Posts Tagged ‘writing retreat’

A Sense of Place: Mystica Writing & Yoga Retreat

Guest post by Sandra Shaw Homer


Photo by Rick Brazeau (

Photo by Rick Brazeau (


The theme of this year’s writing retreat (a series of workshops — we all worked hard!), a Sense of Place, was perfectly chosen, as it was my strong sense of place that inspired me to suggest that Allyson Latta hold it here on Lake Arenal.

Photo by Allyson Latta

Ever since her first Costa Rican workshop in 2012, to which she invited me to speak about my writing, I have wanted to be a participant. I was so impressed by the creative energy and goodwill flowing all around me. But Allyson had her next couple of winter retreats in Grenada, hard for me to get to.  The only solution . . . to tempt her to Lake Arenal in April of this year.

Fortunately, just ten minutes from my house, there’s a lodge cum restaurant cum yoga centre cum place-to-connect-to-your-inner-truth, Mystica Lodge, overlooking the lake and Arenal Volcano. It’s run by Francesco Carullo, his wife, Lori Myles-Carullo, and Barbara Moglia. Everyone at the retreat agreed it was perfect (excellent food, impeccable service) — with the minor exception of the screaming midnight cicada in Sara’s room (soon gently dispatched). And my house, with its open spaces, broad verandas, and view of the lake and volcano, proved a conducive venue for several of our sessions and a lunch.

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Each session opened with a five-minute writing prompt. The first time, I, for one, sat speechless (or wordless), but in just a few days, what initially seemed like forever grew to seem much too short, and all of us were begging for more time. The quality of light. Windows. First impressions of Mystica Lodge. A place that scared you. Some of these we would read aloud. Then Allyson would read to us — a description, a poem — and get a lively discussion going.  One day there was a stark and evocative video from Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to write about.

I think we all agreed that our favourite — and perhaps most challenging — exercise involved pair work, in which each of us had to describe a place to a partner in a way that the partner could then write about it.  We were all surprised — and moved — to discover how a place so familiar could be so well “perceived” by another after only a half-hour’s conversation.

Alex and LindaIndeed, “perception” is what it’s all about. A sense of place is more than a scene, a theatrical backdrop; it’s how place is perceived by someone. All the senses come into play here. While I was describing to Rick my tour of the engine room of a freighter, he asked, “What does a freighter smell like?” That was a great question, because he made me call upon a sense I had not consciously used when I was there. Interestingly, we don’t forget (memories beget memories), and after a moment of putting myself back there, I was able to come up with a few “smelly” sensations that were nonetheless true for my not having noticed them at the time. This “not forgetting” is something all writers need to tune in to when setting a place down on the page.

And, of course, what I perceive (smell, taste, hear, touch, taste, feel emotionally) in a particular place won’t be anything like what another person does — so that sense of place can tell us a lot about who a character is. It can also convey mood —  cobwebs and creepy noises in the dark, anyone?

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Place itself can be a character. In Evelio’s Garden, my forthcoming memoir (with Allyson’s help, it seems that it will finally come forth), Evelio feels personally set upon by the unpredictable weather. And the wind and rain surge back and forth through the book like waves on a beach, pounding relentlessly, taking on a personality of their own. This is the classic Man against Nature theme, and Allyson reminded us that place can illustrate theme. Without a theme — in memoir as well as fiction — a book can just flounder around without going anywhere.

A strong sense of place will take the reader out of herself, and as readers we all want to be transported to the writer’s world, where things might make a different kind of sense, but sense all the same. We want to see through the protagonist’s eyes and even beyond, to those things the protagonist may not even be conscious of and which also reveal character.

Allyson brought us through all of these points, and more, in our conversations and assignments (including daily homework, even a poem!) in a way that made us all much more conscious of how we can use a sense of place to make our writing more alive, more real, more truthful.

I was powerfully impressed with both the teaching and the writing that resulted from that intense, very special week here on the lake. When can we do it again?

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau


♦     ♦     ♦

SANDRA SHAW HOMER has lived in Costa Rica for 25 years, where she has taught languages and worked as a translator and environmental activist. For several years she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. Her writing has appeared in Oasis Journal 2014 and on a few websites, notably Allyson’s Memories into Story, Off the Beaten Track, and her own blog, Writing from the Heart. Her first travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, is available in paperback and as an e-book. She is working on a memoir of her life in Costa Rica, Evelio’s Garden, an excerpt of which can be found at Miss Move Abroad.


