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Writing Retreats: Putting Them Into Words

Writing RetreatsIn four weeks’ time, I will be looking out over the sparkling waters of the Sound of Mull from a squishy sofa in the conservatory of a small Hebridean hotel.

I’ll have a notepad and pen in my hand and I’ll be lost in the colours and sounds of the sky wheeling with gulls and hopefully sunshine, or quite possibly rain.  I won’t care which.  This is time for me and for my writing.

Later I will meet up with the 10 to 12 other writers also here and we will share what we have been working on that day.  Roselle, our tutor, will be on hand to offer feedback and guidance.  This morning she gave us an exercise to get our creative juices flowing.  Tomorrow she will do the same.

My retreat with Roselle Angwin on the island of Iona happens every April and I look forward to it all year.  It’s not the only writing retreat I do but it’s my favourite.  I’ve also been on an Arvon course and one run by Cinnamon Press in Wales as well as some in France.  I’ve done many half-day workshops in the past but there’s nothing like a week-long ‘residential’ to get you immersed in your project and to benefit from the friendship and support of other writers that develops when you spend a week working and living together.

There are many places offering writing retreats these days including the venue I run with my husband here in the Cévennes mountains in the south of France.  Arvon is one  of the better known UK organisations (they have four venues across Britain), and there are several in France and the rest of Europe.

A quick Google search or a browse through the back pages of a writing magazine like Mslexia, Writers News or Writers’ Forum will throw up a list.  The format is usually the same: morning group work, afternoons free, then sometimes a late afternoon or evening session to share work from the day or for some other related activity like readings, sharing favourite prose passages or poems, or simply music and drinks or fun by the fireside.

Some writing retreats are open to all writing genres and experience, others specify a theme (prose, poetry, memoir, writing for radio, for children etc) or whether they are aimed at beginners or more established writers.  Participants come from all walks of life and this mix creates a vitality you wouldn’t necessarily get from joining a local writing group at home (although there are many benefits to be had from these groups).

The retreats we run at Abri Creative Writing (part of Gardoussel Retreat in the Languedoc region of the south of France) attract a varied crowd, of all levels of experience – from the absolute beginner to the writer who has already been published and maybe even has a novel, or short story or poetry collection under their belt.

Invariably, I get people saying to me when they’re considering booking on a course, But I’m not sure I’m good enough, I’ve only just started writing” or “I don’t know I’ve got anything to say, I’ve just always wanted to write”.

The thing to remember is there’s no such thing as being good enough” as a writer, since the aim is simply to express yourself as fully and as honestly as possible, be it through poetry or prose, dialogue or memoir.

Also, everyone has something to say.  It’s just about actually saying it.  A good tutor will provide support and encouragement to each person in their group no matter what they want to write or how.

It’s all about moving into the writing, journeying into yourself and your imagination, and learning techniques to aid that process, which include learning to really listen.

My work as a poet has moved forward leaps and bounds by working with Roselle and other tutors, and with the writers I have met on retreat, some of whom have become dear friends.

This year at Abri we are lucky enough to have Lucy Wadham – prose and memoir writer – running a course called “Writing From Memory”, aimed at anyone who has ever fantasised about putting their life or their experiences down on paper; also Roselle Angwin – novelist and poet – leading a course called “Writing The Bright Moment”, aimed at prose writers and poets alike; and Fiona Dunscombe running a course called “Kickstart Your Writing”, for anyone who needs some inspiration and ideas to get them off that starting block.

I’ve been going through a dry patch with my own writing recently, but I know that once I get to Iona and the one hour of silent writing that marks the start of each morning, I’ll have nothing else to do but write, and write I will.

Being pushed into a corner from which I can’t escape with emails or phone calls or TV or housework, is one of the things I value most from being on retreat.  Another is undisturbed time on my own in a wild and beautiful environment.

It’s a treat that four years ago I considered a luxury, and is now a personal necessity.

Do you go to writing retreats and make time for your writing?

Have you benefited from other writers’ support there and learned techniques that helped your writing?

About Sharon Black

Sharon Black is originally from Glasgow but now lives in the Cévennes mountains of southern France. In her past life she was a journalist and taught English in France and Japan. In her current one, she runs a holiday venue and Abri Creative Writing Retreats and Courses in the south of France.

Her poetry has been published widely. She won The Frogmore Prize 2011 and Envoi International Poetry Prize 2009, and was runner-up in the Wigtown Book Festival Poetry Competition 2011.

Her debut poetry collection, "To Know Bedrock" was published by Pindrop Press in 2011.

Her second collection "The Art of Egg" is forthcoming.

In 2013 she won the Grace Dieu Poetry Competition and took second place in the competition as well.

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  • Maria Smith April 15, 2014, 10:50 am

    Sounds idyllic, and something I’ve always wanted to do. The Arvon ones are a little out of my price range, although they do look fabulous. I will have to start looking into Writing Retreats in more detail, having a tutor deliver a workshop, and getting feedback appeals, as well as space and time to write.

    I think it’s important to get away from your normal everyday responsibilities, and being with other like-minded individuals is definitely good for the soul. Good post, thank you for sharing.

    • Sharon Black April 16, 2014, 10:19 pm

      Organising for a writing tutor to come and lead a workshop for you and a group of writing friends is a great idea Maria. It’s pretty much how I got Abri off the ground: I just picked the writer I admired most at the time – the poet Esther Morgan – and wrote to her asking if she’d come out to where I live and run a course.

      She was delighted, told me how much she’d charge and we went from there. Luckily I struck lucky (not all brilliant writers make good tutors) and the event was a big success.

      No reason why you can’t do the same – providing there are enough of you to make it worthwhile financially for the tutor – somewhere close to home to keep your travel costs down. Though ideally not TOO close to home – you don’t want phone, doorbell or pesky spouse able to to interrupt your concentration. Good luck!