Writeaways Workshops: A Journey to Intimacy

by Meagan Frank

A private woman opens her notebook, the space where her secret musings have landed. She has traveled across the ocean and it is here, in the lovely space of a French chateau where she will share what she has written and expose the vulnerable places she has yet to acknowledge. In an intimate conversation with writing instructor John Yewell at a Writeaways workshop in Champtoce-sur-Loire, France, Heather Wiley, an English teacher at Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, uncovers and develops a conception for a writing project she likely never would have discovered on her own.

Writers are private creatures. To share writing is an intimate decision in vulnerability, and sometimes it takes an intentional and dramatic step to arrive in a place where robust writing is possible.

Writeaways offer concentrated time away for writers to discover a deeper level of intimacy with their writing.

Writeaways offer concentrated time away for writers to discover a deeper level of intimacy with their writing. Heather Wiley worked on poems from her grandmother’s point of view at a Writeaways workshop in France.

Heather says, “I have been writing since high school, but I never showed it to anyone. I never would have told anyone I was a writer. I never would have called myself a poet, but at the Chateau I owned the fact I was a poet. It was really important for me.”

In a one-on-one conversation, she and John worked through the point of view Heather had been using to write a story about her beloved grandmother.

“I met with John and I told him I really value relationships and the important moments in life.”

The moment she was trying to capture was a recollection of the first time she realized her grandmother was fallible. At a party her grandmother hosted for Heather and her friends when they were in their twenties, her grandmother admitted she had wanted to make a pie for the occasion, but she got drunk instead. It was both hilarious and devastating, but certainly formative.

Heather’s first poem was from her own point of view, but after her meeting with John she realized the anecdotes and stories she wanted to capture about her grandmother needed to be written from her grandmother’s point of view.

“I realized through this project, as I was writing the stories she told me, I was learning about how to be a woman and was processing my own life through those stories.”

Heather was able to write a number of poems from her grandmother’s perspective and she took them to the Writeaways workshop in North Carolina the next year.

There are three inspirational settings for the Writeaways: on the grounds of Chateau du Pin in Champtoce-sur-Loire, France, at a Villa in Chianti, Italy, and on the banks of the Pasquotank River in Camden, North Carolina. Writers from all over the world embrace the special spaces created for them at annual Writeaways workshops. For a time, and in a new space, attendees are gently guided to comfortable moments of vulnerability by Writeaways organizers, Mimi Herman and John Yewell.

Liz Pena, a former middle and high school history and Spanish teacher who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida, found her comfort in vulnerability during her one-on-one with Mimi. Liz says, “It (the Writeaways experience) made me believe in myself as a writer. The only thing I knew was I had a book in me.”

Liz attended her first workshop in North Carolina in 2016, participating in the three-day-retreat option. She had presented the idea for a novel and during her meeting with Mimi they worked through and figured out how Liz was going to bring her novel to life. She was so inspired by John and Mimi’s dedication and support, by the end of the third day she asked if there was still room at the workshop scheduled in France that year.

Having recently retired from teaching, Liz was considering three potential “next career” ideas. After attending the workshops she is pursuing a writing career full time.

Liz says, “It doesn’t feel like a working vacation. I get to do what I want to do, in a great setting that is inspirational, intimate and supportive. It’s not a one-size-fits-all experience, it’s very personalized.”

Liz Pena at Writeaways

Liz Pena found her first Writeaways workshop to be so inspirational and supportive, she signed up for another before leaving the first.

Liz shares her typical day at a Writeaways workshop:

  1. Time to learn general writing instruction/exercises. “For a fledgling writer like me, I didn’t know anything about the process,” says Liz. During the morning session the group works on things like the concept of a flashback. John and Mimi pull apart pieces of writing and talk about how to edit, how to revise. They teach about aspects of the process, including the set-up for writing. By starting with big questions about personal goals for writing, they can direct each writer where she/he needs to go.
  2. Time to share with other participants. Liz says, “It made me more comfortable sharing my writing with people. Up to that point it had been a very personal thing.” It’s helpful to hear other styles and to receive a variety of perspectives about my own writing. You receive different insights from different points of view. “It helped me to see what writing I needed to clarify.” The writers read parts of what they are working on and the first question is “What did you hear?” and then “Does it make sense?” Important questions for writers to workshop. They are exposed to a variety of writing pieces too: memoirs, essays, novels, poems, and short stories.
  3. Time to write. In France, the setting is a chateau two hours from the city. “Seclusion helps. Everything is taken care of,” Liz says. No worries to make plans for food, excursions, etc. It is up to the individual whether to attend the excursion or stay back at the chateau to write. Liz wrote for two to three hours each day, with breaks to go walk on the grounds or participate in an excursion. “You are processing your writing the entire day.” The grounds are beautiful and when she wasn’t writing she worked through her writing or thought about her writing.
  4. Time for inspiration, to explore. The workshop experience generated ideas for Liz’s writing. A woman she met on the grounds of the chateau in France became a character in her novel. There are pieces of Italy that have found their way into her writing as well. “You find inspiration being there.”
  5. Time for connection. “You get to meet some great, intelligent people,” she says. A gentleman, David, who she met in France, but who has been at two workshops with her, has continued to work with her at the capacity they worked together at the workshops. “We trade stories back and forth. We edit each other’s stories.” Because of the deep connections made in the environment provided at the workshop, trust exists. “He knows me and that intimacy is important in developing good writing.”

