Thursday, 2 July 2009

Guest post by Deborah Dooley at Retreats For You

Deborah Dooley has been a freelance journalist for over 25 years, covering a huge variety of subjects from health issues to celebrity interviews. In 2008 she started Retreats for You, welcoming writers to her idyllic home in Sheepwash, North Devon.



We’ve all heard inspiring stories about women writers who regularly rise at 5am to write for 2 hours before waking their four children, getting them dressed, breakfasted and off to school, and then going off to work, (wearing a neat suit, high heels and full makeup), having first bestowed on their partner a kiss full of sexual promise. They’re marvellous. I’m not. And I suspect that had I not been fortunate enough for the last 25 years or so, to write for a living, I would rarely have found the time or indeed the energy to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

And so I sympathise entirely and profoundly with people whose jobs, children, partners, cats – whatever - sabotage their literary endeavours. And when the last of my three children flew the nest, a suggestion for filling the resulting space wrenched me from my brief and slightly self indulgent period of empty nesting with all the force of a Chambers Thesaurus hurled through the air by a frustrated journalist with writer’s block and a tight deadline. The idea was so obvious, and so right.

A writers retreat. A place for people to write, with no distractions, and discussion and feedback on their writing if needed, in a supportive environment, nurtured by plenty of home cooked food and enough good wine to fuel the muse.

Researching the idea, which was thought up by a dear friend, was simple. I asked every writer I knew, and a great many I didn’t, what they thought. Reactions ranged from ‘it sounds like heaven’ to ‘how soon can I book in?’ The plan was an unqualified success, even before we’d opened. And since Sheepwash, our village, is somewhat off the beaten track, my husband, an affable type, volunteered to run a taxi service for guests, to and from the nearest mainline station in Exeter.

In March last year, following the application of a lot of white paint, and the purchase of some crisp white cotton bedding and several angle poise lamps, we welcomed our first guests to ‘Retreats for you’.

To a lot of people the idea of opening your home to strangers might seem a daunting one. But the simple fact that this is a home and not a hotel, plus the immediate common ground we all share, means that we get to know our guests with astonishing speed. Within hours they are helping themselves to tea in the kitchen of our rambling house, and wandering comfortably in and out of the unlocked front door, to visit the village shop or pub, or wander around the beautiful Devon countryside.

We all eat together around our big wooden table, like a large literary family, (although if someone wants to carry on working, they can take a tray up to their rooms). And in the evenings we sit around the fire in the living room, discussing and sometimes reading work, and sharing ideas and creativity. Our guests have included fiction writers (including one Mills and Boon author), poets, people writing autobiographies, screen and playwrights, and children’s writers. All have been charming in so many different ways, and in almost every case, they achieve much more than they set out to during their time here. For me, witnessing their level of achievement is a pure delight. A bit like giving birth - but much less painful. Retreats For You is now a year old, and I am immensely proud of our many positive testimonials, especially as the recipe for success is so simple.

Take one writer, and add a cosy but xen like room with a desk and kettle. Remove the pressures and chores of everyday life, combine with feedback if needed, and fold in plenty of good homecooked food and a dash of wine. The result? Several thousand good quality words.



www.deborahdooleyjournalist.co.uk/retreats.html

19 comments:

Helen Black said...

See, that's my idea of heaven - writing, eating and drinking.
Can I ask how you decide which guests to book in together? Are they a mix or do you do genre specific weekends?

Julie P said...

When can I book in?! Julie xx

Anonymous said...

Helen,
there is no pattern or plan to deciding which guests to book in together. But we have only 3 retreat rooms, so there will never be more than 3 guests - and so far, guests have always gelled beautifully. I remember once I had serious doubts about the compatability of two guests - one was an 80 year old male poet and one a 30 year old female fiction writer. But they got on famously - they were often so deep in conversation I had to drag them away from meals! If you'd like to know more, do email or ring (details on website).

Deborah D said...

Sorry, that last one was me - didn't mean to be anonymous!

Gillian McDade said...

Ahhh - this is the perfect life!!

Samantha Tonge said...

Deborah, what wonderful idea.

Although, ahem, the writer in me has to ask - have you ever had guests from hell? Is part of the thrill not knowing what kind of people are going to turn up?

It does sound heavenly.

Samantha Tonge said...

Ah, i see from your previous answer that all your guests have gelled. It does amaze me on the internet how writing binds people from very varied walks of life.

Deborah D said...

Samantha,the guests from hell has never occurred - I always try and chat to potential guests on the phone first, to ask them what kind of writing they are doing, and also if they have any dietary needs/food dislikes etc - so I get a pretty good idea of someone before they arrive. All our writers have been delightful, as have our walkers - and all our mummies (see website for details of varying retreats). But I think that people who choose to come into this kind of home environment are going to be very pleasant people. Otherwise they'd go to a soul-less hotel, I suppose.

Caroline Rance said...

Thanks for doing a great post for us, Deborah! The retreats look heavenly - I hope to get there next year.

Niki M said...

Seriously, when I can I come? It sounds absolutely amazing.

Geraldine Ryan said...

I'm on my way! (In my head at least!) Thanks for a great post, Deborah!

Deborah D said...

I don't want this to turn into too much of an advert for me, but if anyone is interested in visiting (Niki?)please do call or email (contacts on website, on original post) for a chat.And if anyone wants to be added to my newsletter database, just let me have your email. July newsletter about to go out.

CarolineG said...

I am now dying to do this! It sounds like heaven to me, Deborah...

Susie Nott-Bower said...

It's a great idea, Deborah - but how do you get your own work done?
Susiex

CarolineG said...

Wow, just checked out your blog and if I come to the retreat, I will beg you to make me that delicious stuffed mushroom dinner. Am almost passing out at how delicious that sounds...

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Mmmm, sitting her trying to edit a book, not sure what I'm doing and a retreat with stuffed mushrooms on offer sounds idyllic....

Jane Steen said...

I can't let this post go by without mentioning the Posy Simmonds graphic novel "Tamara Drewe". Which is set at a writers' country retreat. When I visit your haven I hope to see it on the bookshelf!

Deborah said...

In answer to Susie's question 'how do you get your own work done' - simple. Breakfast is over by 9, and then everyone goes to work, including me. It's made very clear that I am working in my study for most of the day - we meet at lunch, obviously, and again at dinner - and discussions and feedback are over meals and in the evenings. This works well because the work ethos in the house encourages people to sit down at their desk or wherever, and write!
If people want a workshop, that's planned in advance, and I charge extra.
Jane, 'Tamara Drewe' is on order!
Caroline, you'll be happy to know that stuffed mushrooms make a regular appearance on the menu - we had them again last night. Yum. You might also like to know that I make my own icecream.....

Emma Darwin said...

Digging this out to add that I visited heaven, Sheepwash style, just before Christmas, not to write - I was in the first no-work-to-do lull for about four years - and it was truly heavenly. Deb had even arranged snow, which made every vista extra-enticing for my so-much-neglected camera, without actually stopping me being there (thanks to the resourceful Bob borrowing a pickup to get through to Exeter Station)

I blogged about it here:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2010/12/ice-crystals-forming.html