Sunday 22 June 2014

A workshop with a difference! Short stories with Retreat West at Emley Farmhouse

Last week, I scooted off to Thursley, a journey of some hour and a half, to find the venue for the short story workshop I was running for Retreat West. It isn't easy to find. No signposts, a hidden village, yet more 'no signposts', two helpful ladies in a 4WD,  a phonecall, and bingo, I found it!  Even more hidden, in a beautful valley, surrounded by slopes, fields, ancient pathways - and even a barn on stone mushrooms to keep out the rats! What a place. 
        This is Emley Farmhouse, a National Trust property cleverly chosen by Amanda Saint as the venue for a writers' retreat weekend. Amanda runs Retreat West - and she and her clients will take over interesting properties, matching them to the workshop content, where possible. This place was teeming with possibilities for short fiction - and when I looked at images available of the upstairs accommodation, and found this - well - what story would you place in this setting? Isn't it gorgeous!

Go on - half an hour - just write anything - you never know... I'd love to know if it inspires anyone!

I arrived in time for a rather delicious lunch - Amanda cooks for her writers so they can focus all their time on their writing - which we had in one of the two dining rooms. We cleared the table and the food morphed into paper, pens, and words flowed. Four hours later - several cups of tea,  a plate of biccies - and many new pieces of writing had been filed away - new characters, storylines, settings, voices. 

Amanda kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her brilliant organisation:

Amanda Saint

Me: It was such a delight to spend a few hours working with your writers in Emley Farmhouse. It is old, rambling, has an indoor well and underfloor running water - such an inspirational place. How did you dream up this fabulous idea, a partnership with the National Trust?

Amanda: The partnership kind of happened by accident. My initial idea for running residential retreats was to tie in the venue with the author that I wanted to do the workshop. I'd just read The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, and loved it, and wanted her to be the first author I had running a workshop at the new retreats. I was told about a lighthouse that National Trust Holiday Cottages rented out close to where I lived so went and had a look at it - it was incredible and in a truly spectacular setting. So I booked it for October 2013 and from that developed a relationship with a lovely man who manages the National Trust holiday cottages for the South West, Chris Curtis, and we then worked together on a series of retreats for 2014 - one of which will be in the lighthouse again.

Me: How do you select a property to work in/stay in for your retreats with Retreat West? 

Amanda: Where possible I have tried to tie the venue in with what we'll be doing for the workshops. For example, later this year there is an Historical Fiction retreat in a former Victorian carding mill, with a workshop from historical novelist, Emma Darwin. Then there's a Women's Fiction retreat in a house built by a suffragette, with best-selling author in the genre, Rowan Coleman, delivering the workshop. It's not always possible to do this though, so my other criteria are that the property has a wow factor and is in a beautiful setting - like the farmhouse we've just been at for the Short Story retreat.

Me: Tell me a bit about how your retreats work.

Amanda: They last for three nights, usually over a weekend, and there is one half day workshop during that time, apart from at the Just Write retreat, where I'm sure you can guess what happens! The rest of the time is for writing, reading, relaxing, whatever people want to do really. We all get together for meals and I do all the cooking and clearing up so that the guests can focus on their writing. It's proved to make them very productive and lots of new work has been created at the ones I've run so far. There's lots of readings and discussions that go on too, which help people to solve problems they're having with a piece. 

Me: Should a writer have a project in mind when they come to you, or can they come with nothing - just needing space and time to reflect?

Amanda: Either or, really. I've noticed that what usually happens is they bring something with them that they're currently working on, novels, shorts, memoirs, and then new stuff gets created too - both in the workshops and outside of them. I bring along writing magazines and books, and my set of the wonderful Writing Maps created by Shaun Levin, which are filled with prompts and exercises to get the words flowing. All of the venues are in great walking country too and getting out walking usually means people come back with new ideas or existing story problems solved.

Me: Who else do you have coming to work with your writers, and where will they be working?

Amanda: As well as the ones detailed above, I'll be back at the lighthouse with a workshop from the Faber Academy's Head of Fiction, Richard Skinner. This will be focused on landscape and setting in fiction. There's also a Literary Fiction retreat at an old manor house that looks like a mini castle, where Alison Moore will be running the workshop. The Just Write retreat is at an old Exmoor farmhouse and although there is no workshop at this one, novelist and creative writing teacher, Sophie Duffy, is coming along and I know she'll be happy to share thoughts and ideas with other guests. 

Me: If they are interested (and how could they fail to be...) how do writers find out more?

Amanda: All of the retreats that are planned for this year can be found here: To keep up to date with new plans, writers can sign up for the newsletter on the site. There's also blog interviews with the authors where they talk about what will be happening in their workshops.

Me: Fantastic. Well, from what I saw, and having spoken to the writers who attended the Emley Farmhouse retreat and my workshop - this formula is very special, and very clever, and it works! Thanks for the invitation, Amanda, and thanks for giving us a little insight into Retreat West. May it go from strength to strength. 


1 comment:

  1. Sounds lovely - both a retreat and a treat! I have never done anything like that but I think, if you were prepared, you could achieve a lot in a weekend.