People keep asking us: “What are your creative writing courses really like?”
We say: “What, you mean sun-filled, sun-filled, inspirational, with like-minded people enjoying each other’s company, stimulating each other’s ideas, enjoying the peaceful beauty of the mill and the surrounding area and the delicious food and wine served at the mill?”
“No, but what are the really like?”
Well, if you really, really want to know, we thought the blog written last week by Jo Parfitt, who took our first-ever How to Write your Memoir course with 11 enthusiastic students, should really give you a good idea.
Jo will be back next year with another How to Write your Memoir course in May (Saturday 18 May to Saturday 25 May 2013, to be precise) and also in October (Saturday 12 October to Saturday 19 October 2013) with a new course, called The Naked Writer. This is aimed at helping you to find your true writer’s voice, remove blocks and write authentically. This course, suitable for students of any level, provides a haven in which to unlock your creativity, write from your heart and hone your writing craft. It will provide an injection of inspiration in a safe and supportive environment. More about this later.
We’re already taking bookings for Jo’s May course, so now’s the time to book and nab the room you want. Please click here for more details.
And if you would like to reserve your place or to enquire about availability, please click here.
In the meantime, here’s Jo’s blog:
By Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing, on September 15th, 2012
The Watermill at Posara
Lois and Bill Breckon booked me to run this one week’s residential writing course here in Tuscany more than a year ago and here I am. It is hard to believe that I am actually here and that the sky truly was this blue. It is maybe harder still to believe that one of my students is a famous screenwriter with his own Wikipedia page.
Today we simply introduced ourselves and went out to dinner in the beautiful medieval town of Fivizzano. Tomorrow the class begins. Or does it? I believe the learning began from the moment the students met each other. For three that meant a random meeting at Bristol airport, the rest, in Pisa earlier this morning.
Everyone is here with a common goal – to write about their lives in a compelling way. For one the objective is simply to show her children and grandchildren what really went on during her unhappy marriage. For another, it’s to fulfill a lifelong dream now that she’s been retired for one whole month. Most of my students have lived or do live overseas, from growing up in South Africa and Malaysia, to spending decades in Brussels, Paris and Naples. Most recognise they have stories to tell (in spades). All are here to find out how to do just that.
As we chatted over lunch, on an afternoon stroll, aperitivi in hand on the vine terrace and over dishes of patriotic (red, green and white) pasta, I watched the sharing begin. Already, as each tells a little of his or her story listeners gasp at mentions of conflict and ask questions when more detail is needed. It’s as if just being here is all that’s needed to get these writers well on the road not only to getting their memoirs down on paper, but to believing they have a story and recognising that others care.
Tomorrow the lessons start and I’m excited to see what unfolds during class, but I think I am more excited still to see what happens after work, in the courtyard, by the millstream, under the vines and over the breakfast, lunch and dinner table.
I always remember being told that hour for hour school takes up a very small part of your childhood and that it’s what happens outside class that provides the greatest learning. Watch this space to see the magic unfold as I blog daily from The Watermill. I have a suspicion that I may learn the most of all.
By Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing, on September 16th, 2012
Yesterday, Bill Breckon took me for a tour of the grounds here at The Watermill in Posara. It seems that 22 years ago he came to Italy to buy a flat in Florence and accidentally fell in love with the cluster of buildings he, his wife Lois and their two daughters Lara and Lydia, call home and I call my ‘office’ – for this week at last.
Pamela at Inspiration Corner
Imagine the surreal luxury of having to choose whether to conduct my lessons on the vine terrace, on the lawn, in the ‘festa’ ground, by the sluice or at what Marion now calls Inspiration Corner? On Tuesday we’ve thrown Bill’s itinerary to the wind and tipped our schedule upside down and have decided to visit the local market, lunch in the square and do our lessons under the camouflage of the plane trees.
I keep catching myself saying such travesties as, “as I’m on holiday, I may as well have a glass of wine with lunch.” Only this is not my holiday, I’m teaching, giving feedback and doing private one on ones and then, when it’s supposed to be siesta time for me and homework time for them, I’m here at my laptop too inspired and buzzy to listen to the meditation App on my iPhone.
I have a confession to make. This is the first residential course I have conducted. Of course, I’ve taught thousands of people over the years and run countless one day or morning classes, but this six days at a stretch is a new deal. I may have come here to teach but the place is so captivating and my students so fascinating (and the fresh, local food so moreish) that I’m having a hard time holing up in my room like I planned.
I want to be by the stream, watching the waterboatmen, skimming like skinny catarmarans, waiting for the thwack of another frog as he flops in from the bank. I am lured by the ripe green figs on the tree beside the bamboo walk, the purple grapes on the vines and by the temptation of a walk up the hill past peach trees, crushing wild mint beneath my flipflops. Furthermore, I’m increasingly hooked by the students’ stories of times of naughtiness they’ve been working on all day and that tonight we will share before aperitivi. I’ve already enjoyed listening to the beginnings of Marion’s story about the day she was mortified to have shouted at her father, and how ‘Cathy’ stole the special bar of Cadbury’s chocolate.