From Allyson:

Lori and Francesco (photo by Rick Brazeau)

Lori and Francesco (photo by Rick Brazeau)

Muchas gracias to all the writers whose creative writing and sensitivity and mutual support made this year’s retreat special; to Sandy for suggesting it, helping with the planning, and opening her home, and for the gift of that yummy catered meal; to Lori Myles-Carullo, Francesco Carullo, Barbara Moglia, and their wonderful staff at magical Mystica Lodge for their smiles and warm hospitality (not to mention scrumptious food, stunning gardens, restorative yoga with Lori by the river, massages, swimming, and all the guidance and trouble-shooting that contributed to the week’s success); to our amazing driver, Eliecer (Flaco) Carvajal, for getting us where we needed to go on time — including to that stunning lakeside restaurant right at sunset — and entertaining us all the way; to Natalie McDonald of Sapori Antichi for her elegant catering at Sandy’s; and to guitarist and singer-songwriter Hannibal Chévez for his beautiful performance on our last evening. From start to finish, this really was a memorable retreat.

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Will Come the Words: Susan Siddeley’s creative space

 Read the intro to Will Come the Words: Writers & their creative spaces.



SUSAN SIDDELEY lives and writes in Toronto, Canada — and in Santiago, Chile, where she also hosts writers’ retreats at her vineyard parcela.


Read the rest of this entry »

Monday, November 25th, 2013

“[W]rite to please yourself, to be true to yourself …”: Interview with Author Alexandra Leggat (Part 2)


Alexandra Leggat at Turquoise Waters Writers' Retreat (Photo: Mary E. McIntyre)

Alexandra Leggat at Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat

Alexandra Leggat delighted participants as guest speaker at my Turquoise Waters Writers’ Retreat in the Kawartha Lakes, July 29 to August 2, 2013. Her passion for writing was palpable and her advice to writers encouraging and motivating. This is Part 2 of my interview with her. Photos in this post are by Mary E. McIntyre unless otherwise noted.

Read Part 1 here.

§     §     §

Alexandra, where is your favourite place to write? And do you write every day (or almost)?

I like to write in the comfort, quiet, and space of my home. Not always in the same place. It depends what I’m writing and how I’m feeling. The couch is good, sometimes in bed, at my desk for editing, but I need to feel at ease and relaxed in the creative process, so on the couch, knees up, bare feet, a cup of tea or wine depending on what time of day or night I’m hitting the page, and out back is good too, listening to the birds and the sounds of voices around me. Sound is huge to me as a writer. And I need my dogs to be with me — they are my muses, my company.

I do write every day, every day, be it on scraps of paper, the back of my hand, a word here and there, into my phone, pr notebook, or in my head. I am always thinking in story, vignettes, scenes, and of books.

Do you feel there’s a different quality to writing longhand versus writing on computer?

Yes, longhand all the way! Until something is done, then it goes onto the computer. The physical element of writing by hand is vital to a piece of writing, I believe, your whole body goes into longhand writing and writing should be a complete body experience and out-of-body experience. It should be physical not just cerebral

What aspects of your environment provide the best writing inspiration?

Well, my part-time-job work environment provides a lot of inspiration. Outside of teaching and writing, I work for two amazing chefs at Ruby Watchco in Toronto. I love working in restaurants because they encompass so many brilliant elements of life, society, people. Not only are Chef Lynn and Chef Lora brilliant woman but they are incredible artists; they live and breathe food and cooking, wine, and the whole restaurant culture is synonymous with writing to me. Working there, I get to observe, listen, and interact with people in an environment that brings all types of people together, over food, wine, conversation. And Leslieville where I live inspires me, the East End where I live feeds my work, it reminds me of Brooklyn a little now, and visiting my family in New York always inspires me. And being in the woods or at the beach with my dogs.

I always need to keep a job that has nothing to do with writing that immerses me in real life. I feed off everyday life stuff. A writer needs to live, to continuously experience real life no matter how mundane or profound, to create great fiction, I believe.

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your time?

With my dogs at the beach, or in the woods by the river. I love being with my friends, my folks, reading and watching movies, going to plays and playing with my band, which I don’t get to do enough. I have some amazing, talented friends who I adore and I love being around them and their talents, listening to them talk, and watching them do what they do. And I love to paint when I can. But my all time favourite past time is writing, reading, and being with my dogs!

Are you ever stuck? If so, what do you do to get unstuck?

