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Writing Residencies

writer Mel Ciavucco shares her experiences of a 6 week writing residency in Thailand, Asia

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Introduction

Mel Ciavucco is a fiction writer, a blogger and a founding member of Stokes Croft Writers in Bristol. I'm also a member of SCW, which is how I know Mel.

Chris Fielden and Mel Ciavucco

Me and Mel, upsetting an audience by performing 'Zombies on a Boat' at the first Talking Tales story reading event

I became aware of The Content Castle when I was asked to go and work there, as a tutor. I was discussing this with Mel at one of our bi-weekly(ish) writing group meetings. She wanted to do some affordable travelling, so got in touch with Kaila, who runs The Content Castle. After completing an editing test, Mel was offered a writing residency in Thailand on the island of Koh Samui.

Content Castle

In this post, Mel discusses her experiences honestly, including what she learned, why this might not be for everyone and what life is like as a working writer abroad. She also shows you how you can enjoy this unique opportunity, if travelling the world and writing residencies appeal to you.

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I Moved In With A Bunch Of Writers In Thailand And Here's What Happened

Meeting your new boss whilst pouring with sweat and weighed down by a backpack might not seem like the best way to start a job, but in Thailand, it’s unavoidable.

Five minutes before, I’d finished my fourth cup of coffee of the morning after arriving in the area early, following some obsessive Googling of the address of my new temporary home. I was about to move in with a bunch of writers I’d never met and I was terrified. The house I was moving into is called The Content Castle.

The Content Castle, Koh Samui, Thailand

The Content Castle, Koh Samui, Thailand

It’s a house for writers on Koh Samui on the southern coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Writers are expected to write/edit 7,500 words per week in exchange for accommodation and two meals a day, six days per week.

The Content Castle

Kaila, the owner of The Content Castle, met me at the door. I awkwardly pulled off my sandals; something I knew was often expected in all homes, restaurants and hotels in Thailand. I’d travelled Southeast Asia nine years previously, not that it made me feel any less nervous. The majority of my previous trip had involved drinking dubious mixes of alcohol from buckets and being a reluctant sex tourist (but that’s a different story).

Writers in Thailand

The Content Castle Team: Meredith, Kaila, Mel and Jess

Before my stint at The Content Castle, I'd written fiction – short stories, a novel, screenplays – my own blog and had a few articles published in an online magazine, but content and copywriting was new to me. Kaila showed me around The Castle – not an actual Castle of course, but a colourful three-storey house in the non-touristy area of the island, Hua Thanon.

When I first saw The Castle on Facebook, I thought it was too good to be true. A beautiful house in which you can write, on an island in Thailand, and have meals cooked for you? What's the catch? I emailed them to enquire and received a friendly response so my scepticism started to fade.

By request, I sent links to my published writing and completed a short writing and editing test. I was accepted, so I began a few months arranging work around my trip. With two jobs, there was a lot for me to sort out. I constantly doubted whether it was the right thing to do and was worried I would run out of money, worried if my jobs would still be there when I returned home, worried that everyone in the house would hate me: the usual stuff from my overactive brain.

Then I remembered a book by Chuck Palahniuk called Haunted about a writers’ retreat where they all eat each other, kill each other or kill themselves…

Life As The Newbie

I had a feeling it was going to be hard work for me, the big perfectionist I am. In the past, I would obsess over my blog posts, feeling like they were never good enough. I knew I’d have to get over that and quicken the pace at The Castle.

Once Kaila had showed me to my room, I pulled some clothes out of my backpack and hung them up (a real luxury whilst travelling) and went straight to join the other writers with my laptop.

Writer Residence Content Castle

My room ('The Roomie')

Having spent time island hopping beforehand, I hadn’t needed to travel far and I was eager to start on my workload. My fellow residents, Jess Coleman and Meredith San Diego, were working away in the classroom, popular due to its air conditioning.

I opened my laptop and pretended to know what I was doing, but the software was all new to me – Trello and Slack, to name a few – so it took a bit of getting used to, but the others were helpful in answering my many questions. It was clear it was a hard-working house and I was going to get a lot done.

Jess Coleman, Meredith San Diego and Mel Ciavucco

Jess Coleman, Meredith San Diego and Mel Ciavucco

Later, Jess and Meredith took me on a very exciting cultural expedition... to the 7/11. 'The Seven', as the cool kids call it, is an integral part of the survival of foreigners in Thailand, especially for residents of The Castle, as it was our main source of booze and biscuits (essential writers’ fare). After buying some 32 THB (approximately 70 pence) wine coolers, some Dairy Milk (to test if it tastes the same as in the UK) and a plastic-wrapped banana (why?) and I was good to go.

That night, in my new room, in a new place, I couldn't sleep. It was nice to have a comfortable bed and my room was lovely, but it was such an overwhelming situation.

But after two days, it felt like I’d been there about a week. I'd started some assignments and was just hoping for the best. My first assignment was a relatively easy piece about Koh Samui tourism, which helped me learn a little bit more about the island. Then came an article about a boat show on the mainland, and then a medical-based article about eye health.