“Boy, your idea of naughtiness and mine are sooo different!” whispered Pamela, having just shared her story about growing up in Los Angeles that should have got her expelled from her school and with a police record to boot. I can’t wait to find out what happened in the end!
But we all have to wait til five to have the opportunity to hear everyone’s polished stories. Agony. I wonder whether those with the naughtiest stories will also be naughtiest about doing homework?
At one o’clock Bill rang the bell to signal lunch was ready. Rocket and tomato salad, bresaola, baked fennel with three cheese beckoned.
“After lunch. Would you mind if I didn’t do my ‘naughty’ homework, but shared the first part of my ‘real’ memoir?” asked Laurence, standing up from the table, eager to get back to his room, laptop under his arm.
“No way!” said those who had already heard snippets of his story. “That is not fair. It’s too good.”
“Then you’ll just have to do both,” I decided magnanimously, wondering how on earth we’d fit it in.
“How about we do extra readings after dinner, with the limoncello?” suggested Terry-Anne. After all, we’ve managed to wangle adding a market trip to our week, we may as well pile on the fun. I wonder when we are going to fit sleep into our agenda.
I am reminded why residential courses and conferences are so cool, and why I love attending them myself, even when I am not teaching. It’s a full on 24-hour a day ‘inspiration injection’. Who needs sleep?
By Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing, on September 17th, 2012
Today at the mill
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working,” Pablo Picasso.
When Bill Breckon told me that quote yesterday it inspired me to find a way to weave the message into today’s post it.
So, today, I taught the students the value of what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, calls ‘paying attention’ and ‘taking an artist’s date’, what Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones calls ‘speedwriting’ and what Anne Lamott calls the ‘shitty first draft’. I believe that it is better to have written something that can be polished later than to have written nothing at all.
Next, I sent them all off on a walk around the grounds here at the watermill, through Bamboo Walk or past the brook, for 15 minutes and then asked them to return and write whatever came into their heads for 15 minutes. It would possibly be no better than a ‘shitty first draft’ of their next piece of writing
While they wrote I kept my eye on the clock and those 15 minutes felt like an eternity as I listened to the sound of pens moving across paper and pages being turned over as more lines were filled.
“How was that for you?” I asked.
“Marvellous!” said Sue, who, from the look on her face, was still basking in bliss.
“Thank you for reminding me that I need to do this every day,” said Terry Anne.
“Who discovered that magic happens half way down the page?” I continued. Everyone nodded in recognition of all they had achieved in just half an hour.
I concur with Picasso wholeheartedly. For as the students ‘did something else’ – in this case walking, looking, experiencing and noticing things in silence, their creativity was awakened and the 15 subsequent minutes of writing flew by.
Tonight, at feedback time, we will find out what magic evolved from each one’s experience when they share the pieces they are creating as a result.
Yesterday at the mill
Are you still wondering about the outcome of the students’ pieces about being naughty during childhood that I mentioned in yesterday’s blog? Well, Pamela evaded jail for smuggling gin into school that got her classmates so drunk they needed to get their stomachs pumped. Laurence did his homework and read us the first five pages of his memoir. Jane pushed her little brother into a cess pit (allegedly) while Sue stole all the marzipan off a precious post war Battenburg cake, stuffing it into her mouth in one go. Terry Anne claims she never did anything naughty though her brother set fire to their back yard. Everyone did their homework and no one was made to sit on the Naughty Step.
By Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing, on September 18th, 2012
Thank goodness they are flexible here. We switched our day out on Monday for a trip to the market today and managed to squeeze our lessons round such important issues as buying shoes (Marion and Jane) and freshly dried porcini (me), escaping to the cool of a café, or simply absorbing the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of the Tuesday market in Fivizzano.
Their task was to ‘notice things’ and to identify a character to write about in their ensuing homework. My last demand was that they all forced themselves to spend the last half hour on a bench beneath the planes, overlooking the valley and write. It was an exquisite hardship that left me so inspired myself that I wrote three pages about a damson, of all things. You see, taking time to pay attention means your experiences are enriched.
Today, as yesterday, we ‘took our thoughts for a walk’.
I have to credit Laurence for the phrase ‘taking thoughts for a walk’. It was the title he chose for his homework yesterday, which if you remember, had the students wandering the grounds here for a while before sitting and writing about what had inspired them. Laurence’s later homework, read out beneath the vines as usual, had taken him from Posara to Paris, where his thoughts and our minds meandered from the Boulevard Montparnasse to the cemetery there, tastings, smelling and looking as we wandered.
Pamela Mary wrote of Portugal and, her mind sparked by a reading that morning that had included the name Cliff Richard, her thoughts led her to a bottle signing marketing exercise by her daughter’s hero and mine. Other morning Tuscan walks took Peeta to Malaysia, Pamela to her own New York backyard while Terry Anne, inspired by a wooden door, took us on a journey to Oman, the Jebel Akhdar and a door of her own. Round the world we went, under Jane’s ‘green canopy’ and further still courtesy of Sue’s international list of foreign lovers.
