For the last sixteen years I’ve been running residential creative writing for business courses (or retreats) lasting between two and five days in comfy manor houses, boutique hotels, Andalusian fincas and Oxford Colleges. But two days on Zoom with 12 other colleagues? Hang on. Not that I was new to running workshops on Zoom or other such platforms, but the maximum had been two hours! So, now I’d set myself a challenge. Two eight-hour days online, during which I wanted to emulate, as far as I could, the residential experience.
Write UP Your Street, wherever that may be
This wasn’t the original plan. Julian and I had scheduled an UP retreat to take place in my old Oxford College – Trinity – next Spring. Julian Stubbs, CEO of UP, had been on a Master Class I ran at Merton College about seven years ago. So, both of us were really excited about being able to offer this to UP members and clients. But then Covid happened. And come September who knew whether we’d be able to gather face to face by then. We still can’t be sure. Therefore, it seemed not only a good idea, but a great idea to offer some respite, inspiration and shared experiences - even if online – sooner rather than later.
So, yes, I really had set myself a challenge. Back in 2018, due to a combination of carbon footprint considerations and restricted travel and accommodation budgets, I had started to offer clients the option of an online programme of writing training. An energy giant, a leading cyber security company, a major British charity and a global pharmaceutical corporation all took up the offer.
I devised a five-part programme based around the senses that would work both for groups and 1-2-1 tutorials and later, in the throes of the pandemic, I created an online tutorial to help celebrants make home visits to grieving families, called Breaking the Glass Wall. In both instances I’d drawn on my background in theatre to transform the medium and make it as tangible and sensory as possible.
Write UP Your Street went a fair few steps further:
In trying to emulate the residential experience I wanted to create a balance between intensity and ease, between solo and group work, between personal writing and business writing. Combining the use of break-out rooms, rotational sharing, writing online in real time, coffee breaks, shared lunch breaks, pre-work and homework - along with being at home in front of the camera myself – it worked, to a surprisingly satisfying extent.
Within virtually no time at all everyone felt a combination of being both at home, writing from the heart, and gathering in teams in a virtual motel to cook up brand concepts together. A very UP-market virtual motel let me add. By day 2 we were making up names for the break-out rooms, like the Red Room, Fleur de Lys and Dragonfly, cracking Cluedo jokes along the lines of who’d murdered who in which break-out room with which virtual blunt or pointed instrument.
It was a lot of fun. And the feedback has been tremendous. For those who like pie charts and statistics, 88.5% said it was fantastic and 11.5% said it was very good. (We’ll snuff that 11.5 in the Red Room with the candlestick!) In addition to the survey feedback and the ‘When I Zoomed out’ responses in the accompanying UP Blog I received some lovely texts and emails that highlighted the two outcomes that the programme was designed to achieve: a deep connection with creative energy through writing and a deeper connection with other participants – call it bonding if you will – again through the mechanisms of collaborative writing and sharing in a safe and supportive environment.
So, Dear Reader, let me share some Dear Stuart highlights to round off:
- “Dear Stuart, Thank you again for two days filled with inspiring conversations, writerly joy and wonderful creativity! “
- “Thank you for crafting such an interesting two day retreat. I learnt a lot.”
- “Dear Stuart, I am still on post-workshop-creativity-amphetamine and would like to use the released energy to continue developing my skills as a writer.”
- “What a great experience, to see so many UP members engaging in this very inspiring training. Thank you for bringing us together! “
- “The opportunity to connect with UP people was brilliant. You created an ideal environment for these connections to flourish - setting a relaxed, informal tone and allowing us to get to know each other through our writing - rather than the typical 'let’s go round the room and all introduce ourselves' thing, which can be quite energy-sapping in my opinion.”
- “Thanks Stuart. It's been a fantastic couple of days. Great group! I've really enjoyed it. I feel reconnected to the creativity and fun of writing, rather than the labour of it. “
- “I have been applying my learning to multiple projects! Just wanted to say once again a big THANKS to Stuart and everyone involved for the amazing experience and the opportunity to get to know you all.”
- “You fried my creative brain…still in recovery. “
- And one from Robert England (who I also first met on that Master Class in Oxford): “Just wanted to let you know that X is already showing the benefits of attending your writing course. She’s submitted an article that is significantly better than her previous writing. “
I suppose that is the kind of thing managers want to be able to say of team members they’ve invested in! And great to hear that insights are being applied to multiple projects, and that participants have come out of the cloud re-energised. A retreat should be a great experience in itself but its benefits should be reaped back in the real world. Write UP Your Street achieved both it seems.
If you are interested in learning more about a virtual retreat crafted around you or the needs of your company, or you would like a writer’s retreat to come to your post/zip code, soon, or post-COVID (although we imagine that carbon footprint considerations and gathering folks together from multiple locations will still be a major factor), contact Nacila Gérard and look forward to seeing you in the UP-market virtual motel.
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