Writing Retreat Joy

old parchment map, showing a a sailing ship, with two crosses cutlasses on top and eight or nine gold coins scattered between them at writing retreat

Image by MasterTux from Pixabay

I went on my first a writing retreat some years ago, at the invitation of a kind friend. Several authors were involved. We went to a wonderful wild bit of the Devon coast, drank the pub dry of first rioja and then malbec and wrote up a storm.

The place had a small natural harbour, with a history, and the tiniest, most evocative museum imaginable. For a while, I think every one of us pondered a story about a dashing pirate.

Young woman in a knitted hat and outdoor clothes sits under an overhanging rock on a rocky cliff, looking out over and inlet, with wider sea to the horizon.

Image by Joe from Pixabay

And we sketched out the story of the girl our sailor left behind him, standing on the headland with her hair blowing in the wind.

It brought out my inner Bronte, anyway. And, as anyone who knows my reading habits will attest, that doesn’t happen lightly.

The wind was a fantastic new experience for me. So were the waves it drove crashing against the rocks to fling up fifteen foot of spray at high tide. It crept into the book I was writing at the time.

This was in spite of the fact that the story had no opportunity for pirate, Jane Eyre-model heroine nor even the sea before that writing retreat.

Writing Retreat Solo?

characters in shadows - crazy authorOf course writing a novel is generally a one person activity. Audience participation is welcome at some points, obviously. (Raising a glass to all Beta Readers here.) But when you’re actually wringing the wordage out of your subconscious, do you really want other authors around? Doesn’t it loosen your grip?

To be honest, before the Devon Experience, every writing retreat I’d ever been on was a solo effort. Like Evelyn Waugh finishing Brideshead Revisited, I thought I would take myself off to a small hotel somewhere and finish my Great Novel.

It never worked. Yes, I’d get rid of the home phone, the postman, the neighbours, the Internet and the cooking and washing up. But I didn’t get rid of the appalling itch of uncertainty the dogs me. I would come home having rewritten the first two chapters several times. No further forward.

But that’s me. It worked for Waugh.

Writing Retreat Companionship…

Pile of books with an alarm clock and a bunch of flowers on a desk. Comfortable leather chair and shelves of mismatched hardback books in the background.I’ve been on a similar retreat with some or all of those first companions pretty much every year since. Well, except for lockdown. We’ve generally hired a big house and self-catered since, though.

In principle we all feed ourselves during the day. Then we stop in the early evening and report our progress. And then all eat together.

That means we pass at the kettle, topping up the tea tank. Sometimes we have a full-on conversation. Sometimes we rush back to our muse. But basically it feels like a friendly house party. Nobody is responsible for running the entertainment, because we’re all doing our own thing. But we share whatever we want to.

…and Advice

wooden object tied with rope, with a red heart shaped pouch or pin cushion hanging from the knot. Writing retreat beloved scene.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

For instance, this year, I actually convened a Post Breakfast Extraordinary because I needed advice. Everyone put aside their own ms to consider the issue. It was about one particular scene – where it should go or whether in fact it should stay at all. It was a scene I very much liked but couldn’t quite see where it would go.

The first person I ever heard say “Kill your darlings,” was Peter Hall, then of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His thesis, as far as I could see, was that if you really loved something it was almost certainly pure self-indulgence. You needed to cut it loose.

Ballerina leaps surrounded by silkThis bit of wisdom has undermined my never very solid confidence for years. 

My writing retreat companions waved Sir P aside and told me to brace up. The scene was fine and necessary.

There was then a brisk discussion of where and the thing might go. And they dusted me down and sent me off to get on with it.


Shared Experience

And the really great thing is sharing any odd experience that comes our way. In one house we rented, there were light fittings on the wall that looked like human arms. It was quite extraordinarily creepy. For the first time in my life, I began to wonder about writing a horror story.

There’s a scene in the French Black and white La Belle et La Bête where the camera tracks down a corridor and all the wall-mounted candle-arms turn to follow the characters.

Very pretty. Very chilling.

At that house, our shared ideas for stories about them got more and more ridiculous over dinner.

So instead of horror we had a serious laugh fest.

Entertainment by Moi

lonely house in ghostly lightThis time we had gone to a gorgeous house in Cumbria. We’ve been there before, and it’s very comfortable and well appointed. Really homelike. Not a horrifying light fitting in sight.

Well, actually, this time there was a stuffed oversize squirrel figure that some of us didn’t like the look of. You wouldn’t want to turn your back on it. But it couldn’t truly be called X-rated. I mean it didn’t actually have teeth.

The only hint of Gothic we had was the rain. Loads of it. Interspersed with that wonderful autumnal sunlight, that is like a spotlight or a painting by Turner.