It seems there is no writers’ block here. And while we never set foot outside the village yesterday we all travelled the world, thanks to nothing more than pens, paper and a bit of imagination.
By Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing, on September 20th, 2012
I did not blog yesterday because it was our day off. Seven of us chose to visit Lucca, the rest Cinque Terre. We travelled by train from Aulla.
It was inevitable that those who travelled together would become closer during the train rides there and back (our own to Lucca took close to two hours) and as we wandered we gave each other the space to voice our objectives. For Laurence, this was finding a restaurant. For Terry Anne and I, this meant taking advantage of the shops. Pamela wanted the track down the finest gelato in town. Just as each of us has our own distinctive writing voice and preference of genre, we recognised that we wanted different things from our days out too. And that was fine. We made allowances and during this day of give and take, of listening, of caring and sharing, we bonded.
Today was ‘Writing About People’ day. I read a poem I wrote about my mother, called Busy, to kick start things. I am fortunate that my mother is still alive (and reading this blog) however, for many, this is as emotional a poem for them to listen to as it is for me to read. Writing about close relatives, or any person we have loved and maybe even lost, is emotive.
Today was the day that the writing went up a gear.
Now, as we all feel more comfortable in each others’ company, it is apparent that most students dared to go that little bit deeper when writing a subsequent profile of another person. While two students chose their fellow student, the poised, elegant and beautiful, 84-year-old Peeta, for their subject, others wrote about those they held dear. For some that meant writing with more emotion than on the previous days. In doing so many revealed, at last, their true writer’s voice. They wrote about who matters to them, exercised their powers of observation and wrote authentically, from the heart. Fifteen minutes later they bravely shared their work with the rest of the group as we sat, enrapt, on the vine terrace before one of Lois Breckon‘s delicious lunches.
“I’m sorry,” one said, removing her reading glasses and drying her eyes. “It’s the first time I’ve written about that, see. I’ve wanted to though for 23 years. I’m so glad I’ve started to get it out.”
No one spoke. Some of us wiped away tears of our own as we found our own resonance in her story. Everyone had or knew of a similar story. The writer’s painful profile had revealed a universal truth.
That’s what I love about teaching a class where the students see each other several times and build enough trust and respect for each other to ‘dare to share’. Today is day 6 and we have created what I call ‘a place of safety’. And it is in that place that magic happens.
“I believe that our best writing comes from a place of pain,” I said. “It is in this place that we find our voice and discover what matters. Do you agree?”
It has been a privilege to witness this transformation. Undoubtedly, the best work has begun.
By Jo Parfitt, Summertime Publishing, on September 21st, 2012
It had to come to an end…
Today, we were taken for a long table lunch on the terrace of a white stucco hotel high in the mountains. Looking down over sweet chestnuts bursting with green grenades and a fat hedge of rosemary, we took in the view of and marveled at how far we’ve come. Despite the fact that the peaks that encircled us show how much further we may have to go towards our writing aspirations, none can deny that this week they began their ascent.
I have watched a student who had never before dared to share her poetry break into a wide smile as the listeners whispered, “Wow. You are a poet!”
I have sat entranced as others wrote and spoke of painful memories and difficult moments. Until now many had been unable to find the right words for the experiences in their heads, let alone on the page. Here, they read their work with eloquence, emotion and authenticity.
And we have laughed. Even before our lesson on humour we had regaled stories of embarrassment and incidents that were ‘crazy but true’.
I’ve been inspired, moved, amused and occasionally blown away by the words created here at the Watermill.
And so, as we enjoyed a primi piatti of risotto with gorgonzola and pear, I asked a question:
“As we sit here in the mountains, let’s consider how far we’ve all come, physically and emotionally. Could you tell me which metaphorical mountains you’ve climbed over the last six days?”
“Well, I think I’ve climbed up a little way,” began modest Mary, unaware of how much she has achieved and that her stories the previous evening had Pamela Mary waking up in the middle of the night, giggling.
“It’s been like going up Skiddaw in a storm and seeing the clouds part at the top,” continued Jane.
I expect you can tell that she’s a bit of a poet.
“I spent 11 days climbing mountains in Nepal and yet the steepest mountain was in my mind,” said Terry Anne. “After this week I feel I can conquer that mountain, and that mountain is my writing.”
Now it was Marion’s turn. “My mountain has been releasing a lot of things that I’ve never been able to do before. Now I’m not so frightened of letting go.”
“Just reading aloud has been my mountain,” added Pamela Mary.
And what of Laurence, I expect you wonder? Our lone male in the midst of 11 women?
“I arrived as a man and left as an honorary woman and I’m having treatment for it when I get home,” he replied and we all fell about laughing. Again.
Like I said, it’s been a privilege to be here.
I’ll be back in Posara 18-25 May 2013 to run the same course, How to Write Memoir. Places are already being taken fast and only 12 are available. Book before the end of the year to receive discount. My The Naked Writer course will take place 12-19 October. Keep an eye on the Watermill website for details.