In 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?