Tuesday, 9 August 2022

The gift that keeps on giving: how to keep a picture book retreat going at home and in your head when it’s over… by Juliet Clare Bell

 Last month, I went on a picture book retreat 


Spot the five Picture Book Denners! -Pippa Goodhart (back left) and Garry Parsons (second from right, second row) -who led the sessions; Clare Helen Welsh (third from left, second row), who co-organised it; Natascha Biebow, joint Regional Advisor of SBCWI British Isles (second left, third row) and me (with red hair behind Natashca's shoulder) (c) Tito Berredo.

After a long pandemic break (the previous one had been in 2019), I was keen to try and stretch the benefit as long as possible beyond the actual retreat. Whilst the place looks lovely


                                                   (c) Clare Helen Welsh

                                                                                      (c) Clare Helen Welsh

as someone who doesn’t picture things, I don’t get to close my eyes and relive the lovely gardens or misshapen old rooms like some people (I’ll take their word for it) do. My three big takeaways from the weekend (other people will have come away with other ones, I know) which I was keen to smuggle home so I could incorporate the retreat life into my own were:



                                               TUNING INTO YOU



PLAY -I was already trying to get into the play mindset before I left for the retreat and even packed my Michael Rosen Play book to get me in the mood:


                                                                                      (c) Michael Rosen

And there was plenty of it there. It was particularly relevant in the Picture Book Den’s very own Pippa Goodhart’s sessions on different forms of picture book. We discussed concept books, interesting use of flaps, holes, books where the pictures are doing something quite different from the text (my favourite kind)… And we spent time playing around with ideas of our own.

I’ve always loved picture books that do things a bit differently, especially wordless books and those with few words. And I feel like I’ve been given permission (or given myself permission) to go back to a form I’ve always loved reading and writing. Pippa’s examples of different books that played with form, or where pictures play a particularly crucial role -and crucially, which publishers might be interested in them- really sparked ideas… including going back to old manuscripts of mine that I’d abandoned because they were a hard sell…

                               Books bought for research post retreat for potential new projects!

            Books from home that fit with the themes/concept/style I got excited about at the retreat

                                              And more.... Who doesn't love a retreat that gets 
                                              you excited about your own bookshelves again?


and Pippa's and Nick Sharratt's You Choose, one of my all-time favourites. I've lost two copies so far (the first, my children loved so much that one of them cut it up to use the individual pictures) and the second, I've used in schools so much with reluctant readers that I've mislaid it and need to get a third copy... I would encourage everyone who knows children between the ages of one and seven (though my children used it way beyond seven) to have a copy of this book...


I’m not great with yoga. I find it really hard to do the breathing at the same time as moving, and I find following any kinds of instructions pretty difficult so it’s usually a frustrating experience for me. But we had our resident yoga instructor/fellow author/illustrator, Gary Fabbri, there and for those of us who wanted to (and I did want to give it a go) we started our days with yoga before breakfast. 

                                                                                      (c) Imogen Foxwell

Whilst I struggled doing the actual movements and breathing the first day, I loved that we were doing something outside and communal, but quiet, to start our day. The second day, Gary went for a simpler session, particularly useful for writers and illustrators who sit for long periods of time. And I loved it! In the evening, we did a yoga meditation (yoga nidra) where we set an intention, a question we’d like to ask ourselves relating to our writing/creating or our lives. Whilst I couldn’t do the imagery side of the meditation, I entered into the spirit of it, got hugely relaxed with the gongs, and allowed my unconscious mind to do what it wanted. The outcome? A semi-interesting answer to my own question to myself (about my current work in progress) but something else, too. It brought to mind a manuscript I’d written paying homage to another book many years ago but that couldn’t be published at the time (for copyright reasons), so I’d changed it and changed it until it was hardly recognisable. But now, seven years later, I suddenly remembered that I’m free to go back to my original one! And I’d completely forgotten its original form until that session!

 Keen to build on the ‘trusting your own mind and body’ and allowing your mind some time and space to flourish, and bearing in mind that I had really enjoyed the early morning yoga, I decided to start doing something I’d not done for years when I got home: waking up at six o’clock to write. It’s absolutely the best time of the day for me to write (but I’d somehow managed to ignore that) and I enjoy it way more than I enjoy writing at other times of the day (I ignored that, too). It turns out that my inner critic prefers a lie-in and just doesn’t show up at that time of day. I don’t get out of bed, I’m often not 100 percent awake, I sometimes don’t even put on my glasses so it’s not even in focus, and I’m just happy to be creative and let it flow.