I’ve been stuck twice. It’s awful. Once after Meet Me in the Parking Lot came out. I was tapped out and it was shocking; that was one of the times the music stopped and the screen in my head was blank and quiet. It was like my power went out in my psyche and my imagination. So I decided to try writing poetry, but nothing came, so I went one step further to the most finite perfect package I know, and made a pact to write one haiku a day for 365 days. The tapping out of the syllables on my fingers kept my left brain occupied, which freed up the right side of my brain to create these little stories. There was no pressure to write long because I could only use 17 syllables. I completed something every day, every hour for a bit there, so I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and before I knew it Animal began. My husband did put a stop to it before the 365 days were up when he got tired of me tapping on his back in my sleep!

The second time, I was in a situation when I was working with the wrong person on my work and my process was being forced and compromised and it shut me down. So I withdrew my work from their hands, took it back to a place where I could be myself, and continued to revise it in the way that I naturally write.

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your writing, and how did you correct it?

Hmm, to be 100 percent honest, the biggest mistake I made was thinking I needed a major publishing house to bolster my career. I was tempted by a dream after Animal was nominated for the Trillium Award and the powers that be came knocking at my door. With all due respect to those people, I learned that realm of things is not for me. I’m a very natural writer, I follow instinct and the craft of writing is utmost to me. I was good where I was and should never have left my publisher, Anvil. Luckily when I took my work back into my own hands, Anvil took me back, and everything felt right again. But I had to go through that experience or else I would always have wondered if that was the ticket for me. What I believe now is that it is the book that makes the difference, not the big houses.

What would you advise beginning writers that might help them banish their pesky inner critics?

I tell my students all the time that writing is the one place we can truly be free, creating, making things up. Your inner critic comes into the game way too early, before you’ve even completed a first draft of something, so what the hell does it know. It speaks up way too soon and has no authority. I’d ask yourself who the heck the inner critic is, whose expectations are you driven by, and if it’s not your own in the creative process, don’t listen. Don’t write to please an audience, write to please yourself, to be true to yourself. So have fun, experiment, don’t think about spelling, order, anything, just write, enjoy it, laugh, cry, allow for surprises — let go! Then when you’ve evaluated your ingredients and determined what the heck it is you’re writing, bring your inner critic back in. Or don’t write — why bother, because writing should be adventurous, treacherous, invigorating, titillating, like being on the back of a horse when it’s running full speed. You may be scared to death but you secretly hope the beast never stops thundering on!

Alexandra signing copies of “Animal” for some of the writers at the retreat. (Photo: Allyson Latta)

Tell us about the book you have coming out this fall, The Incomparables.

It is a novel, the first one I didn’t drown. Others I wrote in the past were so bad I drowned the computer they were on in the Niagara River, me and my dad. It was so liberating!

This story started when four characters in full Kabuki makeup, kimonos, and getas walked across my vision when I was stopped at a traffic light. At first I thought it was the characters from The Mikado, then as I wrote and wrote and the story started revealing itself to me, it was not that at all. The main character is obsessed with fabric, the texture, weight, and drapeability of fabrics. When she loses her job as a costume designer in the city, she goes back to the house she grew up in and meets these spiritual counsellors, the people I saw that day in the car, who lure her into helping them with a friend’s wedding. She swore she’d never pick up a needle and thread again but through their special program the counsellors devise a plan that satiates her need to feel through the texture of fabrics and inadvertently sew her life back together. I hope that makes sense. I’m trying not to give too much away!

Not at all — I can’t wait to read it . . .

Who are some of your favourite writers, and why?

Virginia Woolf, Ma Jian, Philip K. Dick, John Wyndham, John Steinbeck, Per Petterson, Margueritte Duras, Albert Camus, Kafka, Beckett, Janet Frame, Tove Jansson, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Dickens, Shakespeare, Yeats, Kerouac, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Sylvia Plath, John Berger, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Portis, Hemingway, John Cheever, Grace Paley, George Orwell . . . I know I’m leaving a lot out. These are my favourites because their work surprises me, moves me, makes me think, they all have energy; the work breathes, scares me, amazes me. They are masters of the great sentence, wordsmiths, imaginative, witty, clever, incredible technicians, have strong ears, are empaths, fearless, talented, brilliant, honest, natural.

And last, if you could go back in time and tell your younger writer-self something that would help or reassure her, what would it be?

Trust your capabilities, always.