Writers in Thailand, Koh Samui

Meredith, Jess and Mel with awesome new resident, Sandi

We also had to pitch ideas for The Content Castle and Archipelago Communications (Kaila’s online marketing agency) blogs. Between this, I cross-edited other residents’ work and learnt more about the style of different articles, plus I received edits on my own work, which was incredibly helpful.

After my first few posts (which, as expected, I spent a long time working on, desperate to get them right) I felt a little less anxious. The pieces were done, gone and sent so that was surely proof that I could do it after all.

Castle Life

In the house, things were productive, but sometimes intense. To put a bunch of writers together in a house, working under deadlines while expecting nothing to go wrong, is a big ask.

There's drama. The house has seven bedrooms and each resident brings their own emotional baggage into the house. Being away from home means their default coping mechanisms are sometimes no longer available and it can be tough. Emotions run high and it can feel like the Big Brother house. The Content Castle is not for everyone. It’s not a relaxing writing retreat: it involves commitment to the work and a willingness to learn.

Cat Computer

'Kat', the semi-resident cat, helping maintain calm by pooing in suitcases (not a joke, this actually happened...)

It's not like a WWOOF job (working on a farm in exchange for accommodation) where you would work set hours in a day, though there is the benefit of managing your own workload. If you're more of a night owl, like me, you could have a lie-in every day, as long as you hit your target word count.

Because I’m a nerd, when I wasn't working, I was watching YouTube tutorials, listening to podcasts and doing a FutureLearn course (they provide free courses) to learn about digital marketing and freelance writing. I was doing all of that part whilst sipping on wine, which may or may not make me look any cooler. Of course, I still found time to enjoy 89 THB (approximately £2) cocktails a few doors down from The Castle, visit night markets and hang out on the quiet beach across the road.

Thailand Beach Koh Samui

The beach across the road from The Content Castle

I was delighted when I was assigned social media duties for a yoga centre called Wonderland Healing Center on Koh Phangan. I was looking after their Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts, plus creating newsletters and writing blog posts. I love yoga, so it was fun sourcing content and learning about something I love whilst helping promote a place I fully support. I even went on a yoga retreat when I left The Castle, I loved the place so much.

Ignoring The Impostor

Throughout all of this I still had these critical voices: "You don't know what the hell you're doing, Mel, they'll find you out soon." I'm sure many people suffer this impostor syndrome, feeling like you don't deserve what you have, feeling clueless. So I just pretended that I knew what I was doing, 'fake it till you make it' style. The more articles I wrote, and social media posts I scheduled, the less of those voices I heard. Or, at least I managed to catch them and told them to get lost (often using stronger words to that effect).

Girl in a Hammock

Mel, practicing the art of ignoring her critical voices while sipping tea in a hammock atop the Content Castle – it's not all drama...

Like many, my confidence issues are deep-rooted and taking many years to unpick, but for me travelling has always helped. Alone in a different country and coping just fine proves to myself that I'm stronger than I think. I tell myself that I just need to keep proving these critical voices wrong, which will ultimately build more faith in myself.

Food, Food, Food, Food, Food

The best thing about my stay at The Content Castle? The food! I’m kidding, it's the people. No, it’s the food. Food and people. Though the food is phenomenal. Freshly cooked Thai food six days a week by our awesome housekeeper, Cherry.

Cherry The Content Castle Cook

Pancake Day! Left to right: Meredith, Cherry and Jess

Cherry is a wonderful cook and one of the most positive, kind, lovely people ever. Kaila, the brilliant brain behind The Content Castle, is quite the inspiration (yes, this is the cheesy bit where I'm going to gush over everybody). To have designed the business model for The Castle, the first of its kind, while running a successful digital marketing company, as well as facilitating writing retreats, she is a force to behold.

My beautiful housemates, Jess and Meredith, kept me going during my whole stay. To see such determined, hard-working, funny, kind, confident, wonderful women is the most inspiring thing.

The Content Castle presented me with the best gift I could hope for: a bunch of powerhouse women. Girls inspiring girls is the best thing ever. Jess and Meredith inspired me in so many ways, but none as impactful and hilarious as the motivational "Just Do It" Shia LaBeouf video.

Shia LaBeouf 'Just Do It' motivational speech

The three of us used this monologue several times a day to motivate almost anything; a nap, that pressing article due soon or when crossing the busy streets of the island.

Just DO IT

Last year, I remember thinking there was no way I could go to Thailand for nearly three months. I remembered my first time alone in Thailand, trying to survive a few days in Bangkok, despite hating it, and then arriving on the gorgeous Koh Phangan (the next island along from Koh Samui) and feeling a huge sense of independence and accomplishment. I wanted to feel that again. I knew I had to just do it.

Having been in my job for over five years, it was time to push myself out of my comfort zone. Amazing experiences don’t happen all by themselves, it requires a big, scary leap into the unknown. If we never did that, how will we ever learn anything in life?

