Inspiration in the Sky: Sarah & Ryan’s SkyBarn

SkyBarn reno creates a writing retreat

Many of us want to tell a story. Some even say everyone has a story within them. At SkyBarn, home and literary refuge for owners Sarah and Ryan, they help writers do what they were born to do; put words on the page.

You see the newly renovated SkyBarn before you arrive, peeking out from the surrounding trees, glowing with warm yellow paint and backlit by nearby Picton. Inside, the barn is several spaces wrapped into one – home, writing studio, workplace, dance hall, yoga sanctuary, library – with artistic details that speak to its owners, Giller-prize-nominated writer Sarah Selecky and her husband of 10 years Ryan Henderson. Together, and in cahoots with their builder, Peter Sage of renowned Sage Design and Construction, the barn emerged from its reno with new purpose: to provide everyone who enters with the time, space, and desire to live in the moment and connect through the power of the written word.
Sarah and Ryan used to be city dwellers, both employed in Toronto. Sarah, who always loved writing and had a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the esteemed program at the University of British Columbia, had been hosting writing workshops in her home, with students gathered around her living room table to discuss elements of craft and skill. Ryan, on the other hand, was an outdoor education teacher who found joy in his job of showcasing Canada’s forests to urban children, some of whom had never interacted with the outdoors before.

They loved their jobs, but something was missing. So, what’s a pair to do when craving a slice of country life, yet still captivated by a love for their work? Ryan and Sarah bought a barn, renovated it, and turned it into an epicentre for a wildly successful international writing school.

SkyBarn was a dream neither Ryan nor Sarah knew they had.

Sarah had hopes of being a writing instructor, but after a professor told her he felt it was a disservice to teach writing as a career choice – a sentiment Sarah disagreed with – she decided to approach teaching from a different, more compassionate angle. “Then I started to get this seed that, maybe that’s not the only way to teach,” Sarah said. “If you’re called to do it, you can learn the skills.” Sarah dreamed of a writing teaching experience that was supportive and encouraging while simultaneously teaching craft. “I wanted to build a school around people loving their own work and loving the writing process,” she said. Noticing this type of learning wasn’t available, Sarah set out to create it online, all based on her around-the-living-room table styled model.

With Ryan’s help, Sarah set up her digital writing school, Story Is a State of Mind (now Sarah Selecky Writing School) in 2011, creating a then unheard of online platform. The course allows scribes all over the world to workshop their pieces by trading critiques of manuscripts while learning technical skills, like building character and description using the senses. She also started the Little Bird Short Story contest, which has hosted an impressive lineup of literary writers to serve as judge, cementing Sarah’s place on the list of literary masterminds making a business in the world of CanLit.

With their program in place and being self-admitted wanderlusts, Ryan took a sabbatical from his outdoor education job and the pair spent time exploring the world, observing, and working wherever they had a Wi-Fi connection. “Once we had the location freedom, we got hooked on that,” said Ryan. The school turned into a huge success, allowing the couple the liberty of travel and life experience, while passing on their knowledge to the next literary generation. “This job also allows us to travel and is in service to all these amazing writers who are excited to learn this craft,” said Ryan.

The couple returned to Toronto from their 18 months of exploring, feeling slightly adrift as they returned to work. After the release of her successful book of short stories, This Cake is For the Party, Sarah was invited to speak at a book club. There, she was offered a chance to housesit for one of the members as the owner went away each winter. Sarah spent four winters in the County and soon found the area was more than an escape from the rigours of the city and a quiet space to write. Ryan was also more and more engaged in the online writing school, and as a natural creator himself, he easily slotted into his current role as Program Director of the Sarah Selecky Writing School. Prince Edward County now felt like home, and all Sarah and Ryan needed was the perfect space to move into; but to get the perfect space, it had to be created.