Intimacy is an elusive thing, and achieving a level of intimacy can seem somewhat magical.

“Writing is a magical thing,” says Candace Fertile, a regular attendee of the Writeaways workshops and an instructor in creative writing at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia.

Candace, who generally takes part in the Grand Tour offering, a week in France and a week in Italy, says, “They provide a really good space, physically, mentally, and psychologically for people to explore creativity. The format of their workshops is more like a consultation. They try and they succeed at creating this special space.”

From the perspective of a writing instructor who provides writing feedback to college students for her profession, Candace marvels at the skill of John and Mimi to encourage and cultivate an environment that is both inviting and welcoming to the writers who go.

“There is a range of experience in what people have written,” Candace explains. “Sometimes there are people who haven’t written anything, but want to try, and it (the workshop process) can be upsetting.”

At most writer’s workshops, writers attend having submitted manuscripts for review, and then the group of attendees, with the help of instructors, work through one piece at a time with a multi-layered critical lens. It can be a rather intimidating experience for novice writers.

Candace acknowledges, “Writing makes people look inside themselves. Some people break down. John and Mimi are good at getting them out of that hole and helping them focus on what they’re doing to find value. It’s magic. John and Mimi are good at managing and bringing out the best people can do.”

Cristofer Wiley, a high school history teacher, had suggested the Writeway as a way for him and his wife to celebrate their tenth anniversary. He hadn’t considered the Writeaway would be as impactful for him as he expected it would be for his writing wife.

Cristofer Wiley, a high school history teacher, had suggested the Writeway as a way to celebrate his tenth anniversary with his writing wife. He hadn’t considered the Writeaway would be as impactful for him as he expected it would be for her.

For Cristofer Wiley, Heather’s husband, he hadn’t expected to discover what John and Mimi helped to reveal. Cristofer, who had suggested the Writeaway as a way to celebrate their tenth anniversary,  hadn’t considered the Writeaway would be as impactful for him as he expected it would be for Heather. He was impressed by what he gained as a writer there too.

“The chateau was an important venue for what we worked on there and for what we experienced there together.” Cristofer, a Reynolds High School history teacher says, “They set the table for being out of natural surroundings. Going there makes you able to find your muse and tap into the muse. Getting to the Writeaways was a chance to figure out what I wanted to say. I had a big exhale at the end of the week.”

Cristofer started and finished a powerful personal essay during his workshop week in France and it was important to his discovery that he is an essayist.

Ginny Zehr, a long-standing and consistent attendee at the workshops was sure she didn’t know how to write, either.

“I’m going to try it,” she convinced herself, “even though I’m scared of writing.” Before Ginny’s first attendance at the inaugural Writeaways event, she had admired writers, but never considered she could be one. She has been writing at every Writeaways workshop ever since.

Ginny says, “Because the people are different every year, and there are a lot of experienced writers who attend, it’s very helpful. It’s an atmosphere for support no matter how good a writer you are.”

The unique model of John and Mimi’s Writeaways workshops caters to the individual writer’s needs while celebrating the common experiences of travel, food, and wine.

Ginny, who admits she often enjoys the observations she is afforded in attendance says, “You do more than just writing. They’re structured, but more informal. It’s not combative. It feels like a little community. It’s a wonderful environment.”

Writeaways afford time for writers to create a supportive community with one another.

Writeaways afford time for writers to create a supportive community with one another. Photo courtesy Liz Pena.

An environment built on Mimi and John’s complementary partnership. The comfortable community is possible because John and Mimi have a way of letting the writing be the writing it wants to be.

Candace says, “The goal is to simply be the writer you can be. Somehow let the poem or story be the poem or story it wants to be.”

“Their teaching styles are so different,” Heather says, “and because of that they helped make my project more dynamic. Their approach is so comprehensive. Mimi is hard-nosed and John is a teddy bear, and they complement each other so much, the projects can be more complete.”

Writeaways workshops invite writers to physically move to a new space to create, away from home and outside of what they know. The grander invitation, however, may be for writers to open themselves and expose their writing to the possibilities that exist with the right guided instruction. They discover writing intimacy can be inspired by a place, but the gentle encouragement of a fertile writing environment is where the interior truth of a writer is brought gently into the light.

Photos courtesy of Writeaways participants.
Feature photo: Heather and Cristofer Wiley participated in a Writeaways workshop as a unique way to celebrate their anniversary.

Meagan Frank is a novelist, mom, coach, and senior writer for Books Make a Difference. She is seeking agent representation for her second nonfiction book, about navigating youth sports. Contact Meagan.

This article was first published May 2018. 

One Comment

  1. This is the lovely, the tender and the true. The brave work of coaxing memory and character and action onto the page.
    Bravo to Mimi and John for sharing their gifts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *