The Scratching of Pen Nibs

Review of the Winter Solstice Writing Retreat, June 2021

Kinglake, Victoria is surrounded by trees and national park. On the third weekend of June 2021, it was also shrouded in early-morning mist. If you had been passing through, beyond the cacophony of Sulphur-crested cockatoos and kookaburras, you may have heard the scratching of pen nibs and the shared laughter from a writing retreat at Karma Kinglake.

The Busybird Publishing Winter Solstice Writing Retreat had been booked, and places filled, months in advance. But with the unpredictable curves and turns of the pandemic, Melbourne was sent into another lockdown only weeks before, and we were all left waiting, sharpening our quills, hoping that restrictions would be lifted in time.

As this is a review of the weekend, there will be no further suspense. Two days before we were due to gather, the retreat was given the green light.

Eleven participants gathered in the forest surrounds of Karma Kinglake, an accommodation and meeting centre as calming as its forest setting. While I initially felt a little adrift and unsure what to expect, the group came together as a flotilla. Boats of all types and all ages converging from our many different ports. Discussing why we write, it transpired that the reasons we write can be as diverse as our styles of writing, and none are trivial or insignificant. Our tutor and mentor for the weekend, Blaise van Hecke, the Book Chick ensured we all sailed in the same direction. Whether novices or published authors, she asserted that if we write, we are writers. We were all at different stages, and that was part of the pleasure of the weekend.

While our writing souls were nurtured by words of wisdom, support and companionship, our stomachs were sustained by the excellent meals supplied by Steve and Nicole at Karma Kinglake, and with ever-available snacks in the classroom. Frequent breaks gave time to reflect, and Saturday incorporated an extended period for our own activities, walking or sleeping or writing (it was a retreat focused on writing, after all), or individual time to speak with Blaise to explore our specific interests.

Over three days Blaise led us through essential elements of writing: voice, metaphor, structure and more. With her experience and expertise in writing, publishing and all steps between and beyond, Blaise gave us a solid grounding in writing anything from a novel to poetry. Writing exercises interspersed throughout pushed our creativity. I was challenged by some unfamiliar topics, but exercises and feedback showed that creativity can appear if given a gateway.

A timetable gave the sessions a structure and time to absorb the information, but left enough fluidity to follow any tangent of writing that emerged in our discussions. Part of the joy and the journey in the weekend was in the shared ideas and differing points of view. Through workshopping our written pieces, or discussing points raised in the sessions, participants shared their feedback generously, and sparked new ideas for future play.

The weekend became an embodiment of much that I had been missing through the restrictions in Melbourne over more than a year. It had offered a place to relax, time to learn and space to reflect. While learning is possible, and has become more common, by remote connection, nothing can match the benefits of learning in the proximity of others. Talking with people through a computer screen, though useful in its own way, cannot match the value of immediate feedback, of side-conversations over cake, and of connecting with fellow humans in real time and in real life.

As morning mists gave way to sunlit afternoons, the boats continued to navigate the waters. Some drifted momentarily. Some were fleetingly caught in a patch of turbulence. But all came together to sail in formation. By the end of Sunday, each would now sail for a different destination, but for each, their destination was now in much clearer view.

Holly Buykx (writer & retreat attendee)

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