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Oonya Kempadoo’s “All Decent Animals” Makes Oprah’s 2013 Summer Reading List

“How am I only now finding out about this writer?” writes Karen Russell for Oprah’s Summer Reading List in O, The Oprah Magazine. “It’s as if she’s inventing her own language, which is incantatory, dense, and lush. The authority and blood pulse of it seduced me. The novel is set in Trinidad, amid the circus-like world of Carnival. You’re a hostage in that island world — there’s nowhere to go, but you’re happy about it.” The influential list is part of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

Oonya Kempadoo (Photo: Greg Bal)

Oonya was guest speaker during my Spice Isle Writing & Yoga Retreat in Grenada just weeks before the publication of All Decent Animals. (Read my earlier interview with Oonya.) Her warm manner, candidness about her writing journey, and readings from an earlier novel and a work-in-progress made a lasting impression on the group, particularly her encouragement to “write from the defining moments” of our lives. We’re thrilled for her that her book is garnering positive reviews.

Oonya was also recently awarded a grant under the Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence program to teach at two community colleges in Connecticut beginning in September.

Goodreads has this to say about her latest book:

“Oonya Kempadoo’s moving third novel, All Decent Animals, looks at the personal and aesthetic choices of a multifaceted cast of characters on the Caribbean island of Trinidad — a country still developing economically but rich culturally, aiming at “world-class” status amid its poor island cousins. It is a novel about relationships, examined through the distinct rhythms of the city of Port of Spain.

“Loyalties, love, conflicting cultures, and creativity come into play as Ata, a young woman working in carnival design but curious about writing, and her European boyfriend, Pierre, negotiate the care of their friend Fraser, a closeted gay man dying from AIDS. The contradictory Trinidadian setting becomes a parallel character to Fraser’s Cambridge-derived artistic sensibility and an antagonist to Ata’s creative journey.

“All Decent Animals is a forthright inquiry into the complexity of character, social issues, and island society, with all the island’s humor, mysticism, and tragedy.”

Read “Taste and See,” an excerpt from All Decent Animals, in Caribbean Beat (Issue 121, May/June 2013).

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Thursday, June 27th, 2013

September Retreat in Kawartha Lakes Combines Memoir & Collage

Turquoise Waters Memoir & Collage Retreat

When: Friday, September 6 (noon) to Sunday, September 8 (3 p.m.)

Where: Sandy Lake; near Buckhorn, under 2 hours drive from Toronto




ALLYSON LATTA, writer and literary editor

HEATHER GENTLEMAN, artist, Hag Atelier in Toronto’s Distillery Historic District

Special guest:

DIANE SCHOEMPERLEN, author and collage artist, Kingston (author page; collages)

Artist Heather Gentleman and I will collaborate with retreat facilitator Janet Markham to present a unique weekend of creativity: writing and art workshops — suitable for beginners —  inspired by my Seven Treasures memoir series.

You’ll be charmed by the venue, a bright, well-appointed 10-bedroom lakefront property with separate art studio.

Your weekend will feature workshops to spark your imagination; lively discussion with a small group of fellow participants, instructors, and our guest speaker; and quiet time for writing or contemplation in one of many cozy spots, whether you prefer an overstuffed chair by a window or a bench-swing by the shore.

Fee includes:

    • private room with queen bed (shared baths)
    • 7 delicious meals, plus snacks and non-alcoholic beverages
    • 3 writing workshops with handouts
    • 3 collage workshops in the newly renovated studio with lake view
    • evening reading salons (you can read, or simply listen) and discussions
    • talk by guest speaker Diane Schoemperlen; more about her collages here
    • basic tutorial on how to self-publish a book, for yourself or others, based on what you create over the weekend
    • free Wi-Fi
Collage by Diane Schoemperlen: "July" from her perpetual calendar.

Collage by Diane Schoemperlen: “July” from her perpetual calendar.

Nurture your imagination in tranquil natural surroundings and enjoy views of one of Ontario’s few turquoise lakes from cottage, deck, dock, hammock, kayak, or pedal-boat. (There will also be swimming or hot-tubbing, weather permitting.)

Fee (including art supplies):

$599 per person (single)

$499 per person (shared). Note: One bedroom offers twin beds.


Registration: Contact to inquire or apply.

Please note:

  • Retreat is limited to 8 participants.
  • Two rooms are on the third floor and may not be suitable for guests with mobility limitations.
  • Alcoholic beverages are not included in the fee. Beverages such as milk, juice, coffee, and tea will be available.
  • Art supplies will be provided. We’ll also send registrants a list of suggested items to bring from home to incorporate into their collages.


IMG_3328Last summer’s 5-day Turquoise Waters writing retreat — with guest author Michelle Berry — was great creative fun. This summer’s retreat will take place the last week of July and is full. (Watch for my interview with guest author Alexandra Leggat on this website soon.)

The Memoir & Collage Retreat is our newest offering. Join us!


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Monday, June 24th, 2013