Reflections on Venice Writing Retreat, 2015

Eating 'al fresco' at the Venice Writing Retreat 2015 Photograph by Angelica Hopes

Eating ‘al fresco’ at the Venice Writing Retreat 2015
Photograph by Angelica Hopes

It’s not over really — still things buzzing around my head and odds and ends of loose strings to tie up before I can say that the Venice Writing Retreat 2015 — also referred to as the Venice Editing Masterclass (I like the ring of that) — can truly be considered packed up and put away.

As I am still uncertain when that end will be, let me see if I can go back far enough to remember the beginning. I risk being accused of giving you too much ‘background’, but for me this all started years ago, so bear with me.

My parents recognised me as a ‘leader’ when I was only knee high to a grasshopper, though some might have been a bit more pragmatic in their assessment of my skills — I think the term they used was ‘bossy boots’. Leaving aside gratuitous interpretations of my powers of ‘leadership’, it so happens that much of my useful employment and social interaction over the years, has entailed the organisation in one way or another of groups of individuals of varying ages, herding them in both my private and professional lives according to a set of rules, often devised by myself. Well someone has to do it don’t they?

The list of examples of aforesaid situations and large group events is endless (and insignificant to the extreme) and includes large scale kids’ parties with entertainment; coach-loads of opera devotees; wine tasting; darts’ tournaments and beer slurping; puppet making workshop; English lessons; candlelit dinner parties for large groups of anything-but-romantic tourists; a World Cup fanatic ruckus (also present, some of the opera devotees); guided visits to renowned landmarks scattered around Europe; guided visits to totally unknown landmarks in the same geographical areas including a never-to-be-forgotten visit to a pig farm in the Italian Alps, and to a bakery owned by the same people. I hope I am getting my point across — the fact that I was obviously destined to organise things?

It’s still a bit fuzzy in my mind as to how and why the seed of the writing retreat idea blossomed to such proportions. It could be that after I had successfully completed a couple of formal creative writing courses, I was feeling totally bereft at the lack of opportunities to hone my writing skills with like-minded wannabe writers — or at least — wannabe writers in the English language. Could just be I had been looking in the wrong places, but the fact of the matter is that I began to mess with the notion of holding some sort of writing event on my own doorstep. It only took a few ‘likes’ and a little research on Facebook (yes — I know — it’s so embarrassing), to ‘meet’ up with Roz Morris who already regularly tutors writing workshops for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. She and my published-writer-brother, Henry Hyde were ‘linked’ up virtually both through their personal pages and also through the common interest they hold in ALLi, The Alliance of Independent Authors.

In fairness, Roz Morris was one of several authors who had caught my attention and who had accepted to take part in my event, should it ever actually happen. But it soon became clear that I would need to launch the first edition of the Venice Writing Retreat using a special set of rules — an experimental set of rules created ad hoc for my ‘first time’, for my ‘beta’ event. Roz was allowing me to use her as a guinea pig though perhaps her connections with Henry gave her greater confidence in the potential success of the event. Her risk was limited — controlled. Regardless of the outcome she would be assured her return flight to Venice, her accommodation, her food and fees. But I was not in a position to promise her a full classroom. Being the professional that she is, she accepted those terms and went about preparing her detailed notes and presentation with which she would teach her class, regardless of how many students it might have contained at the final count.

Setting up venues and equipment — a tailored web site and outside catering were child’s play for me. I had found myself in a similar situation on many occasions for both work and social events. A good number of years as a European travel guide with one of the toughest companies in the business, had taught me certain organisational skills the hard way. In more recent years, extensive experience with the joint management of a non-profit outfit responsible for laying on large-scale entertainment had provided me with unexpected strengths in other aspects of people handling.

But in spite of a somewhat exaggerated confidence in my ability to handle anything that came my way, I was suddenly faced with my ‘bête noire’ — my major stumbling block — marketing. It has never been my forte — I can talk the hind legs off a donkey, but if I have to sell myself, I just fall apart. My confidence slips away from me and I become apologetic about my very existence. My thoughts become addled and I forget all the sensible selling ploys that I had planned so very carefully. I cringe and back down and desperately hope that my social skills will be enough to get me through.

