In deepest Devon not too far from the moors there is a place called Sheepwash.
Not far from Sheepwash there is a place called Totleigh Barton.
In Totleigh Barton something magical happens…
I didn’t plan to head to Devon. I figured I’d just dip my toe into the world of writing retreats this summer with a long weekend (near the River Avon). But somehow Totleigh Barton beckoned and I wound up immersed for a whole week at an Arvon residential (near the River Torridge).
It’s a funny old place; though as it’s been there in some form or another since the 11th century that is hardly a surprise. It’s also one of those places which simply has a name marking its spot on an ordnance survey map, which gives you some idea of the isolation it might provide.
14 individuals signed up for a week on developing picture book writing skills. Under the tutelage of Mei Matsuoka and Tessa Strickland we discovered our shared understandings, our common failings and our own unique stories. Some we even wrote down and illustrated.
Although we all seemed a little apprehensive when we signed up for them, the individual tutorials in the afternoon challenged us to improve and develop our ideas. These were often inspired by the more structured morning workshop activities but also through conversations over the meals we cooked in the evening. Food played a huge part of the week – part of the Arvon magic is in fact a mysterious fridge which never seems to be empty.
Throughout the week we grappled with story telling conundrums – I mean, just how DO you get a boy down from a tree when his balloon has gone POP?
We gathered each evening after dinner and wine to examine in more depth the nature of children’s publishing. David Roberts provided mid-week inspiration and even drew us a picture.
Some time was spent reading other picture books and stories which we had been asked to bring and share. Through deconstructing these seemingly “oh so simple my two-year old could write that” stories, the intricate play between words and pictures was gradually revealed and began to influence the crafting of our own narratives. We talked of spreads and arcs, crises and twists and even double twists. Writers drew and illustrators wrote. We grew as writers in a way that maybe we hadn’t anticipated. (We also became quite adept at tracking down hidden mobile phone hotspots halfway up hills and in the middle of fields!)
Friday night was the big reveal – we were all understandably nervous about sharing our work, but 14 authors stood up one by one and read aloud their work with style and confidence. Without doubt there will be some new books being discussed at Bath and Bologna in maybe a year or two.
I ended the week with more than I imagined, not least two much better manuscripts and a new-found confidence. Totleigh Barton had woven its magic around us and created a fabulous shared writing community for a short spell. It’s a place I hope I will return to often, both physically and through the new writing friends I have made.
©Chez l’abeille 2015