Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Get to Know Literary Ontario, with Ruth Walker and Gwynn Scheltema of Writescape

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Ruth Walker and Gwynn Scheltema are the founders of Writescape, a creative organization offering writing workshops and retreats in Southern and Central Ontario. Their Playing with Words workshop offered this month in Whitby is filled to capacity, but writers in the Oshawa area can still register for the February 19th workshop, Letters from the Heart: Creating Stories from Personal Papers. And if you need a few days to escape the daily grind and really get into a writing project, don't miss the annual Spring Thaw Writing Retreat coming up in April.

Here, Ruth Walker tells Open Book about the challenging and inspiring programs available through Writescape.

Open Book:

What can you tell us about Writescape and the programs that you offer?

Ruth Walker:

Writescape offers a wide range of creative writing workshops and retreats. Workshops are either all-day sessions, usually on Saturdays, or a series of workshops held over several weeks, generally in the evening. Writescape workshops focus on various aspects of writing creatively and the necessary techniques and skills. Then we let the writer put those skills to immediate use. We have held workshops in Toronto, York Region, Durham Region, Northumberland County and the Ottawa Region.

Our all-inclusive retreats combine our expertise in offering innovative hands-on workshops and professional editing with our interest in creating a retreat environment in which everything is taken care of — meals, accommodations and snacks, including endless pots of coffee and tea. At one-day to five-day retreats, participants can focus on their work in progress, develop new work or edit and revise, and Writescape takes care of all the rest.

We even take care of the writers' doldrums; we design a customized workbook to serve as a "retreat companion" for each retreat to help participants identify a realistic plan and stay on track. And we always bring along our unique "inspiration station," a table of taste, touch, smell, sound and sight triggers to stir any dormant pens.

Our retreats have been held in the Barrie area as well as Kawartha East and Kawartha West and Northumberland County. Occasionally, Writescape retreats include other experienced leaders who help us achieve our goals. For example, at our fall retreat Turning Leaves 2010, award-winning author Susanna Kearsley joined us for the weekend and offered critiques, a Q & A session and a morning workshop.

Both Gwynn Scheltema and I have years of experience offering workshops in the creative writing field as well as in government and private business. We even launched a creative writing at work program for the Ontario public service and it is one of the highest rated workshops offered to government employees.


Why did you decide to initiate Writescape workshops and retreats?


Both Gwynn and I knew there were certain things that mattered in a workshop or retreat. We knew because, frankly, they mattered to us in all the workshops and retreats we have taken over the years. Participants need to feel respected in a safe environment that will also challenge them and inspire deeper levels of creativity. Hopefully, they should also be surprised by what they accomplish, and they definitely need to leave energized and excited to continue with their projects.

We launched Writescape in November 2008 at Characters Reloaded, a weekend of intense workshops focusing entirely on character in fiction, memoir and creative non-fiction. We held it at a conference facility on the shores of Lake Simcoe and it was a great success. That success became Writescape.


What kinds of writers are your workshops and retreats directed towards?


We assumed that when we started the retreats, women would form our primary client base and that they would be older (40+). We were wrong. From the very beginning, we were delighted to discover men wanted to participate, as well as younger women. So far, our youngest participant has been a 'twenty-something' university student. Our oldest participant is in his 80s.

The majority of participants are prose writers but we certainly have welcomed some fine poets too. And of course, poetry finds its way into the workshop sessions, so we often discover writers who did not realize they had a poet's voice.


What writing retreats have you attended yourself in the past? How did your experience there benefit your writing?


Just this past summer, I flew out to west to participate in Sage Hill Writing Experience for ten days of uninterrupted writing time among other writers. I added 26,000 words to my manuscript. I also rewrote and edited quite a bit. And I did it all under the glorious and expansive Saskatchewan sky. I did not have to cook a meal or answer a single telephone call or email. In other words, no excuses.

Gwynn and I have attended various retreats in the past, from structured retreats sponsored by writing organizations to ad hoc private retreats with colleagues in cottages and bed and breakfasts.


In April you'll be running Spring Thaw 2011, a three- to five-day retreat at Elmhirst?s Resort on Rice Lake. Can you describe what an average day might look like for a writer attending this retreat?


For a typical Writescape retreat, each day is divided into segments that balance creativity sessions of exercises and activities, private time for writing and reflection or to enjoy any of the facility's amenities, feedback sessions, meals and group activities. At Spring Thaw, Gwynn and I offer written manuscript evaluation from both of us on up to ten manuscript pages, as well as one-on-one private feedback sessions with either Gwynn or me.

Breakfast and lunch are offered buffet-style in our main cabin; participants can linger and visit with each other or put together a quick take-away meal and return to their private room and carry on writing.

Dinner is held in the Hearthside Dining Room at Elmhirst's Resort, complete with white linen tablecloths and candlelight. A view of Rice Lake at sunset adds to the feeling of being "away," and spirited conversations and laughter are the norm.

Each evening, we hold group sessions that include sharing of work, group feedback and discussions.

It is important to note that all activities and creativity sessions are optional. We will happily offer any handouts and exercises to participants who bypass an activity to keep working on their material. We do encourage everyone to attend the opening and closing group sessions as well as the dinners because good things come out of getting to know other writers and their work.

The two-day extension on April 18 and 19 will be strictly devoted to writing during the day, with optional evening group feedback sessions.


