Finding the space to write with The Writing Room creative writing residency on Lesbos in Greece
Caroline Sylger Jones is charmed by a 10 day creative writing residency with The Writing Room in the coastal village of Skala Eressos on Lesbos.
I am sitting on a large white sheeted double bed with my laptop on my knees at Hotel Kyma, a relaxed and simple B&B in the coastal village of Skala Eressos. The waves hit the shore repeatedly outside, and there’s a brilliant view of the sparkling Aegean through the open doors of my balcony. I’ve been writing comfortably and creatively for over two hours – my third writing session of the day – and soon it will be time to stop and wander along the string of restaurants to get some supper.
I’m nearing the end of a 10 day Creative Writing Residency on the island of Lesbos in Greece led by two authors – South African literary agent Sarah Bullen and life coach Kate Emmerson. Our group of 10 meet once or twice daily to share work, listen to advice and ideas or hear other writers talk about a theme. Between times the retreat gives me the head space and time I needed to just get on and write creatively, without the distractions of home and work.
Two of us are here to write fiction, the others to write self help, business books or memoirs – all of us are in the middle of books and need space to progress or finish them, which is why this retreat is called a ‘residency’. We’re an interesting, engaged and gentle mix of mainly women with one man from our 30s to our 70s from South Africa, Dubai, England, Thailand and the USA, and the energy between us becomes part of the charm of my stay here.
After arrival, my days quickly fall into a pattern. They start with an early morning walk or run around the back streets of the village before the heat of the day hits, followed by yoga in my room and, inspired by Kate, a 20 minute swim out and back to a wonderful giant rock opposite my balcony. I stand on the rock triumphantly in my swimsuit, looking back at the bay and the other-worldly mountains dry as toast in the July heat above it, then swim back to shore planning my day of writing in my head.
Back at Kyma, I shower and get ready for a light breakfast of yoghurt, fruits, eggs and feta cheese served to me on my balcony by the friendly Panagiotis, and eat it while the sea swallows swoop and sing around me. Sometimes there is delicious home made cake made by the grandmother of the house, which I save in my little fridge and treated myself to over a cup of tea later. Then it’s onto writing.
Mid morning there’s an optional sharing of work or a writing workshop, then more writing, while every evening around 630 pm we always meet for a sharing of work, a supportive chat or an enlightening talk. We read around restaurant tables, talking loudly against the waves, or inside at Kyma, cooled by a sea breeze or air con. Any negative energy or sluggishness I feel during my writing sessions is treated immediately by another dip in the sea, or I walk to a tiny coastal church to light a candle for my loved ones back home and my writing.
Lunches and suppers are up to us apart from three group meals during the 10 days, and this works well. I usually favour veggies and noodles with home made lemonade at Dolce Dharma, or mango and turmeric smoothies with chicken satay and salads at L’Etoile. During group meals we dine off traditional mezze, fresh sardines, Greek salads and stuffed vine leaves beside the sea, sipping dry white wine, ouzo or something soft as we chat in the embrace of the setting sun.
During group writing sessions the tall, blond and blooming Sarah is charmingly bullish, pushing each of us to write more, think harder, plot better, find the right inciting incident, stop procrastinating. She’s very good at getting us to focus and just to write – finishing a book, she says, is less about talent, and more about dedication. Kate provides a balancing and equally vibrant presence, supporting us in our personal journey in whatever way we may need. Huge enthusiasm and energy emanate from them both, and they make us feel excited about our writing.
Tasks and tips help us to focus. Ritualise your writing period, perhaps by tapping three times on your chest before you begin. Always finish a scene before you rise from your seat. Don’t write for too long – your brain needs hydration and your body needs to move. Sum up your book in a paragraph – what it would say on the back cover to make someone want to read it? I also get a lot out of the talented guest writers who come to speak to us about their work – Turkish poet and playwright Hasan Erkek, and Dutch novelist and short story writer Karin Giphart.
‘There’s nothing more painful and delightful than writing’, says Hasan, and my own writing journey on the island is no different. At times I feel hugely enthused and liberated, at others tortured and confused – nothing new in the writing process there. But being here gives me clarity. I arrive with the intention of honing the plot of a novel, but instead return to my first love of poetry and by the time I leave, I’ve started to write a short story inspired by Karin. What matters is the time, space and gentle guidance I’ve been offered – the residency is a catalyst to help you move forward in whatever way you need.
It’s not all writing, of course. There are morning silent walks with Kate, an optional day trip to the hill town of Molyvos, and a magical evening in a flower-strewn garden courtyard listing to a Greek storyteller tell us the traditional folk tale of King Valemon the White Bear. Skala Eressos, the birthplace of the poetess Sappho, is a joy to be in, a mellow, friendly village that feels a bit like Goa without the long haul flight, where you can do a little bit of shopping for cotton dresses and crafty stuff and which feels like a budding writers’ enclave of creativity and inspiration.
Early on our last morning a small group of us meet on the beach at Kate’s instigation to let go of something we no longer need – be it a person, a memory, a feeling or a behaviour – whatever is holding us back. I want to let go of trying so hard with every tiny thing in my life, I decide, and so, still drowsy from sleep and wearing my Bolan kaftan, I join others in a simple ‘recapitulation’ ritual, then stand inside a heart Kate has made out of pebbles on the beach, holding my arms around myself and breathing as I face the sea. If I try less hard with everything, I think, I’ll have more time to write creatively – which is my innermost desire. I wash my teary face with salt water, then join the others to share songs and poems before breakfast.
Back home at my desk in England, I think daily of standing in that heart, and swimming to the rock, as I craftily steal time to write creatively instead of all the other tiny perfecting things I usually do. I have been charmed by the magic of being cared for and boosted alongside a group of creative others in a health-giving space, and a month later, my writing is still flourishing under the spell.
Travel tip: Interested in this retreat and living in the UK? Save time and hassle getting to Greece by booking any parking and or hotels you need at UK airports with Holiday Extras (0800 955 5989, HolidayExtras.com).