i must begin again: a writing retreat in norwich by Philippa Moore

Serving suggestion for this post: sitting comfortably either with a cup of tea you've just made or on a train that isn't going anywhere.

Years ago, when I was writing the earliest drafts of what eventually became The Latte Years, I would often house-sit for friends for a few days when the opportunity arose, relishing a house as empty as my schedule, where I could completely dedicate myself to writing, away from the daily grind of life. Of course, when you have a deadline and only three months to deliver 100,000 words around a full time job, you suck it up and get it done. But the idea of time – a few days completely free of your usual routine and obligations, stretching out in front of you – to do that work is a really precious and luxurious thing.

I have done wonderful guided writing retreats before, and if money were no object I’d do them far more often. There’s a lot to be said for the motivation of a group setting and an experienced, inspiring teacher to spur you on. But the empty home of a kind friend or relative for a few days does just as well, and is utter bliss for the creative person.

A bit over a month ago, I went to Norwich to a sweet little cottage to house-sit, keep my aunt’s plants watered, to write and recalibrate.

I have a few projects on the go at the moment – the biggest one being what I hope will be Book 2 – but they had all been lacking much-needed momentum. About six months ago, in the midst of the bleak end of winter, I decided I would go away on my own a few days at some point over the summer, to see if I could find that missing ingredient. With all the highs and lows 2016 had delivered so far, I needed to reconnect with myself and my creative practice, without the distractions of daily life providing endless justifications for putting things off, for not making time.

Unfortunately that week at the end of July I had come down with a nasty throat infection, so on the train journey up from London I mostly sipped hot tea, read Oh Comely magazine and eavesdropped on interesting conversations happening all around me. All things I enjoy doing, sore throat or not! But I was unsure as to whether the weekend would be as productive as I’d hoped, given how poorly I was feeling. Many of the businessmen around me were drinking whisky. I considered joining them, I was sure it would help my throat.

Travelling essentials.

Travelling essentials.

I arrived safely, fell on the empty house with gratitude and relief, and went to bed early. I was up with the sun the next day – a rhythm I settled into for the rest of the retreat. Each day began with black coffee made in the moka pot on the stove, sipped in the garden, where toasty warm sunshine beat down on my shoulders, bees and butterflies floated among the flowers and the coffee slowly warmed my sore throat, dry and raw from coughing.

I walked into Norwich city centre nearly every day, mostly to treat myself to a second coffee at Gosling and Guzman. “The secret to a happy life is continuous small treats,” said Iris Murdoch in her novel The Sea, The Sea, which I happened to be reading, so I took it as a sign to get a cinnamon bun too.

Lovely coffee and buns at Gosling and Guzman. And their takeaway cups are so pretty!

Lovely coffee and buns at Gosling and Guzman. And their takeaway cups are so pretty!

I was alone for the whole time, but not lonely. I slipped easily into solitude, wearing it like a comfy familiar sweater. No television, no internet, no email, no social media. Text messages were the only contact I allowed myself with the outside world. It was amazing to realise how disciplined I could be and simply not look at social media – I disabled all notifications so it was simply a matter of not allowing my finger to touch the icon, though it gravitated automatically whenever my phone was in my hand, much to my curiosity. It’s definitely far more of a habit and a distraction than I realised.

Otherwise, I gave everything my full attention – not just my writing, but books I read, music that kept me company, food I cooked.  Choosing to focus, to tune out the usual constant distractions, it was incredible how much more I noticed and took in, savouring everything from the peppery depths of my watercress soup and subtle key changes in the music I was playing, to the smell of the air, the way light changed and the burn of hot tea in my sore throat.

Watercress soup - probably *the* best thing you can eat when trying to recalibrate, it completely detoxifies the body! And it's so yummy. I made Sarah Wilson's recipe in I Quit Sugar For Life.

Watercress soup - probably *the* best thing you can eat when trying to recalibrate, it completely detoxifies the body! And it's so yummy. I made Sarah Wilson's recipe in I Quit Sugar For Life.

