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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.

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

A Rewording Life Launches Today!

A Rewording Life photo


I’m tickled to be among the 1,000 — yes, you read that right — logophile contributors to A Rewording Life, a literary project conceived by Sheryl Gordon to raise awareness of and funds for dementia research. The book is now available, and the Toronto launch happens tonight!

Here’s a little background:

“With A Rewording Life, Sheryl Gordon brings clarity to obscure words, collaborates with over a thousand cool Canadians (Yann Martel, Jane Urquhart, Terry Fallis, Miriam Toews, Wayson Choy, Emma Donoghue, Linwood Barclay, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Kim Thúy, Craig Davidson, Shani Mootoo, Charlotte Gray, Measha Brueggergosman, Sass Jordan, Joel Plaskett, Colin Mochrie, Atom Egoyan, Mark Tewksbury, et al.), and raises money for dementia research.

“When Ms. Gordon saw her mother, Yolande, lose her words to dementia, she understood like never before that words have meaning. To honour her mom, she asked Canadians who make her life more rewarding to pen an indelible sentence for an abstruse, bemusing, or convoluted word; she chose words she tends to forget. She hopes to harness these scintillating sentences to help eradicate dementia.

“Interwoven amongst the plethora of contributions are eight heartfelt essays written by Ms. Gordon. The initial letters of her essay titles (a, d, e, i, m, n, t, e) spell dementia. She hopes readers can embrace this scattered concept. Confusion is, after all, the nature of this disease.”

To find out which word and example I contributed, well, you’ll just have to buy the book! How could any writer (or reader) resist dipping into this treasure trove of 1,000 new words? With A Rewording Life on your shelf, you’ll have a ready antidote to lethologica — something from which Sheryl told Descant Blog she suffers. Don’t we all!

For further information on this worthwhile project and how to purchase copies of A Rewording Life, visit www.arewordinglife.com.


Sheryl Gordon


SHERYL GORDON, founder and curator of A Rewording Life, has been a trainer and writer in the IT field and has taught ESL.

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Inspired by Art: Who’ll win the OWC “Story Starters” writing competition?


©2014 Allyson Latta

©2014 Allyson Latta


Click to read stories based on this photograph.

Story Starters

I was thrilled when the Ontario Writers’ Conference committee asked me to contribute one of my photographs to Story Starters. Now in its second year, the competition brings together artists and writers in a creative and entertaining way.

From January to March, at the beginning of each month, OWC featured the work of a different local artist. My photo (above) was published in February. I was honoured to share the Story Starters stage with artist, writer, and editor Ingrid Ruthig (January) and artist Gretel Boose (March).

Participants had till the end of each month to submit their writing prompted by that month’s art — prose or poetry of no more than 100 words. The result was amazing, as you’ll see when you click the link at the top of this page. My photo gave birth to an unexpected and provocative array of stories and poems. Altogether the three Story Starters inspired almost 200 contributions.

The committee chose its top ten for each month, from which judge James Dewar selected three finalists per Story Starter. Good luck to the following writers!

Marie Arthur-Beswick

Joe Balevi

Mona Blaker (2)

Kristy Leigh Logan

Alicja Merifield

Claire Sylvan

Lori Twining

Caroline Wissing

At the Ontario Writers’ Conference this Saturday, delegates will be able to read the finalists’ stories and vote for their favourites. The three winners will receive their prizes at the close of the conference.

And if you need more proof that art can plant a seed in a writer’s mind, here it is. One writer, Audrey Ksepka, used her Story Starters submission as the jumping-off point and wrote a 1500-word story that won first prize in a writing contest in Brownsville, Texas.

The Conference

I’ll be at the Ontario Writers’ Conference this Saturday, presenting a workshop on memoir writing titled “Truth and Dare” (with bonus self-editing tips). If you’re attending, maybe I’ll see you there.

And if you haven’t yet discovered this annual conference with its wonderful lineup of authors, editors, and workshop leaders, you don’t know what you’re missing. There’s still time for you to register for the Festival of Authors on Friday night (May 2). Or just come along and pay at the door.

Look Around You

Really look. What art — visual or otherwise — do you see that might get your pen moving and the words flowing?



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Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Writing Inspired by Art: enter your prose or poetry in OWC’s “Story Starters” competition


Click the following link to check out my photo chosen by the Ontario Writers’ Conference for this month’s “Story Starters” competition. What story does it tell?


February Story Starter


You have till February 28 to submit your photo-inspired creative writing. Enter as many stories or poems as you like (each 100 words maximum).

The top 10 entries for each month will be sent to the OWC’s final-round judge, who will select a top 3. The top 3 entries for each piece of art will be displayed at the 2014 Ontario Writers’ Conference (May 2nd & 3rd in Ajax, Ontario) for final ballot-voting by attendees. The winners will be announced at the conference and each will receive a prize (TBA).

I’m pleased to be following talented writer, editor, and artist Ingrid Ruthig, whose Confluence was the competition’s January inspiration.

Now, view my Story Starter for February and get creative. I hope to see your story or poem on the contest entries page!


About the Ontario Writers’ Conference

Don’t miss this fabulous gathering of authors and editors, speakers, and workshop facilitators. I’ve been involved for several years and it’s a worthwhile and fun event. I’ll be there this spring, leading my workshop “Truth and Dare: Find the Courage to Share Your Personal Story.” As a bonus I’ll offer editing tips. Register soon.


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Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Happy New Year from Allyson


©2013 Allyson Latta

©2013 Allyson Latta


Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

~ from “In Memoriam,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Best wishes to my Readers, Subscribers, and Contributors,

and to Storytellers everywhere,

for a 2014 filled with good health, great friends,

and of course, stimulating reading and writing!


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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Winners of the 2013 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest / And introducing … the Singer-Songwriter Mentor Experience

girl writing2


I’m pleased to announce here the talented winners of the 2nd annual Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest:

1st prize: Natalia Darie

2nd prize: Whitney Sweet

3rd prize: Bria Lubiens

Contest judge Shannon Bramer selected the winning entries and will mentor these promising poets, who will split $1,000 in prize money toward online private instruction. Winners’ names will also be announced in the November issue of Quill & Quire.

My interview with 1st-prize winner Natalia Darie will appear on this website in coming weeks. (Meanwhile, here’s my conversation with the young poet who took last year’s top prize, Ana Rodriguez Machado.)

The Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest is the vision of Heidi Stock, founder and president of Aspiring Canadian Writers Contests Inc., and its honorary patron is memoirist, novelist, and Vancouver poet laureate Evelyn Lau. Poet Catherine Graham kicked off last year’s competition as inaugural judge and mentor.

Congratulations to this year’s winners.

You can read their poems here.

♦     ♦     ♦


And …

if you’re an aspiring songwriter, take note (pun intended) of the just-announced Singer-Songwriter Mentor Experience, which will take submissions starting October 8, 2013.

Visit the Singer-Songwriter Mentor Experience website, and read more about the contest here: “Unsigned singer-songwriters compete for mentoring opportunity with multiple Juno Award–winning artist.” The 2014 mentor is Canadian recording artist Luba. This contest is sponsored by Aspiring Canadian Writers Contests Inc., and supported by the Songwriters Association of Canada.

Entries are being accepted between October 8, 2013 and December 22, 2013, or until 300 eligible entries are received.

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013