My year has ended in the embrace of a cherished, almost spiritual experience. My husband often chides me and asks if he can switch places as I venture off to a writer’s retreat – this time it was to Penang, Malaysia. I don’t blame him, I know how fortunate I am and it is partly because of the retreat experience that I am, where I am.
At a retreat, it is the inspiration found, the treasured time with kindred spirits who share the love of words and story telling. It is the mutual appreciation of the indulgent cocoon a retreat offers – of putting aside your everyday life and following your creative soul.
‘Retreating’ is five or so days of immersion in something you love to do – or believe that you just might. And of course the long animated dinners, the inspiring ‘field trips’, and the new (and established) friendships are also part of the experience. On the second to last day in Penang, we writers ended an already creative day at the beach, soaking up the beauty and the tranquility. It was just before sunset and we thanked the universe for the fullness of the day. We breathed in the moment and appreciated what we were sharing – never to be repeated and now imprinted forever on our writer’s souls.
My first retreat in Tuscany also comes to mind. A short train journey to Lucca found four of us venturing no further than the closest piazza where we wined and dined the afternoon away. After all, one of the writers was a famous London based screen writer – you can imagine the stories flowed as easily as the chianti! Oh we were so full of love – for the setting we found ourselves in, for the new-found friendships, for the sheer magic of a time and a place. I’ve written of that retreat in Tuscany and how it was a life- changing experience. Inspiring retreats in Phuket have also contributed to my growth as a writer and I encourage anyone not quite sure of the retreat experience, to go… if possible, make the commitment to this next phase of your writing, to yourself.
Each retreat seems to unfold like a richly, layered novel. As the days pass, writers reveal themselves in the slow flowering of creativity – in the comfort of a safe-zone with your fellow writers. Yes at times we ‘block’, we’re hesitant about the ‘task’, we worry that a piece of work doesn’t ‘measure up’. Yet it’s often these growing pains when we stretch ourselves that improves our writing, and together we produce a beloved body of work. Prose that you are the first to savour at those privileged late afternoon or evening readings. Writings where you are wonderfully transported, then pluck a favourite thought or line for yourself to cherish. Maybe a piece truly moves you and your fellow writer is lavished with encouragement… “This is what you must write, this is your voice, your story!”
And as you find your own voice and dig a little deeper, your writing becomes more vulnerable and truthful. Perhaps humour comes to you, or even poetry – as it does with me, but only it seems when I’m ‘retreating’. In Penang, a clear inspiration for a new book revealed itself – an inspiration for historical fiction. Having co-authored a coffee table/history book about Penang last year, one of its historical characters gently ‘whispered’ to me as we spent time in the storied Suffolk House… ‘Tell my story, from a woman’s perspective,” she seemed to entreat. It was a sentiment echoed by my fellow writers and I hope to do so… to do justice to the story.
Inevitably a retreat draws to a close and you say your farewells, knowing that somehow this is where you were meant to have been. The words and ideas, the inspiration and the friendships get packed into your suitcase… as carefully as your brimming notebooks.
Once back home in India, I was thrown immediately into work as I am nearing the completion of my latest book project. With my friend and mentor, Jo Parfitt, we are in the final phase of a book that will be published in March. Monday Morning Emails is the vulnerable and honest account of expat life… the tears, the joys and the tough stuff. Combined, we have created homes for our families in Japan, Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia, Scotland, Canada, Oman, England, Kazakhstan, the US, Norway and India. We have raised five sons globally and supported husbands in the oil/energy business for the past twenty-five years, ish! We’re confident that we have a compelling story to tell and along with Experts who will enlighten on some of the issues, we’re excited about introducing it at the next FIGT.
Yes, I believe none of this would have transpired if I had not ventured to retreats where I’ve found my passion, my confidence, and guidance through Jo Parfitt and Anne O’Connell – and from the writers who have become part of my ‘near and far writer’s circle’.
And of the writing from these retreats? Many pieces have found their way into a blog, an article, a presentation, or even into that upcoming book. Yet there are some pieces that wait quietly in my writing file, hoping to glimpse the light of day. And so why not? Today I thought I’d share a few of those ‘ forgotten darlings’ and one new from Penang… allowing a little sunlight to fall on those pages.
Paradise Writers’ Retreat, Phuket. Task: we were handed a piece of salt water taffy to sample and asked to write a short story in thirty minutes…
Salt Water Taffy
“Welcome to Pier 21,” the tour guide boomed. He was gentlemanly and older. Perhaps the same age as my mother who stood beside me on this ‘girl’s trip.’
“Folks before we begin, I’d like to welcome you with a salt water taffy, a treat from Nova Scotia. One for each of you,” the guide said cheerily, proffering them to the group.
The wrapping on the candy looked clean and childlike – the white and blue lighthouse signaling safety. Or was it the unexpected, even danger.
I hesitantly unwrapped the mass of sugar and soy, my lips already puckered in defiance.
“Gawwd, I can’t eat this mom,” I moaned, nibbling off a mouse-like bite under duress. “It’s ghastly!”
I looked at my mom whose jaw was already moving up and down; like a gum boot pulling out of mud, like honey dripping in slow motion.
“I love it,” she managed to mumble while masticating the sticky mass.
“Seriously, I can’t believe it,” I said incredulously. “You don’t like anything sweet, not even chocolate.”
“Annie, it was the first treat given to us when we reached this shore after sailing from Holland. The first bite I ever took on Canadian soil,” Mom said, managing a smile through the stringy taffy. She was already reaching for my wee-nibbled piece.
