I spent two weeks at a virtual writers' retreat. This is what I learned

A virtual writers' retreat gave Patricia Tsouros the push she needed to return to a book she had long abandoned


I have had a specific manuscript tucked away in my desk for the last couple of years. It’s a psychological thriller with which I have a special connection, and while it has received positive feedback, I was never entirely happy with the plot, and, as time does, it passed me by, so the book lay neglected and abandoned.

But as lockdown dawned on us, I found myself, probably like so many of you, wondering what to do — how to pass the time productively and positively, and even more basic, how to stay sane within the intensive dynamics of home life.

Then, opening my emails one morning, there it was: ‘Finish Your Novel Remote Retreat’, for two weeks every morning, facilitated by The Irish Writers Centre. A practical, virtual retreat for writers who are part way through writing a novel, the ideal opportunity to rewrite and finish my book, give me a focus, set a routine, and escape into two weeks of creativity.

We were expected to write 800 words a day and then share and workshop our writing. I knew that this was the discipline and stimulus I needed to finally get my book completed. I signed up instantly.

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Routed in the madness of corona along with 15 other retreaters from all around Ireland, and one from New Mexico, we started on our Zoom writing pilgrimage with our host, renowned author Conor Kostick.

This retreat was a sophisticated event, with everyone on the way to ‘hopefully’ a publication option, but needing some help to refine and accomplish the final edit.

All of us had set up a private little spot within our homes, somewhere we could peacefully gather within our confines. Some had children, some on their own, some with spouses working from home, or teenagers studying, and me, well I had two Shih Tzus, Ollie and Betsy, who I bribed with bag-loads of treats to convince them to stay quietly cuddled on the couch beside me.

Stimulated with a new lease of life, the creativity rippled beyond the writing. I was vibrant, something I had not felt for a long time. I adapted my wardrobe, styling a ‘stay home outfit' each morning, organised my writing nook with my favourite artworks (another passion of mine) by Phil Collins, that I bought years ago from the Kerlin Gallery.

I posted stories on my Insta @absolutley_patsy sharing my outfit and a writing tip for the day. I formed a motto in the hope of encouraging people to create, 'Stay Home, Stay Positive, Don’t Despair, Create', and I started to run five kilometres each evening.

It was not only a journey of literature but also of friendship and trust

We all agreed there was something liberating about creating together via Zoom; we felt like comrades in war. We were a disparate group, all with distinct subject matters, from modern day detective stories, to history settings of love, seduction and deception, a delightful children’s story, to inter-race conflict, we had it all.

Unlike if we had travelled to the retreat, we got little interjections, peeks of each other’s lives, through the lens of technology. As a result, the experience became a lot more personal, it was not only a journey of literature but also of friendship and trust.

In the comfort of our familiar place, our fears dissipated, and we opened up and shared intimate moments in our writing. Conor led a discussion on a daily topic, voice writing, dialogue, plot, dramatic scenes (everyone who knows me will know I love drama!) for about 40 minutes, with reference to a classic example from the world of literature, offering us invaluable insights to elevate our techniques.

I lay awake in the darkness debating the dilemma to share or not to share

For the rest of the time we would workshop our novel, we were split into two groups of seven, reading our own pieces every other day, giving us five days of reading.

It was intense and I did find it overwhelming on a couple of turns. I picked out very tough chapters covering tough subject matters, and on one of the nights before my turn to read, I lay awake in the darkness debating the dilemma to share or not to share. I am glad to say I bit the bullet, and the feedback gave me the self-belief and comfort that had so far eluded me.

I have done many writing courses and workshops and the one thing I know for sure is there is nothing like feedback from other writers. And on this occasion it paid off in spades.

It was through my writing that I discovered how to write

When I started writing I did not know the tools, I just wrote, which was the most important step in my discovery of writing. It was raw, unruly and grammatically a mess, but importantly it gave me the foundation from which I could learn how to create a story. It was through my writing that I discovered how to write.

If you have a lingering dream of that novel, or blog, or just simply writing a diary, I can’t encourage you enough to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, whatever is your way, just do it, let your creative juices flow and then share it through workshops, learn from it, and build your tool kit out of your writing.

I can honestly say it was a life-affirming two weeks, in a number of ways. I discovered the privilege of working from home, that creativity is a journey out of the ordinary to the extraordinary. It expanded my experience of isolation, realising that my strongest achievement can come from this place, there is no overarching narrative to our lives, only a series of events from which we fail or evolve.

I finally know I have my book.

I also learned that dogs will form into your habits. At first they were two little shitzs! Their powerful little furry bounces, barks, whining, shaking a toy in my face as I tried to read my piece, snouting all the cushions from the couch to the floor. I wanted to kill them.

But by the third day they picked up the routine, a little run in the garden, participate in an Instagram story, have a treat, and then they would settle down with me until midday.

As the retreat came to a close, Phil, one of our uber creatives, designed a lovely thank you card for Conor, made up of thank you selfies. We were all inherently grateful not just for his mentoring but also that we had discovered each other.

The group has now morphed into a WhatsApp support group to continue workshopping our books, and a private Facebook page on which to share information. That is a big testament to the success of the event.

The wonderful thing about writing or any form of creativity, is it permeates into your life, it moves you in ways you never expect, you are constantly discovering and reinventing. And hopefully the results of the retreat will be my 2020 legacy of the corona lockdown.

The Irish Writers Centre is a non-profit organisation and runs many courses at various levels of writing. I have found it to be an invaluable source of creative development.

Other writing resources that I have experienced and would recommend include:

Storytellers.ie

Writing.ie

Big Smoke Writing Factory

Read Patricia's blog at Absolutely Patsy 

Read more: Meet author Naoise Dolan – the Irish fiction newcomer that everybody's talking about

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