I have to admit, being announced as a writer at the recent #FIGT conference was a proud moment. It had long been a dream of mine and my eventual epiphany was inspired by a borrowed book. That book would eventually lead me to a writing retreat in Tuscany, led by Jo Parfitt. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, it changed my life.
I’ve always been envious of people who are diligently committed to their writing, as opposed to simply proclaiming their wish to be a writer, as I had done for years. Having lived and travelled for twenty-three years in countries strung across the globe, I have nevertheless written every step of the way. Though up until now, those experiences have languished in my journals, begging to be released. They attest to adventures such as safari by camel in Rajasthan, truffle hunting in the Arabian desert, and trekking in Nepal. To be fair, a few of those diary pages made it to published articles; Fleeing Tiananmen Square was one and thankfully, on a happier note, Shopping in the Silver Souks of Oman. The latter is definitely a lighter read!
Yet there’s still no book to speak of despite pleas from my ever patient husband and even a grandmother’s admonishment to, “Please write that book dear so I’ll know what you been up to all these years”. Sadly, she’s no longer with us, which reminds me that time is knocking at the door. It seems there hasn’t been that all consuming desire to lock myself away and write, that persistent need to tell my story. I could blame it on raising sons on different continents and working part time which kept me more than busy. No excuse, countless writers produce a manuscript with far less ‘crippling’ situations than mine. I now appreciate that perhaps we need to grow into things, to arrive at that place more experienced, more poised, and to forgive ourselves for ‘lost’ time.
While living in Norway these previous four years, I finally heeded my husband’s protestations and “find something I was passionate about if I wasn’t going to write that darn book”. I did cultivate my passion for history and became a tour guide. And I did write, so to speak, with verbal narratives. I can tell you everything you want to know about the Vikings, shipping fleets and herring exports, or why most of the wooden houses in Norway are painted white. In fact, I would tell stories for three hours at a time, weaving history and local culture into rich tapestries, but alas they’re not on paper. My stories were informative and entertaining, but ephemeral nonetheless.
And so it was through a book lent to me, written by Maggie Myklebust, that I finally became committed to writing. Maggie had an inspiring story to tell and she was brave enough to do so in her book Fly Away Home. It touched me on many levels, but mostly Maggie’s determination to become an author, something she could not have envisioned. Her publisher was Jo Parfitt of Summertime Publishing, who would that autumn lead a writing retreat in Tuscany. After years of dabbling as a writer, I dug up the courage to put my proclamations to the test. And if it all failed miserably, at least I would have had a week in beguiling Tuscany.
Eleven strangers had chosen to be thrown together. Eleven strangers who shared a love of words, poetry and story telling, but could we write? We all had doubts as to why we had taken this plunge; frightened, yet excited with the possibilities of what the week would bring.
The group was mostly British including eighty- four year olds, Pamela Mary and Peeta. These lovely ladies arrived together, their sun hats set firmly atop their silvery coiffures. They had been raised by nannies and servants in Her Majesty’s far flung colonies while their fathers served the British Empire. Both were eager to record their stories from a bygone era for family and posterity. They only wrote with pen and paper, no lap tops, and their penmanship was beautiful, of course. We were inspired that they had the courage to begin the journey of writing their memoir, confirmation that it is never too late to fulfill a dream.
The Watermill at Posara was the ideal setting for a writing retreat. The Tuscan sunshine, superb hospitality and gorgeous surroundings welcomed us with open arms. With the back drop of a cobblestoned courtyard and terracotta pots stuffed with bouganvilla, we embarked on six days of lessons and inspired writing. Most of our work took place under the Vine Terrace. Shaded by a mass of grape vines, their plump grapes poking through the trellises, the terrace welcomed us into its safety. It is here our writing would evoke emotions of sorrow, joy, disappointment and laughter, along with tears.
Our mandate was to learn and observe, to write, to polish, to present by 5 p.m. This did not vary. Every day, bar one, we knew at this time we must present a piece of work to be read aloud for all to hear, to ponder and to comment upon. As the sunflowers nodded in the late afternoon sun and the nearby bells of Posara chimed, we ruminated with our words and reached into our souls.
Frightening and challenging yes…
Instructive and inspiring, yes again..
Life Changing, absolutely.
At precisely 6:30 each evening, we were reminded that it was Apertivo time as the tiled table was promptly set with a fruit laden decanter of Aperol and carafes of Chianti. It was a welcome reward for our writing toil, and balm for our souls that we had bared to each other. After a delicious meal, our day would conclude in the comfort of the drawing room. Sinking into deep sofas, we engaged in lively conversation while sipping on chilled, locally made Limoncello.
The only male in our group was a famous British screenwriter (who shall remain anonymous) and we wondered why he was there, though pleased that he was. He would read from his poignant memoir, recently begun but already captivating. He would also regale us with stories of his Hollywood exploits, just as intriguing, I can assure you! We all contributed with tales of jungle treks, of living on a houseboat, of lovers, of simpler times, of loss. Each evening, was more entertaining than the previous. Each evening, eleven ‘strangers’ with different pasts became closer, breaking down barriers that would enable us to bare our souls just a little more in our writing the next day. With the window sashes thrown open allowing the moonlight to peek into our lively gatherings, we would comment that another day had indeed been well lived at The Watermill!
The most integral member of that group and the reason we were all there, was Jo Parfitt. We blossomed under her nurturing guidance, her magnanimous manner and her colourful scarves that greeted us each day. Because of her, we became writers… we became a writing family.
I had arrived in Tuscany with my sandals, sundresses and my favoured Uni-ball pens firmly packed. I left……a writer.
P.S. I’m finally writing that darn book!