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:






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

 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…

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