Everyone Has a Story; Or, Five Things I Learned on a Writers’ Retreat in Italy

By Dale Synnett-Caron


Chiavari retreat writers hamming it up for a tableau on the sun-dappled terrace of Hotel Santa Maria (photo by Rick Brazeau, front centre)


If you’ve ever considered attending an overseas travel retreat that focuses on the craft of writing, here’s my advice: Just do it! 

Having participated in three writing retreats organized by editor and writing instructor Allyson Latta — two in Grenada and one in Italy — I can tell you that these creative adventures rock, whatever your genre, skill level, or writing style. A love of writing and commitment to exploring the world through words is the only real prerequisite.

Envision spending time in an exotic setting with fellow aficionados of the pen, savouring words and indulging in writing as a process of discovery. All this away from the energy-absorbing routines of your day job or home life. This instructional retreat included both skills-building and fear-facing (reading your personal work to others!), but there was also time for exploring, making new friends, laughter, and just kicking back and indulging in great regional food and wine.

Chiavari seaside promenade

The Italian Riviera Writing & Photography Retreat took place in the picturesque seaside town of Chiavari, Italy. This year Allyson teamed up with photographer Rick Brazeau, delivering an eight-day itinerary at Hotel Santa Maria — a real “home away from home,” everyone agreed. The chef and staff of the wonderful onsite Ristorante La Caracca served us delicious four-course evening meals, as well as a special lost-count-of-the-courses dinner on our last night.

Twelve of us took part in lively morning writing and photo workshops, helpful individual consults with Allyson on works-in-progress, and late-afternoon reading salons, an opportunity to read a piece of writing to the group and receive gentle feedback. British Columbia writer Deborah Vail, one of Allyson’s editing clients, happened to be in Lyons, and she drove five hours to join us to talk about her writing background and read from her recently completed novel manuscript Fault Line.

The program also allowed us free time between late morning and late afternoon to spread our wings, alone or in smaller groups — sightseeing, discovering the best lunch spots, writing, snapping photos, and soaking in Italian culture. Our final gatherings featured a showing of “best photos,” a reading salon focusing on flash stories, and, last but not least, the screening of an impromptu video collaboration between writer Catherine Malvern, and Karen Matthews of Edmonton, co-founder of Weasel Tale digital storytelling.

Group excursions included a Golden Hour Photowalk with Rick, a browse through Chiavari’s sprawling weekly town market, a short train trip to the quaint villages of Cinque Terre, and a ferry ride to the picturesque harbour of Portofino.

Here are the top five things, among so many, that I learned during the Italian Riviera Writing & Photography Retreat:

1. Everyone has a story to tell, in their own way.

Some writers have the gift of humour; others are masters of imagery. Still others are good at creating believable dialogue, which helps readers connect with their characters. Hearing and thinking about what other writers have to say — and how they say it — can encourage you to experiment with your own stories and deepen your skills.

2. Never apologize for your writing.

It’s an expression of your experience on this earth, your imagination. Develop grit. Be bold with what comes through your pen; a first draft can always be polished. You may write something and think, Whoa, where did that come from? Explore the bewilderment, as more than one writer has advised. Gems may be hidden there.

3. Be kind to yourself.

On retreat, you will no doubt encounter fellow participants who are at different places with their writing. In Italy, some had already published blog posts, stories, articles, or even novels, while others were just starting out. Comparing where you are in your writing craft with others is as pointless as comparing investment portfolios. Learn from others, but embrace your own style. What you write is an expression of your frame of reference, your imagination, your truth.

4. Your camera too has a story to tell, so let it speak!

Discover a new world when you take your camera off Auto and play with ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed to enhance your images. Absorbing a few basic principles will help you to take a better picture. Like the Rule of Thirds, which identifies the strongest focal points within an image, or the Golden Hours, the first and last hours of sunlight in the day, which lend a magical light to your pics.

5. Be open to trying new things.

This applies not only to your writing and photography but also to your experience while travelling. Immerse yourself. In Chiavari we took long walks along the seaside promenade; wandered the town, discovering medieval architecture, unique shops, and a beautiful botanical garden; and met friendly locals. (One of Rick’s photo assignments was to approach a stranger and ask to take their photo — which resulted in several memorable encounters — mostly positive!) And the group never grew tired of the delights of Aperol spritz — the most commonly enjoyed aperitif in northeastern Italy — and aperitivo, the cordial tradition of a drink and light meal of cheeses, crudités, and bread at the end of the day as a warm-up to dinner. Best appreciated on a sunny patio!

As for the writing, I returned from Italy with renewed enthusiasm, a full notebook, helpful tips, and workable ideas for several new projects. Attending this retreat was an opportunity to share my work and learn from Allyson, Rick and fellow writers, feed my creative soul, and, best of all, make lasting memories. I have the stories and photographs to prove it.


Monterosso, Cinque Terre


♦     ♦     ♦

Dale Synnett-Caron

DALE SYNNETT-CARON is a communications specialist  and certified Kundalini yoga instructor in Ottawa, Canada. The written word is an integral part of her professional and personal life.  In addition to her corporate writing, her work has been published in trade journals and the Globe and Mail‘s Fact & Arguments essays section.  She also helped to bring her father’s memoirs to fruition — editing and coordinating its production on his behalf.  When not working at her day job, Dale enjoys sharing her passion for yoga with others — helping them to build inner strength, manage stress, nurture creativity, and ignite their power to heal and balance. She has taught and practised yoga and meditation extensively in Canada and internationally, including at Allyson Latta’s retreats in Grenada.


  1. Catherine says:

    Dale – such a great job of capturing everything that was special about our retreat and what made it so memorable. Thank you!

  2. Alex says:

    You nailed it on the five points! And, you’ve made me want to jump on the next plane.

  3. Rick Brazeau says:

    I think that the people who attended made this the amazing week that it was.
    I can’t think of anyone that did not help bring out the best in all of us.
    Makes me want to kidnap all of you and go back.

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