As I faced the prospect of retrenchment a year ago, I spent some time with my friend Google, searching his pages for direction to my future. When my fingers accidently tapped out the words, 'writing courses', I was delighted by the returned results of an advert from The Writing Room, the top banner displaying a beautiful silhouette of an octopus drying on a line in a fading Grecian sunset.
My heart skipped a beat at the charm of the picture and my imagination fell in love with the invitation to join a, "Write your book in Greece Retreat". The dates were sadly not doable but the seed was planted so by the time the dates for the next year were advertised, I was poised with credit card in hand and had my ticket bought and the course deposit paid before you could say Kalimera. By Mandy Collie.
"But, why can't you write at home? Why do you have to go all the way to Greece to write?" were the questions I was asked as news of my going on a Writing Retreat in Greece spread. Then the questions followed the logical sequence of "what's a writing retreat, anyway?" and "where in Greece are you going to?".
Retreats are trendy now days. You can go on one for just about anything, from yoga to gardening, meditation to cooking – anything, anywhere in the world. I am a relative novice to retreats but I know enough to acknowledge their strengths. My lack of knowledge about Greece, however, compelled me back into the oracle pages of my friend Google to hunt down more details about the tiny village of Skala Eressos on the fabled island of Lesvos (oh my) which would be our home for 8 nights' and 9 days to write and explore our inner words.
I read, in advance, all I could find about Lesvos, the third largest Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea. I was intrigued to know Skala Eressos just happened to be the proud birthplace of the classical Greek poetess and lyricist, Sappho, one of the few known female poets of the ancient world. I was also, admittedly, a little daunted by the fact that Lesvos is the home of Ouzo, that anise-flavoured aperitif I'd over-consumed as a university student, and I made a mental note to avoid it at all costs if I aimed to come home alive.
The Writing Retreat is hosted by two very special women; Sarah Bullen, a renowned writing coach, author and literary agent, and Kate Emmerson, a bestselling author, international transformation coach and keynote speaker. One of the benefits of my year's delay to my personal Greek Writing Retreat adventure was that I'd been able to join the book mentorship programme these two influential women run. I'd managed to finish writing my first novel under their guidance and mentorship during this period so I'd been privileged to get to know them both personally.
By the time I had paid my early bird deposit for the July Retreat, they well knew my intention to use this retreat as a time to start writing my second novel.
I packed my suitcase and, armed with my new-found Google knowledge, eagerly anticipated the start of my Greek adventure. I knew I wouldn't be journeying into my own Shirley Valentine experience, but I had to wonder if I'd get to witness anyone else's in the Retreat group heading to Skala Eressos. The long flights from Cape Town to Athens ambled slowly through the air and by the time I finally boarded my ferry to Lesvos in Athens, I was weary and thoroughly wilting from the sweltering Athenian heat. But I found a comfortable lounge chair close to the bar and coffee station and accustomed myself to the gentle passage of Greek time as night descended and islands slid past on the Aegean waves.
As I watched my first Grecian sunrise over the island of Chios while the ferry slowly sailed parallel to Lesvos before landing in Mytilene, I was a little girl in a sweet shop. Unaware of the hours' time difference, my poor friends back home were spammed in the ungodly pre-dawn South African hours with delirious photos of golden yellow blobs hovering over undistinguishable mountains somewhere at sea.
Unperturbed, I snapped the photos excitedly then left the ferry behind me as I searched for my shuttle driver, Spiros, to take me to Skala Eressos. Spiros possessed a surprisingly excellent command of English and he had me enthralled with his fearless driving while telling me tales of the history of Lesvos and details of the places we passed. His powerful air conditioning was very welcome as the thermometer climbed over 35 degrees at 8 in the morning.
Finally, our entry into the quaint and quirky village of Skala Eressos heralded the start of an adventure I hadn't quite anticipated. The cobbled main street matched the bumpy convolutions my own creative juices would follow in the week to come. The Retreat itself began along with the 13 unique journeys of each of the other retreaters in our group. We were an eclectic group of eleven women and two men, each following a personal call to pen a story, mostly memoirs detailing significant periods and events in individual lives. There were only two of us not writing memoirs, one being a biography and mine, a novel. It didn't matter that we all had different end goals in mind though, as the writing principles Sarah Bullen taught and guided us through apply to both non-fiction and fiction. The writing exercises she had us do were superb at helping us to think in different tones, voices and paces, and were essential to bringing clarity into our stories and tautness to our written voices.
Each day, breakfast was aimed to be consumed in silence by the group. Silence, that is, from talking to each other so that we could concentrate on writing, but not silent as in no sound. Imagine sitting on a wooden deck on a balmy early morning, facing a beautiful rocky outcrop 400 metres out to sea and listening to the breaking of small, gentle waves as they run up onto a pebbled beach. All of this while you nibble on a breakfast of Greek yoghurt, fruit, pastries, bacon, egg and other delights. I have to confess, as hard as I tried, I was so inspired by the beauty around me that talk I must, as a spoken expression of the intense pleasure and privilege I felt.
Following breakfast, the group came together again at another venue, under a magnificent canopy of vines where we listened to Sarah Bullen teach on book and story structure and the principles of good writing. This is where we learnt the technical aspects about writing a memoir or a biography or a novel. About publishing, marketing ourselves and our brands, and how to get to finish the wonderful projects we'd all embarked upon. These mornings were the nuts and bolts of the Writing Retreat where we did writing exercises and plotted, planned and wrote scenes for our books. Imagine sitting in the summer warmth, with a canopy of vines shading you from the sun's rays, listening to the gentle hum of bees and insects as they buzzed above the vine halo. In the distance, you can hear the baying of a lamb or the crowing of a rooster while your eyes, when you lift them from your page, take in the view of surrounding terracotta coloured fields and hills.
