I went on my first a writing retreat some years ago, at the invitation of a kind friend. Several authors were involved. We went to a wonderful wild bit of the Devon coast, drank the pub dry of first rioja and then malbec and wrote up a storm.
The place had a small natural harbour, with a history, and the tiniest, most evocative museum imaginable. For a while, I think every one of us pondered a story about a dashing pirate.
And we sketched out the story of the girl our sailor left behind him, standing on the headland with her hair blowing in the wind.
It brought out my inner Bronte, anyway. And, as anyone who knows my reading habits will attest, that doesn’t happen lightly.
The wind was a fantastic new experience for me. So were the waves it drove crashing against the rocks to fling up fifteen foot of spray at high tide. It crept into the book I was writing at the time.
This was in spite of the fact that the story had no opportunity for pirate, Jane Eyre-model heroine nor even the sea before that writing retreat.
Writing Retreat Solo?
Of course writing a novel is generally a one person activity. Audience participation is welcome at some points, obviously. (Raising a glass to all Beta Readers here.) But when you’re actually wringing the wordage out of your subconscious, do you really want other authors around? Doesn’t it loosen your grip?
To be honest, before the Devon Experience, every writing retreat I’d ever been on was a solo effort. Like Evelyn Waugh finishing Brideshead Revisited, I thought I would take myself off to a small hotel somewhere and finish my Great Novel.
It never worked. Yes, I’d get rid of the home phone, the postman, the neighbours, the Internet and the cooking and washing up. But I didn’t get rid of the appalling itch of uncertainty the dogs me. I would come home having rewritten the first two chapters several times. No further forward.
But that’s me. It worked for Waugh.
Writing Retreat Companionship…
In principle we all feed ourselves during the day. Then we stop in the early evening and report our progress. And then all eat together.
That means we pass at the kettle, topping up the tea tank. Sometimes we have a full-on conversation. Sometimes we rush back to our muse. But basically it feels like a friendly house party. Nobody is responsible for running the entertainment, because we’re all doing our own thing. But we share whatever we want to.
For instance, this year, I actually convened a Post Breakfast Extraordinary because I needed advice. Everyone put aside their own ms to consider the issue. It was about one particular scene – where it should go or whether in fact it should stay at all. It was a scene I very much liked but couldn’t quite see where it would go.
The first person I ever heard say “Kill your darlings,” was Peter Hall, then of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His thesis, as far as I could see, was that if you really loved something it was almost certainly pure self-indulgence. You needed to cut it loose.
My writing retreat companions waved Sir P aside and told me to brace up. The scene was fine and necessary.
There was then a brisk discussion of where and the thing might go. And they dusted me down and sent me off to get on with it.
And the really great thing is sharing any odd experience that comes our way. In one house we rented, there were light fittings on the wall that looked like human arms. It was quite extraordinarily creepy. For the first time in my life, I began to wonder about writing a horror story.
There’s a scene in the French Black and white La Belle et La Bête where the camera tracks down a corridor and all the wall-mounted candle-arms turn to follow the characters.
Very pretty. Very chilling.
At that house, our shared ideas for stories about them got more and more ridiculous over dinner.
So instead of horror we had a serious laugh fest.
Entertainment by Moi
Well, actually, this time there was a stuffed oversize squirrel figure that some of us didn’t like the look of. You wouldn’t want to turn your back on it. But it couldn’t truly be called X-rated. I mean it didn’t actually have teeth.
The only hint of Gothic we had was the rain. Loads of it. Interspersed with that wonderful autumnal sunlight, that is like a spotlight or a painting by Turner.
In one such brief interlude, my Companion Birdwatcher and I set out to find a footpath to walk a little deeper into the beautiful Cumbrian landscape than a) the pub or b) the recycling bins. Though we had patronised both with much pleasure between showers.Well, we found one, off a quiet road. It was a overgrown and only intermittently visible. But it wound through a definite wood.
We strode out, squelching a bit, but determined. We even leaped a couple of rivulets, clearly fed by recent downpours. But I was not wearing my stout Brasher Boots. Indeed my shoes had no laces at all and there was a certain amount of slip sliding away. So we returned to a more clearly delineated bridle path.
His, of course, were your country cove’s best and kept the mud firmly in its place.
But the bridle path was rutted and our own footsteps had contributed to the generally liquefying state of its surface.
I had navigated a reasonably stable oblique angle up the thing. But going back, downhill and through what felt like melting soup, was not so fortunate.
“Put your arms out,” urged the Birdwatcher, helpfully assuming a Worzel Gummidge pose in illustration.
I did. And skated from one side of the path to the other under my own momentum, without benefit of any muscular activity at all.
I stood still. Possibly for rather a long time. On the ground in front of me were the sort of swirls you see when you’ve just iced a chocolate cake and it hasn’t set yet.
“Jump?” suggested the Birdwatcher.
There didn’t really seem much alternative except to stand there until the the path might just froze.
There followed quite lot of ungraceful floundering on my part. Complicated by the fact that my right shoe was now so totally covered with mud that it had damn nearly achieved shape shifter status. And I was laughing so much I couldn’t speak. So all I could do was keep waving the Birdwatcher back before he trod it even deeper into the mire and the thing disappeared for ever.
Not seeing the shoe, he was understandably bewildered by the semaphore and kept trying to make helpful suggestions.
Eventually we righted ourselves and I sobered up. The Birdwatcher set a slow pace home, solicitous for me squelching beside him.
Once there, I found the mud was so liquid it had soaked through six layers to the skin. On the other hand, it provided positively embracing landing surface. And once I had a warming drink I felt on top of the world. Not so much as a bruise.
And my fellow retreaters laughed like drains for several days. So that adventure was a definite retreat bonus.
It may even go in a book one day.