Dipping My Toes in Grenadian Waters: My first residential writers’ retreat

Guest Post by Janet Weiss-Townsend

 

Photo credit: Janet Weiss-Townsend

Photo credit: Janet Weiss-Townsend

 

I’m not a person who’s compelled to write. And I’m not a writer since childhood. I’m a reader since forever — but to write? I need a push. During school, I was the “finish my essay at 3 a.m. the night before it’s due” kind of writer. I did my research, reflected a lot, and knew generally what I was going to say.

Yet the direction the words took when I sat down and wrote sometimes surprised me. That’s the part I loved — the unexpected discovery when I put pen to paper.

When longtime friend, ex-neighbour, and writer Christine Barbetta texted this past winter about a last-minute opening in a writers’ retreat, the timing at work was bad — but I really wanted to try it, so I acted quickly, before I could change my mind. Spice Isle Writing & Yoga Retreat would be my first trip to the Caribbean and my first residential writers’ retreat.

The theme of editor and writer Allyson Latta’s retreat was “One Wild and Precious Life”: Writers Paying Attention. So I decided to pack my fears in the bottom of my carry-on bag, along with my mandatory vacation paperback, and see what surprises awaited me in Grenada. It was only later that I wondered: Was I foolishly trying to pass myself off as a “real” writer?

Those fears, it turned out, had nothing to latch onto. Long before our departure, Allyson had each of us share a short introduction by group email. Through those writings, I soon knew a little of each person participating.

And weeks before we headed south, many of us also had a chance to meet in person. Christine, who had been on previous retreats with Allyson and recommended this one as “the wonderful writer’s immersion you’re looking for,” generously opened her home for a delicious Memories of Grenada dinner. Some guests had attended Allyson’s 2013 Grenada retreat; more than a few were returning for a second time. I left that evening with less chance of fitting into my bathing suit — but I’d matched faces to the names of my soon-to-be travel companions, and heard many stories.

Petite Anse Hotel and Restaurant, Grenada

Petite Anse Hotel and Restaurant, Grenada. Photo credit: Allyson Latta

When we arrived at Petite Anse Hotel in Grenada, we were met by gentle and generous guides in Allyson, our writing instructor, and Dale Synnett-Caron, our yoga instructor.

Dale personified grace as she led us in Kundalini yoga each morning. On an outdoor terrace touched by ocean breezes, with the rhythm of the waves below, we eased into the day with gentle stretches designed to release fear and tension and open our bodies and minds to creativity. We were encouraged to stretch and dance “as if no one was watching.” I tried not to notice the smiling wait staff peering from the mullioned window just over my shoulder, and danced anyway. What’s joy if it’s not shared?

There was much to love and discover about Grenada. On our trip to Belmont Estate, an organic chocolate plantation, I learned how slimy white beans taken from yellow-orange cocoa pods can become heavenly, dark chocolate. And there were free samples. The “Spice Isle” also demanded a trip to the exotic spice market. But my favourite excursion was to Levera Beach after dark.

Leatherback turtle returning to the sea (Photo credit Ocean Spirits, www.oceanspirits.com)

Leatherback turtle by daylight at Levera Beach, Grenada (Photo credit Ocean Spirits, www.oceanspirits.com)

Straining to see the world’s largest sea turtle, a 2,000-pound leatherback, hoist her no-longer-buoyant body across a dark beach, was to witness something primal. We watched in near silence as she cupped her rear flippers into elongated scoops, alternating one flipper, then the other to carve out a nest. Once ready to lay her hundred or more eggs, she went into a trance-like state. That’s when Ocean Spirits researchers counted her eggs and we were permitted to touch her soft, leathery carapace.  It felt almost sacred.

Other memories linger too. Hotel owners Annie and Philip Clift and their staff saw to our every need. And the food at the restaurant, whether Caribbean or international, was exceptional. I will carry the memory of Chef Cecil’s warm breakfast “bakes” with me forever. (If you imagine a cross between a doughnut and a biscuit, with the texture of air, you would be close.) With three varieties of roti offered at lunch, some of us passed on all other menu choices. How could you improve on perfection?

But the writing was what really nourished us.

Each after-breakfast writing session with Allyson, held on a wooden deck with a view of the water, started with a freewrite. Prompts got our brains and words moving. Echoing Dale’s yoga, it was another form of exercise — stretching different muscles and opening us again to creative energies.

Allyson offered her editorial gifts and insights with a genuine warmth and interest that invited novice and experienced writers alike to share their stories. As a new writer I had often been stymied, not knowing what to write. But these workshops taught me anything can be a prompt. Start with any idea, begin writing, and your brain will go somewhere with it. Follow the thoughts and don’t worry about the outcome. Squelch the critical voice. You can edit later. The flow of ideas is best captured in the moment. (Made simpler, I’ll admit, without the duties and distractions of home, and surrounded by palm trees and birdsong.)