In one such brief interlude, my Companion Birdwatcher and I set out to find a footpath to walk a little deeper into the beautiful Cumbrian landscape than a) the pub or b) the recycling bins. Though we had patronised both with much pleasure between showers.Well, we found one, off a quiet road. It was a overgrown and only intermittently visible. But it wound through a definite wood.golden light through autumn colour in forest

We strode out, squelching a bit, but determined. We even leaped a couple of rivulets, clearly fed by recent downpours. But I was not wearing my stout Brasher Boots. Indeed my shoes had no laces at all and there was a certain amount of slip sliding away. So we returned to a more clearly delineated bridle path.

feet in muddy walking boots, standing on mudWe made it to the edge of a field, over which no footpath was visible. “Well, honour is satisfied,” said the Birdwatcher nobly. “I should have checked your footwear before we came away.”

His, of course, were your country cove’s best and kept the mud firmly in its place.

But the bridle path was rutted and our own footsteps had contributed to the generally liquefying state of its surface.

I had navigated a reasonably stable oblique angle up the thing. But going back, downhill and through what felt like melting soup, was not so fortunate.

“Put your arms out,” urged the Birdwatcher, helpfully assuming a Worzel Gummidge pose in illustration.

Chocolate cake with covered with an irregular forked surface of chocolate icing, resembling the mud on the bridle path on my writing retreat.

Image by LuAnn Hunt from Pixabay

I did. And skated from one side of the path to the other under my own momentum, without benefit of any muscular activity at all.

I stood still. Possibly for rather a long time. On the ground in front of me were the sort of swirls you see when you’ve just iced a chocolate cake and it hasn’t set yet.  

“Jump?” suggested the Birdwatcher.

There didn’t really seem much alternative except to stand there until the the path might just froze.

Beaulieu River near FawleySo I jumped. Right out of one of my shoes. Executed a semi pirouette in subsiding motion. And thumped my bottom into the mud to a sound track of squelching and giggles.

There followed quite  lot of ungraceful floundering on my part. Complicated by the fact that my right shoe was now so totally covered with mud that it had damn nearly achieved shape shifter status. And I was laughing so much I couldn’t speak. So all I could do was keep waving the Birdwatcher back before he trod it even deeper into the mire and the thing disappeared for ever.

Not seeing the shoe, he was understandably bewildered by the semaphore and kept trying to make helpful suggestions.

Which made me laugh harder until my ribs hurt.

Eventually we righted ourselves and I sobered up. The Birdwatcher set a slow pace home, solicitous for me squelching beside him.

Once there, I found the mud was so liquid it had soaked through six layers to the skin. On the other hand, it provided positively embracing landing surface. And once I had a warming drink I felt on top of the world. Not so much as a bruise.

And my fellow retreaters laughed like drains for several days. So that adventure was a definite retreat bonus.

It may even go in a book one day.

Sophie Weston Author


14 thoughts on “Writing Retreat Joy

  1. lesley2cats

    I can attest to the value of that first writing retreat and its ongoing benefits to the struggling writer! Lovely post, and just made me regret all over again not having been there to see the Mud Baby.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Yes, that first one was great, wasn’t it, Lesley? Certainly convinced me that a writing retreat not only worked but could be a lot of fun.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You were there in spirit. Can’t tell you the times we toasted you. And that Zoom really worked. But you did miss the water-cooler moments by the kettle which always sent me back to work re-invigorated. We have to find a solution for next year.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Thank you, Liz. I’m just beginning to realise how very much that time away changed my approach to writing this book. I actually think I can do it now!

  2. Liz Harris

    Your retreat sounds great fun, Jenny. I love writing retreats. So far, I have only been on retreats with people I know, and we’ve organised ourselves well, knowing each other’s likes and dislikes. I now go on a week’s writing retreat in Devon with more or less the same small group each spring, and I find it inspirational. Unlike your retreat, all our food is provided three times a day, with cake in between making a fourth daily visitation of food. I wobble home at the end of each week having progressed the novel further. Bliss.

    1. Sophie Post author

      We generally hit a nearby pub for supper a couple of times and order in, too, Liz. Apart from that we take it turns to cook and actually I find my turn quite good for sorting out the wheat from the chaff of all the stuff swirling around in my brain.

  3. Yvonne Setters

    Love this you make it sound so cosy, except for the mud, and friendly. Do hope you all went away with inspirations and plots tumbling over each other.

  4. Sophie Post author

    Oh it is extremely cosy. In fact I fell asleep on the couch once, while other people were chatting and had to be (gently) urged to to bed.

    And yes, I came back with a fair amount of words done, thank you Yvonne. AND inspired and invigorated too.

  5. sarahmromance

    Oh, what a joyous post, Sophie! I love the fact that you had a fit of the giggles in the mud, laughing is such a tonic. I hope that does make it into a book one day, but for now – stay inspired to keep on with the story you were working on at the retreat. It. Is. Time.

  6. Joanna

    Missed this blog as I’d been in Spain for the week after the retreat. Yes, the retreat was inspiring and I did get back into my wip after ages away from it, doing other (legit) things. And yes, we did laugh like drains over the mud escapade but only after we knew a) Sophie was unhurt and b) Sophie was also laughing ditto. It’s the way she tells ’em, you know. Retreats can be amazing but ONLY with the right companions.

  7. Sophie Post author

    Welcome back, Joanna. The trouble with you creasing up over my mishap started me off again. I ended up with my ribs aching but not from the fall.

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