Just Do It

Just do it

The six weeks I spent at The Content Castle felt like a year in a job back home in terms of everything I’ve learnt. I proved to myself that I can meet the deadlines, that I'm a versatile writer and can help promote businesses through social media. The editing practice will be useful for my fiction work too. The deadlines helped me to 'let go' of my work quicker and not overthink or obsess over it as much as I used to.

Near the end of my stay, I took another scary leap... I quit my job. Now I’m embarking on my freelance career as a writer and am excited about the future. I’m sure every so often I'll still get those annoying critical voices, but every time I’ll hear my girls saying, "JUST DO IT!"

To find out more or apply for a writing residency, visit The Content Castle website.

Group Tattoo

Content Castle writers, going all Starship Troopers at a group tattoo bonding session

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Mel Ciavucco Biography

Mel Ciavucco

On the balcony of The Content Castle - Mel has a tan

Mel Ciavucco is a Bristol-based fiction writer and blogger. She writes novels, screenplays and short stories, which range from gritty emotional dramas to gross-out zombie comedies. Mel writes about gender equality and body positivity on her own blog and has been published by online feminist magazines Bust and Zusterschap. She has had short stories published both online and in print, and was a ‘notable contender’ for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2013.

Mel has made appearances on the Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC2, plus BBC Radio Bristol and Radio 5 Live. She was recently called the ‘Liam Gallagher of flash’ for downing half a bottle of wine and swearing too much during a story performance in a Flash Slam at the Bristol Festival of Literature.

She is one of the co-founders of Stokes Croft Writers - they run a bi-monthly storytelling event in Bristol called Talking Tales.

Mel will be offering freelance writing and editing services and hopes to still be able to afford to eat.

You can find Mel on Twitter and Facebook.

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Big Thanks To Mel

I'd like to say a big, "Thank you," to Mel, for taking time out from sunbathing, drinking, eating delicious Asian cuisine, travelling around Thailand and generally having a lovely time (not jealous AT ALL) to write this post. I hope other writers will take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Content Castle offers - it would be great to hear about your experiences too.

Have you had any experiences with travel writing that you'd be prepared to share on my website? If so, please read my submissions guidelines and then contact me with information about your experiences.

How to Write a Short Story, book by Christopher Fielden

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Comments:

Your comments:

Janey J
Thanks for that, Mel, I've been wondering about the Content Castle.

Mel C
Thanks for reading. It may sound cheesy but it really was a life-changing experience for me. I'm back in the UK now setting up my writing and editing business all thanks to the confidence I gained on my trip!

Janey J
Mel, it does not sound cheesy at all. I am curious, what do you think changed your life the most, the Castle or Thailand? I live in Eastern Thailand and am thinking of returning to the UK. I do freelance proofreading/editing, but it's not enough to support me in the UK yet. Do you think the Content Castle would be suitable for an editor rather than a writer? I don't know if I can handle communal living though, LOL.

Mel C
Good question - bit of both probably! I had been travelling and had been to Thailand before, in which I'd had great experiences, but the Castle was rewarding in different ways. Being around other women who were freelancing or running their own businesses made me realise the only thing stopping me was my own self-doubt (something I'm still very much working on!)

Communal living can be tough for sure but the people I lived with were the ones that made my experience so worthwhile. In terms of your editing experience, I'm not sure if this is something Kaila would consider, but I'd suggest emailing her and telling her a little bit about what you do - I think she'd be happy to have a chat to you about it. Here's her email:

kaila@helloarchipelago.com

Janey J
Thanks very much, Mel, I really appreciate your honest and detailed response, and wish you great success in the future. You're absolutely right; you are the only obstacle in your own path. Please be confident and JUST DO IT! (Loved that video, LOL.) Life's too short! Thanks for Kaila's email address, also much appreciated. Have a great weekend and say hi to Topher for me X

Chris Fielden
Hi to you too, Janey - be good to have you back in the UK, if you do decide to come :-)

For those of you who are reading this and are thinking ??? a lot of my old friends refer to me as Topher (abbrviation of ChrisTopher).

Mel C
Thanks Janey! Best of luck for the future. JUST DO IT! (I think I'm going to sign off on everything that way from now on haha) x

Steph M
Thanks Chris. Enjoyed Mel's contribution.

Chris Fielden
Thanks Steph :-)

Mel C
Nice one Steph!

Michael R
Hi Mel, I really enjoyed reading this, well done.

It reminded me  of years ago when I spent some time in a Castle in the UK. It was not a writers' convention, but a management training course. Neverthelessm we had deadlines and projects.

Deadline is a good choice of word because one of the projects was an initiative test. You know the sort of thing. Your plane crashes in the jungle, you have 0nly one match, a candle, an old copy of Treasure Island and a limp. (Sounds like an idea for the next Nonsense Challenge, hey?) How do you survive? Apparently I made a  lousy team leader as all my group lined up dead.

You have obviously benefitted from  your Castle experience and set up a glittering career ahead. May I wish you  well with that and please keep us  posted  about your progress.

Chris Fielden
A SUPERB nonsense idea, Michael :-)

Mel C
Thanks so much, Michael, for you kind words .

Barbarella B
Lovely article which gives a great feel for the place and the job. Many thanks.

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Barbarella :-)