What sorts of projects do you see writers working on at your annual retreat?


Retreat participants arrive with all sorts of projects and at all stages of their creative development. For example, an award-winning poet spent her retreat time focusing on her second manuscript of collected works. At another retreat, a writer came who had taken a one-year leave of absence to work on his novel manuscript. Add to that a songwriter who polished music and lyrics to be ready to produce a demo and a young writer who arrived to work on her first novel outline. We see new writers, just beginning to explore their creative voice. And we have writers with a strong publishing history, looking for a retreat space in which to develop new projects. There is no "criteria" to enjoy a Writescape retreat — you just need to want to write.

Our retreats have attracted the interest of other arts community members, and this year we welcome artist and instructor Margaret Farrar, who will run a concurrent ArtScape retreat for visual artists at Spring Thaw 2011.

We expect that having visual artists in our midst will add to the creative energy for both groups. Gwynn and I work hard to make each retreat a new and enriching experience. We have several retreat participants who have registered for every retreat since 2008. One participant has flown in from Alberta for every retreat since Spring Thaw 2009. And this spring we welcome back a New Jersey resident who drove up for our first retreat in 2008.


How does your work as editors and mentors at Writescape influence your own writing?


It is humbling to be asked by other writers to read their work and offer feedback. It is also inspiring and educational. In all the manuscript feedback we give, we have learned to identify and articulate aspects of the craft, which in turn enhance our workshops and our own writing.

So many writers take enormous risks with their writing — trying on new genres, shaking up the "expectations" of certain tropes or concepts, and creating new and exciting work. This certainly has an effect on us. For example, being in the company of three children's authors inspired Gwynn to begin a children's novel.

All of that risk-taking inspires Gwynn and me to take risks with our craft, and to value the gift of creating something that perhaps will inspire others. There's no greater compliment to a writer.


Writers at all stages in their careers have to struggle to make time for their work. What advice do you have to writers who are trying to balance a busy life with their dedication to their craft?


It is a struggle that both Gwynn and I are intimately familiar with, and one that we continue to have.

But not everyone can find three days to disappear from life's responsibilities so they can focus on writing. Even if all you can manage is a lunch hour at work, try using some of that time every day to devote to your project. Some writers get up an hour earlier each day to write. Some stay up after everyone has gone to bed. And some slip out to the library on weekends and find a quiet corner in which to write.

Writing may be a solitary act, but it doesn't have to be lonely. Networking organizations such as The Writers' Community of Durham Region and Spirit of the Hills in Northumberland offer opportunities to meet and network with other creative people. Check with your local library or Google "writers group/organization" and your municipality; writers are everywhere in Ontario and so are writing groups.

Sign up for a workshop that offers exercises and use those exercises to work on your writing project. Critique groups can also be helpful with making you set deadlines to have work to submit. And there are online critique groups that might be worth exploring if travel is difficult.

Finding the time to write is a personal challenge that means each writer has to find a personal solution. We do know it's hard. We really do. As a stay-at-home mom, I used to cling to Margaret Atwood's famous quote: If I'm doing housework, I'm not writing. My house would never win any awards, but some of my writing has.

We all have to find a personal solution that lets us write; hopefully it is one we can use every day.


You recently published a creativity handbook called Inspiration Station. Will you describe this book to us and how you hope it will be used?


Inspiration Station was inspired by the feedback from our retreat evaluation forms. So many participants asked how to keep their creative energy up and the ideas flowing. We first conceived and wrote the book for our Writescape alumni.

We also wanted to serve the majority of writers who cannot take a retreat two or three times a year but still wanted that "retreat" feeling. We combined simple exercises, starter lines, inspiring quotes, intriguing images and even a few pages for notes and sketches. Find fifteen minutes in the day and anyone can "go on retreat" with Inspiration Station, even if that retreat is a corner seat on a commuter train. The book is designed to travel easily and tuck into a knapsack or purse. You can start anywhere, but several of the sections are set up to start generally (Broad Strokes) and then go deeper in the process (Focus).

At our book launch at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, we tried out a couple of the exercises on the guests. Nearly 50 people participated and they all had fun. Several of them weren't even writers, but you wouldn't have known it. The room hummed with the sound of pens and pencils creating ideas on the page. For Gwynn and me, it was a heavenly sound.

Ruth E. Walker is an award-winning and internationally published poet and writer, and playwright and editor. A Senior Writer/Editor for the provincial government, she teaches creative writing in workshops, retreats, and community programs, and maintains a freelance editing and writing service. Ruth loves teaching and especially enjoys working with new and developing writers of all ages. For six years, she facilitated an ongoing writers? workshop for the Oshawa Senior Citizen?s Centre. She also brings writing workshops to schools in the Durham Region.

Gwynn Scheltemais an award-winning fiction writer and poet who lives in the village of Trent River on the shores of Lake Seymour. Being able to write in such a peaceful setting possibly helped her win the 2007 Timothy Findley Creative Writing Award. Her stories, however, are richly influenced by years spent in Africa, and have placed in several short story contests. Gwynn was a founding editor for Lichen, Arts & Letters Preview, and her fiction and poetry have been published in Canada and Europe in literary journals, anthologies and magazines. She writes for a living as owner of The Write Connection.

For more information about Writescape workshops and retreats, please visit the Writescape website.

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