The couple bought SkyBarn in 2015 when it was just a barn, roughed in for the previous owner’s vision not yet actualized. They hired Sage Design and Construction, and owner, Peter Sage, quickly got to work. “They had particular wants and wishes for the space beyond the usual residential abode,” said Peter. “This allowed us to collectively create some great multifunctioning spaces that will allow them a home for their creative pursuits.” After 10 months of renovations, Ryan and Sarah were finally able to move into their new 3,300 square foot space in June 2016. “We’re more connected to nature out here. I don’t miss the push of Toronto and trying to be on the cutting edge,” said Ryan.

Stepping into the oasis of SkyBarn is like walking into a dream. The duo’s passion for openness and the outdoors is evident in every corner, from the cozy living space complete with fireplace and library, to the rescued wooden beams. While the main floor is their living area, the second floor is dedicated to offices for both Sarah and Ryan, a gorgeous bathroom, and the library turned cozy reading nook. The top floor is open entirely, which has accommodated everything from guests to writers, yoga mats, and dance classes, all skimming across the cork floor tiles. Most importantly, nothing feels stuffy or overdone, with a piece of the owners built into the walls. Every surface is a tactile, artistic experience, which was the goal all along. “I think I was able to listen and then translate the spaces into something they love,” said Peter. Why call it SkyBarn? Well, not only can the sky be seen from every room but the structure itself reaches for the stars, higher than any other building that surrounds it.

Staging such a large-scale renovation might be daunting for some, especially in an antique barn that lacked any real living space. And yet the structure seems fitting for Sarah, Ryan, and their writing school business. They admit to craving an analog life, which they feel is better suited to the mission of the school, “To help people become present and observe without judgment and to practice and express empathy within prose and write as healthy writers,” said Sarah. The essence of the mindful writing environment they have created requires students to often write with pen and paper, remain present, and engage with their art on an intimate level. “I love analog because it keeps me closer to my body, and when I’m on the computer, I’m detached,” said Sarah. “Everything we do, online, needs to bring people off their computers. Our point of being online is to bring people to their bodies.” The effect is an intimate connection with the words on the page and the emotion behind them; key to creating resonance in any piece of writing. True to form, the analog dream is evident in their home; there is no television, blankets are tactile and snuggly, and barn boards are polished to a smooth but rustic feel. It might seem like an oxymoron: two people who love the outdoors and country, hate computers, and yet run an online writing school. Yet clearly, there is a magic ingredient that brings everything together.

If light is at the heart of SkyBarn and the origins of its name, then it only makes sense Sarah’s first novel, Radiant Shimmering Light, which released with HarperCollins on May 8, might be the perfect play on words. The novel’s protagonist focuses on an artist who is essentially learning how to brand herself, and examines, as Sarah puts it, “What happens when commodification takes over everything.” The parallels with Sarah’s own artform of writing are all too familiar, with authors now expected to help market their own books. Sarah is a self-admitted limited user of social media, but she employs it solely to promote the school and her work. At SkyBarn, analog wins every time.

Aside from new books going to press, the school itself is thriving and growing, now with more than 10 instructors, and students flock from all over the world to learn from one of Canada’s best writers. SkyBarn itself will grow too, with several other phases of expansion planned, including a deck for those lazy sunsets worth writing about.

After hosting several online courses and retreats in places like Florida and Florence, Ryan and Sarah hope their barn will be a home for writing retreats in the future, returning to the around-the-living-room table concept. That’s not the only thing on the horizon. Sarah’s passion project, the Little Bird Writing Contest, is now in its eighth year, and this year, local Picton-based publisher, Invisible, will print the collection of longlisted stories produced by the contest.

Sarah and Ryan’s SkyBarn creates a roster of writers as well as a community of art-lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Not only are they providing paid working positions in the arts, but they cultivate the artistic dream in others, and having that seed of creation nurtured is a gift amongst any writer. Ryan and Sarah are what happens when two people have a dream actualized, proving that with the right words and the right ideas, literary magic can be made.

As long as there’s some Wi-Fi.

Photography by Daniel Vaughan