So from my point of view, using a mish mash of methods ranging from personal contact to Facebook ads; locally distributed flyers and the backing of a number of warm-hearted champions of my cause — to have managed to get any participants at all, was a major success. To the small group of participants I am totally grateful because, for whatever reasons, they trusted that the event would happen, and that it would happen in one of the most desirable locations in Europe. They were collaborative and understanding and went out of their way to ensure that the workshop was a success. They were attentive and sensitive students, hanging on to Roz Morris’s every word. They were quick to offer a hand when the time came to move tables, serve lunch and clear up. They endured the unusual heat and humidity and then threw themselves headlong into the fascination of the city, making sure they would take home a wide range of memories from our few days together.

And yes — there will be a second edition because it would be so sad not to repeat the wonderful experience all over again — the camaraderie and sense of belonging, and finally understanding that all we wannabe writers have the same fears and literary skeletons in our cupboards.

So watch this space. I’m certain it won’t be long before I begin all over again!

For more specific information, and a more objective report of the Workshop 2015, visit

Photograph courtesy of Angelica Hopes

Wind stopped play

Couldn’t believe it — the whole of last week was absolutely glorious with brilliant sunny, even if not very warm, Spring days. Yesterday morning we woke up earlier than usual to get ready for the flea market and were frustrated to see that the wind had got up and was putting the whole day in jeapardy. Bear in mind that we only get to take part in six of these markets each year, and having spent almost two months preparing new material for our handcrafts stall – sewing, glueing, cutting etc. — it was upsetting to see that one of those six days might be lost.

It is probably difficult for you to imagine that the only way that we can get to the market zone is by loading everything into our little boat and braving the elements — made even more hazardous by the wind whipping up the water and soaking us every time we rode a wave! We decided to take the two big tables over to the market first, just to see what the situation was and whether the strong wind was rushing down the long and wide street making it impossible to lay out the merchandise without the risk of its disappearing into the nearest canal. Seeing a few other market stall-holders there was encouraging, and we opted for the risk and my husband went back in the boat to pick up all our boxes of stuff.

We weren’t the only ones affected by the wind, as there were very few tourists stopping, and those that did were obviously not dressed for the occasion and were suffering from the cold and too busy trying to stay warm to be able to think about shopping! Nonetheless, we managed to save the day and pay for the snack lunch which we ate at the bar next to our stall. My daughter’s puppy came along to keep us company for part of the time and amused most of the people walking in the area — for her it was a new experience to be able to run after the pigeons and meet lots of new dogs, so it was good fun for her too. The strong wind was the least of her worries!

Ignoring huffers & puffers

handcraftsWoke to a brilliant morning and just hope that it will be like this on the Venetian hinterland as well as today I am off to Vicenza with hubby, daughter and her boyfriend. The boys are going to be bored to tears, but no one twisted their arm to accompany us. They had just better keep quiet and not complain.

Why? Daughter and I will be traipsing very slowly around a hobby fair which is absolutely enormous. Looking at buttons and threads and patchwork and jewellery making etc. We will take our time and totally ignore any huffing and puffing and bored expressions. We will carefully pick through every stand in each of the four enormous pavilions, and will sit or stand to watch every workshop we can get into.

Just got back from the Coop where I bought all the necessary for sandwiches which we will probably eat on the train so as not to waste time looking for food whilst we are at the fair. The boys will be so pleased that we saved some money — on the food at least. Can’t guarantee any savings on the merchandise at the fair I’m afraid.

Nocturnal investigations

paparazziWell my exhibition is called more or less that…

The plan is to have a map of Venice and from there lots of pics pinned on and around it with tapes joining up various areas of the board … a bit like a police evidence board, a sort of ‘whodunnit’, or in this case, where is she. Why? It represents a mother’s quest to find her daughter. All night time shots showing lots of ghostly figures around town trying to find out more about my daughter’s night life and where she goes when the sun goes down.

It just wouldn’t have been me to do something terribly formal. Today my curator came around to try to work out how to display all my work as I am not going to be here to help her to do it. If nothing else it will give potential visitors something to scratch their heads over, which is precisely the effect I want to have on them.

All the shots are night shots, as I said before… and all taken using available light which has resulted in lots of ghost like figures moving around because of the long exposures… quite interesting, so I have my fingers crossed for some decent feedback.