The final take home was about ACCOUNTABILITY. I already have an accountability partner with whom I meet once a week on skype -and this year she was at the retreat, too. When it came to writing our postcards to ourselves for six months’ time at the end (we all write down on a self-addressed postcard what we hope we’ll have done on the writing/illustrating front in six months’ time and then the organisers -which included Picture Book Den’s Clare Helen Welsh!- collect them in and send them to us in six months),  we addressed them to each other rather than ourselves so that the other person will hold us accountable to what we’ve said we’ll do by that time.  But the accountability didn’t stop there. On the way to the station, I was chatting with a few retreatees and we were talking about experimenting, playing and being less precious about our work and how we should just get more written, quickly. And we decided that we’d each commit to writing (and in some cases, illustrating) two really rough stories per month with a monthly deadline and online meeting the next day. They would have to be new stories each month (no editing and resubmitting the same one) and we wouldn’t critique them but we’d all have a quick read before we met and say one nice thing about them -but no critiquing). The idea is that if we get less precious about our writing/illustrating and our ideas then we’ll free ourselves up and write/sketch quicker and that at least some of our new ideas will be ok. We’re not thinking we’re going to create 24 good stories in a year -but there might well be some good ones in there that may never have happened were it not for this new process.

 And keen to merge this new (or re-remembered) trust with play, I’ve been committing my morning writing slot to new story ideas whenever I have them so that I am being playful every day first thing in the morning. If I actively want to work on my current (serious) work in progress at 6am, then that’s fine but priority goes to being playful with new ideas. What it means is that I’m no longer feeling like I have to finish X before I can even think about any other projects, which takes away some of the positivity about the current work in progress. Now I’ve created what feels like magic free time (six till seven), I can do whatever creative projects I feel like in that time and I’m feeling more enthusiastic about all my projects because I’m feeling creatively fulfilled by playing every morning!

I even did some (relatively) early morning outside writing on holiday in Orkney just recently, including sitting on my mum’s grave


overlooking Scapa beach

 and at the beach

          where I came up with an idea which will be one of my 'two a month' rough stories I'll try out

                                                                            at Scapa

                                                        at Weyland Bay at the end of my mum and dad's old road

After getting a little nervous last week that I was losing my taste for the early mornings before discovering I actually had covid and my body just needed a lot of rest, I’m excited to start back again in a couple of days’ time. Although I’m better with quiet than I was before the retreat (which means I’m having more interesting thoughts and ideas, too), I still play birdsong as I write, but that all feeds back into recreating the retreat early morning soundscape anyway.   

It's a retreat I'll remember for a long time (huge thanks to organiser Paul Morton, who spent months preparing. It was great to meet fellow 'Denner, Garry Parsons at last, and it was great to be in the company of loads of lovely and interesting creative people). I know everyone will have come away with different 'take homes' but here's to listening to ourselves, being accountable and having fun!

If you have any tips or stories about being more creative, getting more done or trusting yourself in your creative practice, please do share them below in the comments section. Thank you!

Clare is a children’s author of more than 35 books and is now on a mission to have a playful year of writing…



Jenny Rees said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences at the retreat. I shall cetainly pinch some of your ideas. I like the play idea very much.

Pippa Goodhart said...

It was a wonderful weekend of inspiration and fun, wasn't it! Being asked to run that workshop sent me back to thinking about playing with book formats and interactions between words and pictures, helping me enormously too. It's so important to stop and play. Children have that natural wisdom that we adults tend to forget!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Jenny, it's so easy to forget to play and it feels so decadent to give yourself permission to do it, until you actually start doing it and realise that it's really helping you out. Pinch away! x

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Pippa. And it's crazy that I'll talk about playing so much when I'm doing school visits and then remember that I've forgotten to do it myself for a while. I'm so happy to have incorporated it into each day now so that by 7am I've already played for an hour. It sets the day up so well. I'm really excited to go back to some of my old manuscripts and target some of the publishers you were talking about! And I'm having fun playing with book formats... Thanks again x

Adelaide Dupont said...

Bodies do need a lot of rest

[especially when those bodies are under pandemic strain].

Always good to claim the books on research.

And Rosen wrote a good piece - with lots of people - on the late Raymond Briggs

and his seismic effect on the world of books with pictures.

jesse said...

enjoyed reading this, glad you got so much out of it and care enough to share :)