Retreating to Venice to write – Pink Pangea’s travel writing retreat

Pink Pangea travel writing retreat Venice 2015

It started with an email.

An 8-hour day in a conventional office can feel like an eternity and at 10am on one particularly dreary day I was surreptitiously feeding my guilty addiction, scrolling through a Twitter feed saturated with travel blogs, travel photography and travel inspiration. Amongst these was a recurring message – ‘sign up to our travel writing retreat in Venice’

Pink Pangea are an online community of female travellers. Their articles range from top travel tips and how-to’s, to moving, inspiring firsthand experiences of women around the world who have finally succumbed to wanderlust and made travel their life. And here they were offering a glimpse into the dream – of travelling the world and writing about it.

I had been umm-ing and ah-ing about the idea of attending their travel writing retreat for weeks, but always ended up talking myself down from the ledge: “this will be for professionals, for people who know what they’re doing”, “it’s an expense you can’t justify right now”, “it’ll only show up the holes in your plan”…

But there was something about that morning, about the sheer boredom of staring at a blank computer screen, counting down the minutes to my lunch break, that made me start typing. What was supposed to be a short email outlining my wish to attend turned into an opus of confessions. As I began to articulate my plans, the words just kept on coming. It was a rush and a relief to finally be honest, to use my words to tell the truth.

And that’s how I found myself sat in a courtyard in Venice, introducing myself to 10 other women and expressing out loud, for the first time, my life plan.

Pink Pangea’s retreat

The retreat itself took the form of four days that would be split between soaking up all the Italian culture that Venice has to offer, and honing our writing skills, all the while learning more about the travel writing industry as a whole and meeting other like minded individuals. The mornings were set aside for seeing the sights of Venice and I spent my time living by the motto that sees me happily through every city break I’ve ever been on: eat, drink, wander, repeat.

Like a sun-drunk bumblebee buzzing lazily from flower to flower, I flitted happily around Venice, stopping at low-key bars and cafes for a plate of olives and a drink at each pretty pitstop. On the first morning, I stoically ordered an ‘acqua minerale’, fearful of being labelled a boozy Brit, breaking out the hard stuff whilst everyone else was still digesting their breakfasts. I needn’t have worried. As I was primly sipping on my water, a fantastically Italian old gent at the next table was tucking into his second Aperol Spritz of the morning. Now that’s a culture I can get on board with.

After this enlightening discovery, Venice became a hothouse of timely tipples and I sipped my way through dinky glasses of beer and delicate aperitivos, all the while taking in the sights and sounds around me and furiously scribbling in my notebook. To say I felt inspired would be an understatement. As I felt the delicious pain of writing cramps spreading through my tendons, so the worries and doubts about making this trip began to dissipate. The creative drought was over.

The writing workshops

The freedom of uninterrupted scribblings that I enjoyed in the mornings was coupled with a more structured, focused approach to writing in the afternoon workshops. Over four hour sessions, we’d be set tasks to complete, from concentrated activities such as defining our goals for the week, to taking an open-ended theme and constructing a piece around it. Whether it was ‘an act of kindness’ or ‘taking a leap of faith’, each title allowed room for flexible interpretation.

The courtyard in Centro Culturale don Orione Artigianelli – the backdrop to our workshop. Who wouldn’t feel inspired here?

Having drafted a piece in just 30 minutes, we returned from our various nooks and crannies of choice to rejoin the group and await the next writing task. Around the group heads were bowed, notebooks closed, and the occasional smile played on our lips as we enjoyed the feeling of creativity sparked, looking forward to developing our latest tentative workings into something more substantial later. Task done, we looked to Jaclyn – Pink Pangea’s co-founder and motivational course leader – to set the next writing task. Except the next task would involve neither pen nor paper. The next task would be reading our efforts to the group. Aloud. In front of everyone.

What? I thought this was a writing workshop? No one said anything about reading?! A feeling of mild horror settled on the group, and no one seemed willing to step forward and read first. There’s an odd phenomenon at play here – you can take a group of women who are both confident enough to travel alone to meet and work with a group of strangers, and talented enough to have celebrated publication, online exposure or even awards for their writing, but ask them to read a small piece of work back to that group and watch them all cringe with self-effacing embarrassment.

I present a lot with work and have never exactly been a wall-flower, but the prospect of offering up my unedited scribblings to a group of talented writers pushed me well outside of my comfort zone. Whilst I’m happy to read aloud, I have a difficult relationship with criticism of any kind. On the one hand, I hate to be praised; I assume it’s false and placatory and that people are only saying it to be nice, or worse, because I’ve made them feel like they have to. But on the other hand, if I get no praise at all, I take it as the ultimate validation of failure, the definitive verbalisation of the doubts that were already circling my head. It’s kind of a lose/lose situation.

But this retreat was designed to test our limits and teach us new things. I’ve been writing covert posts for this blog, putting them up in secret silence for nearly a year now, and it’s only very recently I’ve dared show them to the world. The writing workshops were a chance to take this to a new, more literal level. And after a couple of times, I realised that it’s not so bad. If you stop yourself from apologising for every second word that comes out your mouth, if you sit up and listen to your feedback rather than cringing behind your hands, you’ll pick up some useful tips and maybe, just maybe, let one or two of the nicer comments sink in.

What I’m taking home with me

During the retreat induction, we’d been warned to expect a flood of emotions throughout the writing sessions. This was to be an exercise in honesty and bravery, where fears were bared and doubts laid out for all to see in order that we could sift out the flaws and build up talent. That’s not a process to be taken lightly, but I was surprised by just how open we quickly became, how much faith we put in each other. I believe I’m right in saying that every single person cried at some point on the retreat, be it from retelling an emotion that is hard to articulate, or from being moved by another’s eloquent retelling of a personal memory.

But coupled with this was laughter, and – by the end – a tentative feeling of pride. Moments of honest solemnity were complimented with raucous laughter and the shared delight of finding the humour in the sunnier sides of our passion for travel. We took our new found friendships to the restaurants of Venice and laughed over litres of delicious, cheap Italian wine, revelling in the indulgence of sharing travel stories for hours on end with no one telling us to change the subject; by the end of the week, I’d added about 20 new places to my ‘must-travel’ list.

On that first day, huddled as a group and writing our goals for the week, I’d expressed my wish to “turn my blog into an inspiring and strong platform on which to start a new, viable venture”. I wanted to find validation in my decision to write, and to “throw off the self-doubt”, to feel pride for both my writing and for my decision to change my lifestyle.

 

Ultimately, this retreat was a chance for me to look my fear of failure directly in the eye and hope to all hopes that it would be the first to back down. I know that fear is still stalking me in the long grasses of my mind, but these workshops were the first time I’d addressed him head on. And, for now, he’s retreated.

It started with an email, and ended with a plane ticket; with gelato and bellinis and fresh tagliatelli; with a group of like-minded, inspiring individuals with a shared purpose. We traveled from all corners of the globe to give our voices the spaces they deserve. We took the leap.

Header photo credit – @PinkPangea

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