So what really goes on at a writers' retreat?
There's been a real boom in the popularity of creative writing weekends over the last few years. There are some who say writers retreats are a waste of time, pandering to writers' fragile egos and encouraging people to believe they have writing talents which they, frankly, lack.
But on the other hand, many writers really enjoy them and swear that a weekend away with other writers is a positive part of the creative process.
The truth about writers' weekends awaySo what's the truth about writers' retreats?
Chichester writer Katy Lassetter is organising a writers' retreat after Easter at Cobnor, near Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. So who better to ask what goes on at these creative writing weekends?
I met up with Katy to find out what really happens once the doors are closed and the pens start twitching.
Q. Writers’ retreats have a mixed reputation. They’re sometimes characterised as places where poor writers get to bolster their confidence but don’t learn much about writing. What do you think?
Katy: I would say that’s quite a cynical view and, like everything, you get out what you put in.
A saucy reputationQ. Writers’ retreats also have a bit of a saucy reputation. Max Dunbar of Succour magazine, for one, claims that “creative writing workshops and courses allow shy and sensitive people to get laid”. Is there any truth behind this reputation?
Q. But isn’t it better for a writer to retreat somewhere away from other people to explore their creativity?
Katy:In a way, yes. As inspirational as listening to a conversation on a train can be, having time to think and be away from the hum-drum and distractions of everyday life is very useful.
This is exactly why I chose Cobnor Activities Centre as a venue. It’s based in Chichester Harbour so it is right next to the water but has stunning views over the South Downs too; it’s also easily accessible from West Sussex and Hampshire. During the summer, the Centre can be a hive of activity but during the low season it’s tranquil and it was actually on a walk to Cobnor Point (a walk that I included in the 2011 programme and again in the 2013 programme) that I first became inspired to attempt my first novel.
I make sure to book the venue when there’s less going on so that the writers can be at one with the stunning surroundings. There’s also plenty of space so that attendees can find an area to maintain solitude, if needed.
Is writing really a team sport?Q. So what part does teamwork play in the creative writing process?
Katy: The whole idea behind the Writers’ Retreats and Creative Writing Workshops that I organise is to encourage creative writing in West Sussex and beyond.
I ask published authors and writers to run workshops where the members of the group will get the chance to inspire one another. They spend time looking at examples, thinking, mind-mapping, sharing ideas, and drawing on the group dynamic.
While writing by nature is quite a solitary activity, a workshop allows you the chance to gain and share initial ideas before refining them and coming up with a completely different short story or poem to the person you sat next to.
But do you have to be any good as a writer?Q. How hard is it to balance the needs of attendees who are very good writers wanting to raise their game a few notches with the needs of people who view a writers’ retreat as just a nice way to spend the weekend?
Katy: It’s actually not as hard as you might imagine.
Some people might go away with an idea for a plot while others will go away with a poem to work on or with the chapters that they’ve been working on for ages finally completed. Even if there are people who just view it as a nice way to spend the weekend, good for them! There’s a lot to be gained just by getting away and meeting new people. That, to me, is inspirational in itself and can be used to motivate creative writing even when you return home.
Where does creativity really come from?Q. When it comes to creative writing, do you think you either have a unique way of looking at the world or you don’t?
Katy: Each person has their own individual experiences and can therefore draw on those to shape their outlook. However, at the same time, most of us have access to the media, especially the internet, and this can help to shape the way that we look at the world also. I suppose, it all comes down to what inspires you most – is it a view over the South Downs or is it a news story that you read? For most, I think that it would be a combination of factors and therefore part of an outlook would be totally unique while another part of it would be comparable to that of others – this would also make the writing easier for the reader to identify with.
Q. How do you learn creativity?
Fear and loathing in a writers' workshop?Q. When you bring a group of people together it always creates an interesting dynamic. How do you stop attendees showing off?
Katy: I’ve never actually come across that. I think I’ve been very lucky in that groups that are attracted to my Writers’ Retreats and Creative Writing Workshops are all very friendly and mild-mannered. The group dynamic has always been really good.
Q. And how do you make sure that the shrinking violets don’t get squashed?
Katy: As there’s been no showing off there’s not been an opportunity for any squashing. You don’t really see any competitiveness just people sharing ideas and either enjoying the views and tranquillity or getting their heads down and scribbling.
Q. Does everyone really have one good book in them? Are there exceptions?
5 great writers to share a weekend awayQ. If you were putting together a panel of five writers from any period in history to present at one of your writers’ retreats, who would they be and what subject would you ask each them to talk about?
