Monday, 19 September 2011


Take one very beautiful house in a lovely garden, hidden away at the foot of the South Downs, once the home of the economist Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina wife.

Add eleven women writers, of all sorts. Here's ten of them - Beginners to established, poets and story-writers, novelists and playwrights. Performance workers and editors. Journalists and imaginers...
Mix gently.
Talke a gifted chef called John, who runs a vegan/vegetarian catering company called Cashew Catering, (not that many of us were even vegetarians, but happy to try...!) and a lovely farmhouse kitchen in which to experience zingy healthy tastes, like stuffed mushrooms, or fruit or savoury crumbles topped with nuts and seeds, fresh soups,

extraordinary brown breads, pretty salads topped with flower petals and whole flowers. Cous cous with roast vegetables, ad inf. Stir the writers in gently, with a large glass of something relaxing, white, red or maybe rose.
Put a writing tutor in the centre, who knows what its like to fight for time to write in among the other calls on one's time - partners, kids, other family, friends, housework ("What housework?" my family are yelling...) Who knows how hard it is sometimes to remember what a gift it is to be able to create.

And who knows how important it is to be given permission to do exactly what you need to do creatively - and to be challenged when you're ready and not before, shifted out of your comfort zone when you want to be challenged.
Leave to warm for 48 hours - two days and nights. At intervals, add in a workshop - with the best writing exercises the tutor knows, appropriate for everyone. Visualisations to open up new scenarios, voices, emotions. Word games to create new connections. Scenarios full of details left out, for you to fill in - to help create living, breathing characters. Maybe a Bedtime Story by the fire at the end of the day to lull you to sleep (or not, if it is funny...).
Throw in a private tour round Charleston Farmhouse, home of the Bloomsbury set, Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and later on Clive Bell.
Point writers in the direction of Berwick Church, where the Bloomsbury crowd created murals in which every face is one of their friends, or neighbours. Or go for a walk through the farmyard, skirting the fields, along the old coach road, across more fields, and back home.
Finally, add inspiring guests who will share a meal, and wine, and talk to us, then answer questions until the questions run out. Firstly, a successful female poly-talented writer actress and director, playwright, and novelist, Carole Hayman, she of the stunning Pre-Raphaelite hair, and co-creator of 'Ladies of Letters', among other things. (Who tells us that Fay Weldon reckons you ought to be able to write your novel in 3 weeks if you focus hard enough). Secondly, a top publisher. Helen Garnons-Williams, Editorial Director of Bloomsbury, to give us the insiders' view of the publishing world. What commissioning editors are looking for. The huge benefits of having an agent. And the topsy-turvy world that is e-books. (See us all chatting before Sunday lunch, on the lawn, in one of the first pics above.)

Check for consistency. Be told that every participant had achieved or surpassed their personal objectives. Feel very delighted, and enjoy all the new friendships made, the shared inspirations, the hopes to met again soon.
Retire to bed on the third day absolutely knackered.

Leftovers can be enjoyed, gently warmed for a few days. Especially while reading unsolicited feedback sent to New Writing South, like these snippets:

Just a note to say how much I (and, I am sure, everyone) enjoyed this last weekend at Tilton. It was easily the best writing event I have attended in all respects and I came away inspired!

Just a quick thank you for a wonderful writing retreat - I think that you and Vanessa gauged it perfectly - well done!

I had no idea that this was the first writing retreat that New Writing South had organised - it all looked very professional but I'm sure there was a lot of hard work involved.
It was the best writing workshop I've been on - inspiring tutor, perfect setting, delicious and healthy food and lots of time and space to write. I feel as if I've come back with a treasure trove of energy and ideas to keep me going through the winter.
So thank you.


  1. What a lovely way to remember our weekend in all its glory!

  2. Thanks, Alison - I've recovered now... It was so good working with you all, a terrific group of women. Enjoy the Faber novel course with Tim Lott - can't wait to read it!

  3. Vanessa, this was my first writing retreat and I enjoyed it enormously. The setting and the way we were looked after with good food and yoga was wonderful and a great foundation for the writing.
    In the workshops that you ran I have learned a little more about myself and my own creative processes - what works for me and what doesn't work so well. I can feel the seeds planted over the last couple of days already taking root and I know they will bear fruit when I'm least expecting it.
    Charleston was sublime. Utterly inspiring. And best of all I feel I've made a few new friends.
    Thank you!

  4. All sounds lovely. I'm jealous: will you be doing one for us chaps soon?

  5. Hi Claire - it is sooo good to hear that you went away with a little more understanding of how you work as a creative being. Perfect feedback! It was an exciting challenge to put together workshops that would work for the great spread of talents and experience we had in the team - and if they fed everyone to some degree then that's smashing! See you next week...

  6. hello Neil - you aren't the only bloke to ask that question. But I wonder - would a group made up exclusively of male writers work as well with a female facilitator? I guess there's no reason why not - and I'd love to spend another weekend with a dozen writers, no matter what shape they were. Maybe get a petition going and contact New Writing South - they may well pick up the challenge, but my guess is they'd ask a male facilitator...!

  7. This was far from being my first writing workshop but was definitely one of the best I’ve been on.

    I think that Tilton House is actually related to the Tardis – there seemed to be so much space for writing. I still can’t quite believe how much I did manage to write and that was even without needing to hide myself away and scowl at interruptions. I really enjoyed meeting new people and hearing about their writing.

  8. V. A weekend with exclusively male writers? I don't think I'd sign up for that. Is that sexist of me? Hope not. But let me know if you do a mixed event.

  9. Sounds perfectly lovely! Do let us know when you might hear of another weekend - I'd be more than interested in connecting with other English-speaking writers. Best wishes cat

  10. Hi Caroline - it was really lovely working with you. So glad you came - and I'm glad you enjoyed it! Happy writings...

  11. Neil - I'll pass that one to New Writing South - who knows, might be fun to do a mixed retreat!

  12. Hello in Italy! Of course, will let you know. Would be so lovely to meet.