Writer’s Retreat at The Watermill Posara, Tuscany. Task: at the local village market, find one person to focus on, write…
Market at Fivizzano
They amble into Piazza Medicea, hands clasped behind hunched backs, they fold easily into the bustle. Bonjourno Signorie, they nod.
Stalls gathered geometrically inside walls of creme, ochre and terracotta,
shutters green, new and cracked, some open, most shut.
Reggiano, porchetto, parmignano like a marble block.
Sausage, salami, puffed like fingers reaching down.
A quick glance at the fish and its lifeless steely eyes, a chop of its head,
efficiently wrapped for lunchtime. Grazie Mille… Prego!
Beans, zolfini and piattellini also don’t entice.
Plump tomatoes, zucchini, and fennel, ignored.
Cheap sandles and belts – distractions.
The bells chime, strangled to some, but marking noon and
the piazza clears, the tourists depart.
Now, finally, at Piccola Cucina their chairs are free.
A Moretti, an espresso? No difference, the conversations begins…
Paradise Writers’ Retreat, Phuket. Task: trip to the beach, the shade of a palm tree our ‘office’. Write Misbehave and Suffocate, You’re a Beach Bum…
You’re a Beach Bum
The crash of the waves imitated the rhythm of our love making. And when it happened, my mind crawled out of the suffocating hole this beach has buried me in.
I believe in one-hundred years time, I’ll be referred to as a beach bum. I’m certainly not here by choice.
The sinking of the steamship has marooned us somewhere in Asia, at least the Captain is quite certain of that. Coconuts clump together on tall palm trees, sand as fine as sugar creeps into every pore, and the sun beats down, relentless on our fair skin. At night, the air fills with haunting sounds from the nearby jungle; monkeys and birds and mosquitoes that pester endlessly. I loathe it all.
Seven of us Saloon passengers have survived. We were enroute to the majestic Rocky Mountains of Canada, a passage to mark the turn of the century. With suites booked at the glamorous new CPR Hotels in Banff and Lake Louise, oh how very excited we were!
We had sailed from Australia and the journey had been fine – morning strolls on the deck, afternoon high-tea at promptly 3 p.m, dinner at precisely 7. Oh and the invitation to the Captain’s table… it was beyond refinement and glorious. And all those eligible young bachelors, gone, to the depths of the oceans… and my hopes along with them.
Now we survivours wither in the blazing sun, including Marnie, my cruel and obtuse aunt. Tasked with chaperoning her eligible young niece, she now looks at me with disdain as I release my golden curls from my bejewelled hair pins. She glowers as I push up my bustier and straighten my under-slip. In this savage heat, I’ve long discarded my frilly, cumbersome frock.
Marnie has refused to unclothe herself. Her long flowing dress has frayed at the hem and she’s ever more prude-like as she continuously brushes sand from her tall, straight as a bamboo self. It’s as if the sand is the contagious disease that we’re all likely to succumb to any day now.
I no longer care. Last night’s moonlit rendezvous has changed everything, I want him again tonight. Oh joy indeed, the shackles of modesty and correctness have been truly broken.
Me-Treats, Penang. Task: who are you, tell us in verse or poem
I am a daughter of a beautiful woman, one of her ‘pride and joys’. And I hold that dear, like a grandmother’s finest crystal. My treasured mother is my touchstone, my heart.
And I am a mother. One who loves and laughs, who cries and listens, who shares so much joy – yet longs for the soft caress of her babys’ touch. A mother of three sons; their love stamped on my unfailing maternal heart.
I am a wife who holds my travel companion’s secrets, his hopes and desires – his well lived yearbooks of life and our life’s treasured past. I turn to him often and whisper, “I never want this to be over.”
I am a true friend who holds friends dear – the laughter, the insights, the secrets… the stories of our lives.
And oh, how I am a traveler – one who has roamed and traversed, soaked in and marvelled at this compelling, glorious world. Its labels are firmly attached to my wanderlust soul – Florence and Oman, Singapore and old Siam, Osaka and Amsterdam, Kathmandu and even old Madras.
Most assuredly, I am a writer and a researcher. Give me the past to unravel, the characters of old to pluck out like fine golden nuggets – to relive their journeys and dreams. Or maybe it is the romance of the Renaissance, the storied sagas of the Vikings, the rich history and minareted sky of pretty Istanbul… all of it, I am.
Lastly, I am the calm and the bluest of oceans, the greenest of rainforests. The vibrant verve of a city – chiseled architecture and sparkling sights, or silk and saffron in packed, lively bazaars. Yet give me the beauty of a flourishing garden to find calm and solace in its gentlest pinks and softest whites – water lilies, fragrant frangipanis and velvety Dutch tulips.
Yes, I am the tapestry of my life – still richly weaving… thread, by thread, by precious thread.
Post Script – I encourage you to take some time over this holiday season and write… I Am. Take the opportunity to appreciate you, your loves, your passions, the richness of what makes you, you. Once claimed on ‘paper’, it is there for you always.
For me, along with my next project, I am happily joining a few more retreats in 2018, yet I am now also hosting my own workshops. Let’s hope they too will inspire and evolve into retreats… I have a location or two in mind!
And lastly, I offer many warm wishes, good health and peace for this holiday season and the New Year… fondly, Terry Anne xx
Anne O’Connell’s Paradise Writer’s Retreats are now held in Halifax, Nova Scotia