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  • Nicola Wardley

Ever wondered what happens on a writing retreat?

Wonder no more ... read on, and I’ll tell you. I spent the weekend at the Relax and Write Retreat hosted by Edwina Shaw and Helena Pastor in Evan’s Head.


Why a writing retreat?

Curiosity drove me to this quiet campground set by the beach on a quiet stretch of the Northern NSW coast for my first retreat. What miracles of wordcount would materialise? Who would I meet that would influence my thinking, broaden my experience, perhaps even become part of my ongoing writing community? What does relaxing have to do with writing?


Arrival

The arrival was what you’d expect: a little awkward, strangers brought together, the joy of the scenery, the mild horror of the shared bathroom (yup: princess moment). We gathered in a timber and stained-glass hall within ears’ reach of surf pounding on Airforce Beach and Edwina gathered us in for what she described as a deep relaxation.


Strangers lying on mats on polished timber floorboards, listening to a dulcet voice urging us to feel our scalps soften, our brains melt, our limbs loosen their memories of action and melt into the floor ... at the beginning, I was too busy formulating a fun story to describe this experience to my children at the end of the weekend. By the end I was wondering if Edwina had posted an audio file of her voice onto Youtube that I could download, immediately, to every device I owned. I hadn’t just melted to the floor, I was part of it. Lambent. Pliant. So relaxed I’d forgotten how to spell and couldn’t have cared less.


We eventually roused ourselves and spent some time listing needs and wants. My need-to-dos were practical: finish Chapter One re-write; retrofit some backstory into an old manuscript; submit manuscript to the publishing house I just pitched to. My want-to-dos were a more slippery school of fish: glory, of course, was atop the list; write a novel that book club readers will clutch to their bosoms; write wiser words, clearer words, words that get published; and the slipperiest fish of all: want more time.


Writing prompts: 60 seconds and GO

Helena cracked the whip on the first morning: here’s a prompt, now here’s 60 seconds: GO


Umbrella

Too eager coffee-hands have lifted the black-winged beast up, up its bamboo strut, blocking my sunlight. Gah: the words were flowing, my back was melting, the light was snap-drying my ink ... TIME’S UP


Ear-rings

Plock. A fat wad of crystal hit the cold bathroom tile, and my colder fingers reached up to my lobe. Damn it. Search and recovery could wait until morning ... TIME’S UP


Coat

Mr Brixham preened in front of the morning room mirror, swivelling his fat hips and swelling his fleshy chest until he more closely resembled the man he was in own estimation ... TIME’S UP


Clock

Stuffed with impenetrably-chemicalled peanuts of endless waste protecting it from the sway of oceans, my grandmother’s clock makes its way to me from London at a steady twelve knots ... TIME’S UP


Dress

Mrs Brixham’s dress strained against her low belly. Another lying-in, another squalling face. Please God her husband’s fat grasping hands could be held off to spare her another.


Writing prompts: 5 minutes and GO


There were a few 5 minute prompts over the days of the retreat, all of them an opportunity to blurt stuff out in an uncensored way – very cathartic; if you haven’t tried it, give it a go. Helena and Edwina used them to have us writing our way into a story, using the senses, dialogue, childhood experiences ... and gave us tips for editing.

Here are a couple:


Something I gave away that I wish I hadn’t


I give away books like other people give away their life secrets on Facebook. Status: it’s complicated. That’s not anything I would share. Status: I give away books but secretly it’s like I’ve loaned you the child of my loins and I want it back, spine unimpaired, pages free of hospital corners, and I want it back before so much time has elapsed that I’ve forgotten you and I were ever friends. Verghese, Austen, Cleve, Krakauer, Temple ... just font to you: something bold and readable, something that spins no floss from your soul.

But to me: art. To me: the family on my shelves. Status: Nicola is feeling she wants her damn books back.

TIME’S UP


*Editor’s note: I am actually terrible at returning other people’s books. I had my friend Debbie’s copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban for about 14 years.


What my hands know


My hands found their true use the day I became a mother. I have catalogued that use. I have taken photographs, braided hair, proof read assignments, clutched passenger-side door handles in white-knuckled fear through countless hours of driving lessons.

But the catalogue that is dearest to my heart is one made of flannel. For years, I gathered the flannel pyjamas that my children outgrew. Soup-stained plackets, threadbare knees, 101 dalmations lolloping clumsily through fields of snowy white. Four children – sixty-four years of childhood – gathered, pyjama set by pyjama set, into the hushed darkness of the cupboard under the stairs. The cutting came first. Slice: off came the cuffs. Slice: off came the buttons. Wheel and blade, scissor and ruler, the tops and bottoms re-emerged into rows of neat squares. The stitching came next. Grids and blocks, rows and borders – order restored on a chaotic, fun past. Once the wool was wadded between the stitched pattern and the calico backing, we sat, my children and I, and we regarded this patchwork of time. ‘What will we call it?’ I said. The squabbling about naming rights fell to the side like lint and cotton, remnants from my sewing table. The naming rights became mine and I stitched the label in red and blue onto the creamy back of the quilt. “Myrtle”, XXXX (one for each child) Love Mum.


*Editor’s note: This is one of the few prompts where I wrote something true. We named the quilt after Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series.


Writing Alone, Together


Food, coffee, wine, tea, huddling together on a beach at the picnic in a biting breeze, sharing our widely assorted skills on Open Mic Night – hanging out with other writers was a lot of fun. I learned (almost) to salsa dance, I discovered the joy of having someone chant a relaxing mantra that totally worked, I heard women read out their poems, their stories, their dreams and aspirations.


At the close of the retreat, everyone shared some words of advice with the group, and the words that have stayed with me from a group member were to remember to “wear your crown”. And this was no princess crown we were being advised to wear – but a symbol to remind us to carry self-confidence, courage and gratitude with us into our writerly lives.


*Editor’s note: there was also a lot of talk about Poldark