How to run a writing retreat – Part 2

Put six women word-lovers together in a beautiful place, away from the usual distractions of family and work and technology and it is inevitable that some unexpected things happen and tears are shed. Of course we were here to write. Of course, with no television and evenings spent cooking and eating together it was highly likely that we’d unfurl, like young fronds of fern and that, just as rose petals fall to the ground, our masks would drop like summer’s petals.

Two nights ago, three of us sat knitting round the woodburner at Crownwheel Cottage, another lay on the floor, resting on her elbows, legs crooked at the knees eating cheese, another simply relaxed into the easy silence we’d created by feeling safe and at home here, together. No music, no Trivial Pursuit. After just a few days we all felt rooted to this place. None of us wanted to go home.

But we were here to write and write we did, most of us writing extra pieces, beyond our morning pages and beyond the exercises set by that day’s host. The more we wrote the more we wanted to write. Writers’ block became impossible.

Kathy’s day

writing under a tree
writing under a tree

In the previous post I shared the writing adventures of Christine, my and Eva’s days in charge. Tuesday was Kathy’s turn and this was the day we were going to return to civilization. First to the glorious gardens at Dartington Hall and later to the transition town of Totnes, where anything goes when it comes to clothes, men hold up handmade signs reading ‘Massage for donation’ or ‘homeless but willing to work’ and dreadlocked women sing Patti Smith outside HSBC or  plait their greying hair. This is a place where  it is perfectly fine to walk barefoot. Kathy made us think about how we might live if we had just one year left and I know that at least two of us thought we might like to stay here, in Devon, for not just a year, but forever. Leaning against a huge pine tree I wrote about taking things slowly and savouring every moment while others wrote of setting up foundations, moving ‘home’ and travelling the world. The topic, however morbid, made us think and from that day on our retreat took on a more pensive atmosphere as we all began to find not only our writers’ voices but to allow some of our hidden truths to bubble up and be shared.

Lily-Anne’s day

walking in the woods
walking in the woods

Growing up in South Africa it was no surprise that Lily-Anne wanted a day outside. Asking us to be aware of colour, a topic that to her is bittersweet, we headed off for a long walk by the freshwater lake of Slapton Ley. This was when we realized we do not have the adjectives for all the shades of green there are. Not even Farrow and Ball can do that. Instead, I decided that the pink and white fat, lilacy heads of valerian were the colours of sweet dreams and the grey clouds that now hung in the sky were as pale as a cold shoulder. The day grew chilly and our outdoor girl had planned a braai on the riverbank, fuelled entirely by wood she and Kathy had collected themselves. We were also to write our intentions on pieces of paper pinned to a boat made from locally found wood and sail it down the Gara river, but the weather went nasty and we decided to postpone this til the last night.

Fanny’s day

Blackpool Sands
Blackpool Sands

She’d planned yoga on the lawn first thing but the grey skies had now put paid to flipflops and tee-shirts and it was raining. Instead we sat inside by the fire and shared our morning pages from that day, discovering that we were now looking deeper and writing deeper than ever before. Now we were writing from the inside and being honest with ourselves about what mattered and what changes we wanted to make in our lives. Was it because this was the last day that we all felt compelled to bare our souls and take advantage of that last chance to put our hearts on our sleeves in a space that was now both safe and sacred? Fanny asked us to consider three topics and write two of them. The first was what we had learned this week, a second the phrase ‘it is better to give than to receive’ and the third that ‘it is only by looking back at our past that we can begin to make sense of the future’. Rather than spend the entire, damp and chilly day inside we headed instead for Blackpool Sands, a private beach with a vegan, organic café and ate cracked crab and scallops accompanied by massive great cups of cappuccino looking out to sea. And we wrote and wrote and wrote. By five the sky had cleared. Eva lay on the shingle beach and listened to the sea while Fanny at last got her chance to do that yoga. Before supper, we all stood by the river and declared our goals for the year to come and watched Lily-Anne’s beautiful boat drift over the rocks and out to sea.

It’s been a magical week, however clichéd that may sound. Our Hague writing group has a new member, it seems, based in Devon and an old one 7,000 miles east in Malaysia, but we are plotting a second run of this next summer because, we’ve got too close to waste this and we’ve written so much good stuff that we’d not be real writers if we didn’t want to do it again, now would we?


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