Katy: I think my list would have to contain
- Alexander McCall Smith
- AA Milne
- Stephanie Meyer
- Shakespeare (I’d also like to see him in the flesh and solve that “mystery”)
- Agatha Christie
Return of the Writers' RetreatQ. You've got a Writers' retreat coming up next week - the Chichester Copywriter Writers' Retreat II. What sort of writers will be attending?
Katy:I’ve tried to strike a balance this time and asked a children’s writer, a young adult writer, a poet, a non-fiction writer and two marketing and PR professionals. At the first event, the focus was very much on fiction writing so this time I wanted to introduce the concepts of journalism, copywriting and the power of non-fiction. I also do a lot of one-to-one training on how to use social media effectively for business so I thought that I’d offer it as a talk designed especially for writers.
Q. Tell us a bit about how you chose the speakers and why you like them?
I’ve previously worked with Penelope Bush and Mary Atkinson to help raise their author profiles via social media and I’ve helped Mary with Search Engine Optimisation too. Penelope is a very successful author and, when we got talking, I discovered that she wanted to get back in to teaching creative writing classes so I jumped at the chance to get her on-board.
I’ve actually had some involvement in a story massage book project with Mary too just recently, which is very exciting. Mary has such as wealth of experience as a writer, a therapist and a tutor – she’s the perfect person to talk about drawing on various skills to create excellent non-fiction.
Denise Bennett very kindly stepped in at the last minute when a poet couldn’t attend a talk at my first retreat. She’s a lovely lady and we subsequently put on a very successful Creative Writing Day together at Cobnor in November, 2011.
I met Cathy Watts when she did a writing workshop as part of the last Chichester Festivities at Pagham Harbour – we clicked straight away and there’s talk of us running retreats at a new West Sussex location in the future, so watch this space!
So what really goes on?Q. How is the time divided up between writing, classroom stuff and relaxing and socialising?
There are four hours of workshops (including a group walk), three hours of free-writing time and two hours of socialising/relaxing on the first day and the programme reflects much the same on day two. Also, within workshops it’s not all sitting and listening, there is a combination of group writing exercises and individual exercises so there’s a chance for everyone to get to know each other while learning and getting inspired – it’s win, win!
Q. The speakers at your retreat are all women. Is it a very female dominated affair?
Katy: At my last event Stewart Ferris gave a talk about how to get inspired to write and he was brilliant. I put out feelers to find male authors for this event, to no avail. I think that’s mainly because I do a lot of social networking and the vast majority of writers that I communicate with via Twitter and Facebook are women.
I’d certainly like to have some male authors give more talks and workshops and so if there are any male Sussex authors out there who would like to connect with me online and are looking to run a talk at a future retreat or one-day workshop, do get in touch!
Do you need to be any good at writing?Q. How good a writer do you need to be to consider attending?
5 great reasons to go on a writing weekend?Q. As a writer yourself, what have been the 5 most interesting things you learned from the last Writers’ Retreat you organised?
Katy: 1. Everyone is so different and people use these kinds of weekends to get exactly what they want from them, which is great. In 2011, we had some writers using their free-writing time to type furiously while overlooking the water, some used the time to go to the classroom and borrow the Centre’s equipment to surf the internet and research their next piece of writing while others sat contemplatively, taking in the view.
3. There’s a stereotype that suggests that writers are passive bookworms but in 2011 I found that many writers are interested in outdoor activities too. I arranged power boat trips across Chichester Harbour either to Bosham or East Head. The writers got caught in a squall when traveling back from East Head but they loved the excitement of it all. It was just a different way to inspire them and it worked!
4. Even if you are really shy and have no confidence in yourself as a writer, in a small workshop group you will find something to contribute and take away. This is why I keep my events limited to a maximum of 12.
5. Writers really like tea and cake – but I think I had an inkling of that already!
I thought you'd never mention the cakesQ. I'm glad you mentioned cake. I know the cakes are pretty good at the retreat. What’s the secret?
Katy: Good old fashioned home-baking.
At the first Writers’ Retreat, which was residential, my mum was on site making breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had a BBQ on the Saturday evening and an afternoon tea, with homemade scones and cakes, before the writers departed on the Sunday. Both of these went down very well!
This year we’re offering homemade quiche on the Saturday and the much-loved afternoon tea again on the Sunday. We’re also going to have the addition of cakes by Whipped and Baked, a new bakery, run by the very talented Aida Stephens, opening in Guildhall Street, Chichester, at the end of March.
The combination of my mum’s quiches and Aida’s cakes is going to leave the writers inspired to start writing furiously in an effort to start working off some of the calories. Oh yes, they’re in for a real treat!
Find out more about Katy's Writers' RetreatIf you like the idea of attending next week's writer's retreat, you can find out more about the Chichester Writers' Retreat Katy is organising on the 6th-7th April here.
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