After the success of last year, everyone in the Full English writing group was keen to repeat our summer writing retreat.
This year we descended on Deal in Kent, where I was able to borrow my parents’ seaside flat for a weekend of writing, talking, eating and lazing on the beach. Given the glorious weather, we did pretty well to do any writing at all – but we managed a variety of exercises both solitary and collaborative.
We began on Saturday morning with a speed-writing session. We flipped through novels looking for an opening line to spark off ideas, and quickly agreed on this from Ian McEwan: ‘One afternoon in late August, we went into the woods’. It opens up a world of sinister possibilities, doesn’t it? We sat down, set the timer for half an hour and got scribbling.
Thirty minutes later we had four short stories to read aloud, as distinct from each other as the women who wrote them. I love this part of writing. It feels like doing a magic trick – where there was nothing, suddenly there is a story. Unpolished, unfinished, but in existence all the same.
Next we wanted to try some collaborative writing. None of us had written as part of a team before and most of us felt some trepidation at the very idea. We adapted an exercise from The Map of Your Mind – Journeys into Creative Expression by Maureen Jennings, and divided into teams of two. For an hour, we wrote postcards back and forth, one person starting off the story and the other responding appropriately. It was a lot of fun, reacting quickly to the other person’s input, neither of us completely able to plan. We wound up with an exchange between an escapee schoolgirl and her mother (who turned out to be the wife of the prime minister), and another between two former lovers, neither of whom were quite what they seemed. Reading the postcards aloud produced hilarity, and an appetite for lunch.
Afterwards we headed for the beach, for some serious thinking time. Thinking while lying down, obviously, soaking up the sun and sharing stories of our lives. Some might call it sunbathing and chatting, but I’m not sure that’s allowed on a literary weekend.
After a brisk swim to wake us up, we returned to the flat for one final writing session. We each contributed a word on scraps of paper, then wrote pieces including as many of those words as possible. We had: vigorous, garden, charcoal, grace and effervescent (which was deemed the odd one out and only made it into one story). We finished the day reading our work to each other, commenting, questioning and encouraging. Some of the stories were real gems, containing the crux of something that could be developed further.
We seem to have hit on a winning formula, one that allows us to rediscover the fun of creativity in a relaxed and supportive environment. We’re already considering supplementing the programme with a winter retreat – long country walks, log fires, cosy story-telling. Roll on autumn!
Photo courtesy of Yang-May Ooi.