Money, led by Lisa Friedman of Amsterdam Writers Workshops.
I expect you wonder why I bothered to attend a workshop I could have easily run myself. Well, let me tell you…
The room was packed to overflowing and I did feel a little guilty to have taken a place from someone who maybe needed it more. But, that didn’t last.
It was such fun to watch one of my peers lead a class and see how her teaching and mine overlap and contrast. I found many similarities unsurprisingly and thoroughly enjoyed picking up a few gems along the way.
When I attend a workshop I like to go ‘quote-spotting’. By this I mean that I write down, verbatim, the best, most useful and wisest things that the teacher or speaker says. And you know, I learned a LOT!
Ten Gems from a Writing Workshop
Here, in a nutshell, are the ten, yes, TEN things I heard that I thought were worth sharing with you now. Ready?
I recommend that you all grab opportunities to attend workshops whenever you can. Thank you Lisa Friedman.
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.
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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