Janet writing

Photo credit: Christine Barbetta

The prompts took us in wonderfully varied directions, as different as our personalities, values, and life experiences. But there were synchronicities too. Think of a photograph and describe it to your partner. The possibilities are endless, right? But we all chose photos of people. Is that where our deepest connections lie? Coral Jewell and I had never met, yet we both described photographs of a man in uniform. Our fathers. One of a man posed in a white, band leader’s uniform, cap in hand, in the Australian outback. The other looking up the steps of a City of Winnipeg bus, at the driver in his navy uniform, hat tilted back on his head. We connect and engage through our similarities, and our differences.

Our evening salons, where we read from assigned writings, were initially intimidating to me. But any concerns were put to rest by the generosity of the group. All feedback focused on what resonated, what phrases or images delighted or moved the listener. And there was so much to enjoy: Millie’s character-painting dialogues, Christine’s authentic voice, balancing humour with gentle honesty; Stephanie’s lush and poetic visuals; Linda’s fearlessly honest emotion … and more.

I learned at that first salon that our group comprised 12 unique writers, with 12 unique voices. Impossible to compare, because each offered writing that spoke in that writer’s voice alone. You could learn something about effective writing from every one of them. I wish I could quote their words, to give a real sense of their talents. But theirs are not my stories to tell.

I loved that Allyson’s focus throughout the week was on paying attention — to what was around us, and to what “worked” for effective writing. It’s always easier to spot that in someone else’s stories. But the feedback from others during the salons meant you couldn’t ignore it in your own.

Remember the fears I’d packed in my carry-on bag? The guided workshops, my supportive fellow writers, and those Grenadian breezes dispersed them.

Small stones from the 2014 Grenada retreat.  Photo credit: Janet Weiss-Townsend

“small stones” of writing from participants in the 2014 Grenada retreat. Concept: Janet Weiss-Townsend. Photo credit: ditto.

And on the journey back, as I read my paperback, I realized that what I’d learned at the retreat had taught me to read differently too. I was seeing writing in a way I hadn’t on the flight there. I found myself reflecting on passages that really captured me. I noticed the phrases that so perfectly convey a feeling or place that you want to slip them into your pocket like souvenirs (during the retreat Allyson had encouraged us to write daily “small stones,” as described on the website Writing Our Way Home). I paid attention to the dialogue, and to the phrases that brought to life character and emotion. I noticed what was said and left unsaid in description. It was a delight to discover new layers of depth in a novel.

Maybe that’s what makes all great writing, like great vacations, special. The unexpected discovery.

Which, come to think of it, was what I’d once loved about writing. It just took a leap of faith and the support of a special group of writers to find my way back.

 

 

Photo credit: Coral Jewell

Photo credit: Coral Jewell

JANET WEISS-TOWNSEND is an optimistic procrastinator who loves good people, good stories, and anywhere the two come together. She finds wonder and joy in the unexpected discoveries in both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enter your email address to receive Allyson’s posts:Delivered by FeedBurner

Comments

  1. mary wallace says:

    Thank you so much Janet for writing this. It brought me right back to Petite Anse with the ocean breezes, the invigorating yoga with Dale and the inspiring writing sessions with Allyson. Reading it was like a mini vacation. We were all so blessed to be there. And, don’t EVER think of yourself as not being a writer. You have a powerful voice that wants to be heard. Write on!!

  2. coral jewell says:

    Wow, Wow. Janet’s a natural. Great flow. Really captures the memories, sight, sounds, and wonderful experiences we shared. BTW, while online study is great, there’s nothing like the freeing of the mind in an exotic destination, away from house, home, cat, neighbours, and the darn phone!

    • Janet W-T says:

      You’re so right Coral. It was so much easier to get started without the day to day distractions. But I’m convinced that the great writing energy of others is wonderfully contagious too.

  3. Ann Walker says:

    I just loved this recent post. How wonderful to be in Grenada!

    I am back in the States for a short while. The timing was such that I could attend a three day writers’ workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I thought of you and our wonderful opportunities to immerse ourselves in writing, both in Chile and in Tucson.

    Again, thanks for keeping me on your mailing list.

  4. Ann Vanderhoof says:

    Thank you so much for sending this. Beautiful. It made me want to be part of one of your retreats.

  5. Janet has captured the feel of this Caribbean retreat so beautifully that I could sense the tropical breezes, taste the breakfast and enjoy the camaraderie from my home so many miles away. She need not have worried about not being a natural writer, she is!

    • Janet W-T says:

      Thank you Allison. You made my night. Lots of great teachers on the trip. Allyson kept it wonderfully relaxed and fun, but passed on lots of great insights. Everybody’s writing was such a joy to hear. The best kind of learning! A wonderfully supporting group.

  6. Sylvia Putz says:

    This is lovely. Brings back memories. Thanks for sharing, Janet.

Leave a Comment for Ann Walker