One week, four writers, an agent, and me. Rolling hills with views of olive groves, vineyards, rustic farmhouses and winding roads. We couldn't have stayed in a more picturesque location. Our villa, a double storey 17th century restored farmhouse, located relatively close to the centre of Florence while sitting in the gorgeous Chianti area, was perfect, too. From the rustic kitchen with it's vintage pale blue fridge with rounded doors, and enormous stone sink, to the internal walls that proudly displayed valuable works of art on canvas, the wooden beam ceilings and terracotta tiles, and wooden doors leading out to terraces that afforded our writers some incredible views of the local countryside, you couldn't help but feel inspired to write in this location. We had a pool, and plenty of space outside to write, relax, or just explore the expansive area outside. And did I mention the weather? It was heavenly. On all but our last day, we enjoyed every minute of that Tuscan sun.
So while it's all fresh in my mind, I'm going to give you a rundown of what our amazing week away looked like.
MEET & GREET
My husband greeted our group of writers at the train station in Florence, while back at the villa, I made some finishing touches, like arranging fresh flowers for the bedrooms, and making preparations for our welcome BBQ dinner.
I was able to meet my literary agent, Cassie Hanjian, a little earlier in the day, which was so great! Until this point we'd been communicating via email and Skype. As you can imagine, it was great being able to spend time together. I was able to run an idea for a potential book idea past her, (the good news is, I got an enthusiastic thumbs up!), and I'm so grateful she was able to come along and spend the week with us. Cassie ran an amazing workshop for attendees (more about that later) but also offered writers support by way of one:one personalised feedback.
We kicked each morning off with a morning meditation in the morning sun. I spent a LOT of time searching for the right meditations to use during our week away, and finally, I settled on Claire Obeid's meditation album along with a couple by Ariadne Kapsali. Meditation is a fantastic way to start the day, and I can honestly say our morning meditations were one of the favourite parts of the week. Especially, when, after one of our morning meditations, each and every writer in our group, one by one, decided to forego the Chianti tour I'd arranged for them, to stay at the villa and write because they were feeling so inspired. My goodness! Cannot tell you how wide my heart opened when we all stayed home that day. As writers, we spend so much time alone, behind our computer screens, toiling away, and I really think there is something to be said for writing in company. Maybe inspiration is contagious?
One of the loveliest things about the week was seeing writers tucked away in various spaces throughout the house or within the grounds. At any given moment you could find someone pouring tea in the kitchen by the tea station, doing some mindful colouring by the coffee table, taking a swim, reading a book, or brainstorming over lunch. We had so much space to walk, huddle together, or find a quiet spot to write, which was really lovely.
COACHING AND WORKSHOPS
As part of the program, writers were invited to send five pages for Cassie to look at. She then gave some personalised feedback a few times throughout the week, and it was great seeing writers discuss her feedback, find those lightbulb moments, and then work on revising things once they understood how to move forward with their pieces. Cassie also took a group workshop on Publishing Industry Tips and Insights where she shared valuable knowledge and advice on querying and what the role of a literary agent is.
One of the things I love most about coaching writers, is seeing the lightbulbs go off as my writing clients realise something new about what they desire, or how they're feeling, or how they might be able to move forward with things. The group coaching session did that for several members of our group. After our session, we sat around the table, discussed goals, and had a ball brainstorming story and plot ideas for each other.
The Wednesday of the retreat was a BIG day but I could also see what an inspiring one it was, too. After some discussions about things to do in the area, I managed to organise a personalised tour of a local caseificio (goat's cheese factory). This day also happened to be my wedding anniversary, so hubby and I dropped the ladies off and headed to nearby Greve-in-Chianti, a gorgeous little town, for coffee and a stroll. Because that's what you tend to do a lot of in Italy when time seems to stand still and the most gorgeous little shops line the streets of piazzas!
Later, we had a very sweet but experienced art teacher by the name of Liese, from Siena come to the villa to teach Jo, Amanda and Pascale some watercolour painting techniques. What better way to get in touch with one's creative side while (like writing) learning to trust and accept whatever appeared on the page?!
That evening, I invited my dear friend Jennifer and her mother-in-law, Gilberta, a larger than life character with an enormous heart of gold, to come and teach the group how to make pasta from scratch. The ladies instantly fell in love with this gorgeous Tuscan woman, who not only imparted her fantastic pasta making secrets, but also told us stories of Florence, along with various Tuscan traditions. Later, we enjoyed some papardelle outside, where her husband Mario made us all laugh with his singing and blessing of the wine. In true Tuscan tradition, Gilberta brought over an authentic dessert called Lo Zuccotto, which is like a sponge cake with ice-cream shaped like a hat, which was coined this name by Caterina de Medici. And to top all that off, we were also treated to some Vin Santo and cantuccini biscuits (another typical Tuscan tradition!)
Takeout comments for the day were Jo's, who likened the night to something you'd see in the movies, to our gorgeous Amanda, who commented on Facebook: 'This is one of the most special evenings I have ever had. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.'
On Thursday a couple of ladies were treated to a tour of Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa and their photos made me almost wish I went too. For me, San Gimignano as always been one of my favourite Tuscan towns. By this day, I'd well and truly settled into the writing groove, so spend the day working on my second book, while Pascale and Jo made some record-setting word counts -- we're talking four and five thousand words in a single day! High-fives all round!
We were still writing on the last day of retreat, stopping only in the late afternoon! By now, everyone had made some solid progress with their writing, and everyone had hit their stride. Pages of handwritten words, amazing word counts, new ideas, new directions, inspiration for new ideas to follow through on. It was all quite transformational for us all.
That evening, we all came together and enjoyed home delivered pizza while we chatted about life, writing, books, and everything in between. We really did have an amazing group on this retreat -- everyone was so supportive, and despite our backgrounds, age differences, and varying experience with writing, we all got along really well and learnt from each other. I couldn't help feeling a little sad to think this was going to be our last evening together.
On the Saturday morning, we said our goodbyes at the train station, where I fought (as usual -- I'm really not that great at goodbyes!) off the tears. Spending so much time together over the course of a week where you forge friendships that could potentially last a lifetime makes it sad to say goodbye. Though I wouldn't rule out a reunion sometime down the track!
So now the big question remains -- of whether I should do this again! If you'd like to be kept updated for future writing retreats, be sure to sign up for my newsletter below. You can also find more information on the 2016 retreat and program at www.yourbeautifulwritinglife.com
KEY TAKEOUTS // BEAUTIFUL WORDS
"I came in incredibly blocked and stressed about the project I was working on, and I'm leaving with a new project that feels totally right, that I'm excited about." - Josephine
"This week has given me space to relax, reconnect and be inspired. It's opened me to new possibilities, and it's made space for my writing when there wasn't space before." - Amanda
"I've gained practical knowledge as well as contacts and new friends. It's given me so many ideas for short stories, new characters, setting, and more." - Tracey
"I found an incredible sense of freedom and inspiration from being around like minded writers in beautiful Tuscany." - Pascale