The Greeks are extremely civilised. Between the hours of 2pm and 5pm, they have a siesta and Skala Eressos comes to a gentle stop. The shops are shut and visitors and locals tone down their voices and close themselves inside their homes under their air conditionings. I too quickly realised this isn't an indulgence, rather an absolute necessity as the mercury peaks and renders the afternoon unusable. As a group, these hours were our own to pursue whatever activities we desired either individually or in the inevitable groupings that flow out from a larger group. Writers could be seen eating ice creams in the town square, relaxing over sardines and beers at waterfront Tavernas, indulging in sun-roasting and swimming on the beach or using the time to keep writing our stories or finishing our homework.
What impressed and excited me so much on this Writing Retreat is the passion and element of surprise Sarah and Kate added to the daily routine. While the bones of the agenda had been in place in advance, specifics changed daily as visiting speakers or activities were spontaneously arranged according to who was in town that week. These surprises were highlights that added unexpected reflections of people and dimensions of emotion and creativity.
We were honoured to have the Dutch writer and author Karin Giphart talk to us about her writing experiences and then, together with her partner, Dutch musician Michelle Courtens, to share some of their abundant musical talents. The Greek storyteller Maria Panagiotou enthralled and captivated us as she orated her version of the timeless fairy tale of Tatterhood, as she uncovered the journey of accepting and embracing every part of yourself into all areas of your life.
Then there was the passionate Greek author and internationally renowned photographer Tzeli Hadjidimitriou, who brought to life the history of Sappho, sharing details about Sappho's poetry and the many myths surrounding her life. Listening to Tzeli talk as we sat in the cooling afternoon heat under a Pepper Tree, gazing at the same ancient rocks and ruins that had existed in the very days of old, was mesmerising.
There was also the gentle seafaring adventure organised to take us to write in the nearby village of Tavari, where we sat in one of the few tavernas for the day, writing, eating, swimming and listening to Kate and Sarah talk to us about building a brand presence to market ourselves when we've finished our books. Finally, the easy hike they intrepidly took us on from Skala Eressos, through the flat pastural lands and up into the wonderful, inland village of Eressos, just 4 kilometres away from Skala Eressos where the locals "migrate" for the winter months away from the coast. All of these extras were added in by Kate and Sarah to enhance not only our Greek experience but to aid in accelerating and encouraging our inspiration and creativity.
As much as the writing side of this Retreat was attended to by the experience of Sarah Bullen, I would be negligent to not focus attention on the power of being on a Retreat. This aspect was so well taken care of by Kate Emmerson and is what makes the partnership of Sarah and Kate so unique. Their rare yet strong combination of skills and expertise is refreshingly suited to bring out the best in even the most diverse and eclectic groups, and I found it fabulously enhanced the power of my Retreat. There is something very magical about being completely out of your ordinary life, away from routine and your comfort zone. It allows you time and space to think differently, to see and to contemplate from a totally different perspective.
In the early evenings, Kate combined her training and skilful prowess as a competent and capable transformation coach, to create a sacred space within which each individual on the Retreat could safely rummage into the natural place of self-reflection and self-reconnection a Retreat creates. Kate's infectious energy and inspiration is a distinguishing hallmark and as we each immersed ourselves into our out-of-context environments, delving into our creativity and unleashing those words etched into our souls, Kate created and held that space sacred for each individual. Softly, compassionately and kindly she helped us to dig deeper into our creativity and enabled and encouraged us to find and release those words and the emotions behind them. Her perceptive intuition opened the capacity for each person to explore their reflections at their own pace while she gently held an accountability for each individual to ensure they made the most of their time on the Retreat.
As I finished packing my suitcase at the end of my Greek Writing Retreat, my Grecian tan squeezed back into travel clothes ready for a return to cold climes, I heard the words of Tzeli Hadjidimitriou echoing in my ears. "Remember the light," Tzeli had said in reference to Skala Eressos and Sappho's poetry. I was compelled to obey and gazed out my hotel doors over the tiny Aegean waves breaking onto the pebbled beach. I drank in the bright sunlight dancing on the water around the famous rock, whose presence had dominated my photographs and my attention. I'd daily enjoyed watching the rock draw birds and swimmers to its feet and had personally tiptoed on it's seaweed-slippers housing urchins and fish. I'd wondered at the ancient secrets it's outcrops held, those from lovers and poets, pirates and musicians, and I pictured in my mind all the sunsets and sunrises I'd photographed physically and mentally. I closed my eyes to imprint one last mental snapshot of the light of Skala Eressos and breathed in the energising, inspiring air of memory and creativity, I'd found so freely available.
Skala Eressos is truly one of those special, unique places on the earth like no other I've encountered in all my travels around the globe. Honestly, I have found nothing as invigorating, refreshing or intoxicating as the power of a Writing Retreat where, separated for all my routines and people, I truly did delve deep within myself and connected with words that had been etched into my soul at birth, waiting for just such a time as this for their release. If you too wish to embrace your own creativity and essence in words, to answer that nagging call to write your own book, might I strongly suggest you let your fingers do some keyboard travel and consider a Writing Retreat in Greece in 2018. Might I compel you to step outside your comfort zone, into a world completely out of your ordinary where you will think differently, will contemplate intentionally and will be in a space to release your own inner book.