Four days ago, before embarking on our residential course, I posed the question “Do writers need retreats?” Is locking ourselves away in remote Hebridean cottages, Sri Lankan beach shacks, or Italian farmhouses a desire or a need? A self-indulgence or an artistic imperative?  I concluded that it was the former – nice but not essential. If you really want to write, you will just get on with it like T.S. Elliot composing The Wasteland while working in a bank or J.K. Rowling penning the first Harry Potter novel in crowded cafes while struggling to raise a son alone.
Four days later, I have almost changed my mind. We reached Masseria Impisi a little frazzled from our various journeys, busy lives, and demanding day jobs. Lexi, the publisher, had arrived early and spent a few days in Bari alone in the pensione from hell (not so much a B&B as grubby bed and no breakfast). Kate, the vet, had spent a night at the Stansted Radisson in that weird, sterile limbo that is the airport transit hotel.  Dawn, the actor who works in  a mine  (yes I said “mine” not “mime”- it’s a long story), had come from Australia via a week in London, so she had double culture shock even if the jet lag had worn off.  The rest of us had arrived on Ryan Air – ’nuff said.
Day One, we send the students off to explore the quirky buildings and beautiful grounds of the masseria with its mosaics, pergolas, unexpected bird-man sculptures, bridges over dry river beds, paths which lead nowhere, doors which lead to a pre-Roman tomb and  a cavern eccentrically equipped with a dart board and pub tables. The newcomers are entranced and the regulars fall in love with the place all over again. Everyone finds something inspiring to write about.
At dinner, we gorge on spicy salamis, the softest palest mozzarellas, the freshest green olives, Leonie’s miniscule, melt-in-the-mouth ravioli (the woman is an artist in every sense). The wine flows and we learn that two students have been bereaved just before the trip; a tutor has lost six teeth; our policeman has worked double shifts for the entire Olympic period.  We are all a bit fraught and fragile.
The sun wakes us early and fills us with optimism.  We do a workshop on descriptive techniques and subtext; we have one-to-ones and define our personal gaols; we sunbathe, swim, read in the shade, write in the pergola, grab bicycles and freewheel downhill to the beach. Exhilaration is not the province of cyclists alone; we all feel a new energy.  At sunset, we sip our peachy, prosecco bellinis on the roof and the new students read their first pieces; they’re brilliant.  The old students read theirs; the second drafts are gaining fluency and cohesion.
By day four, the tutors all feel good.  We don’t kid ourselves that this creative growth is all down to our teaching; we cannot deny the inspiration tranquil Impisi offers, the mental space created by the freedom from work and family, the benign effects of peer approval and support but we congratulate ourselves on finding this place and helping new writers find their muses.
We have one more night of talking, drinking and sharing work in the candlelight before we go back to the cold and humdrum.  We will all take a distillation of this creative camaraderie with us to warm us through the winter and our next drafts.  We will still need discipline and determination but the inspiration of Impisi has made it just that bit easier.
Ardella Jones