I did yoga daily, something I haven’t done for a few years. Pigeon pose was incredibly comforting. I spent an entire Ludovico Einaudi song in uttanasana. I did my favourite episodes of Lacey Haynes’ Home Yoga Retreat many times.

I sat with my thoughts a lot, my journal open and a pen beside me, to scribble down anything worth remembering.

Sometimes I just sat and watched the light change. The light inside the house was very soft and as it hit the table and my piles of books, it looked milky, like when paint brushes are dipped into a jar of water. My iPhone camera didn't quite capture it so I just watched and took a picture with my mind instead.

I wrote a lot. Not the sort of things I thought I would write, interestingly. As the second day dawned, it became clear to me that this retreat was less about coming away with something to show for myself (which, if you've been reading me for a while, you know I enjoy) and more about getting my groove back.

Snapped while walking the quiet streets of Norwich city centre, sipping coffee. It seemed apt!

Snapped while walking the quiet streets of Norwich city centre, sipping coffee. It seemed apt!

Why did I lose my groove though? I wondered in my more melancholy moments. I didn’t think I’d feel like this. Why do I feel so empty, when my dream has come true? I wrote. Why do I feel so exhausted and, if I’m honest, sad? How did I go from so pumped, disciplined and motivated to can’t-be-fucked and what’s-the-point?

And then I re-read Dani Shapiro’s masterpiece, which I highly recommend to any writer, Still Writing. I found it such a comfort last year, where I mostly read the “Endings” section. This time, the “Beginnings” section was far more resonant.  Reading this paragraph was like a warm reassuring hug:

When I’m between books, I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and…that’s it. There’s nothing left. A low level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to recognise that this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I’ve spent everything. And so I must begin again.
If you have done your job…you’ve thrown your whole heart into this. And now your job is done. And you are bereft.

I wanted to cry as I read this. I had spent months thinking there was something wrong with me. My whole body flooded with relief that another writer, let alone one I deeply admire, felt this way too. 

I gave The Latte Years everything I had. So indeed, that has been the feeling, even though I have so many other ideas and stories I want to explore, over the last six months or so - that I had nothing left, both to say nor the capacity to say it. The Latte Years had been a part of my life for a long time – scratch that, it was my life, literally! - that being without it has been very strange. It's only been recently, staring down the barrel of October, that the tunnel has had light in it again.

The first draft of what became the book that was published in January this year was started in 2010. It wasn’t necessarily the story I wanted to tell, but the one I had to. It was bossy and barged to the front of the queue. Me first, it demanded. It was a story that had been hanging around ever since the events of it had taken place, a story that had me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until I told it. I knew attempting to write anything else in the meantime would be fruitless – and indeed, it was. And now it is done. 

So what ended up happening on this retreat was nothing earth-shattering, just a lot of journaling and several short pieces of fiction. Because after years and years of my writing being about this one thing, I am finding my feet again. It’s strange, like what I imagine training for another marathon might be like. I’m back at the beginning. But this time I don’t have the energy of the first-timer, when you have no idea what you’re in for, and everything’s exciting, and it’s purely the thrill of the unknown and whether you'll actually pull it off spurring you on. Once you know, it’s definitely harder to lace your shoes up.

Writing ingredients.

Writing ingredients.

And something I have to remember is that while, yes, I wrote the manuscript for The Latte Years in three months, I had actually been trying to write that story for nearly five years prior to that. So, in theory, I’m way ahead of schedule for Book 2 and I need to stop beating myself up. Now is the time for thinking, gathering, marinating and, frankly, savouring. I worked so hard. It's OK to enjoy this and take a while before I dive in again. It makes sense to me to cultivate a strong practice, a mixture of discipline and play, so that I can get the juices flowing.

Retreats tend to spark the question "how can I keep this amazing, peaceful, zen feeling going in my life once I go home?" and I was no exception! I want balance and energy in my life, but I get very overwhelmed at the idea of trying to fit in everything I want to do with my time. The answer came very clearly towards the end of my time in Norwich and it felt like it had been staring me in the face all along. I am a fairly motivated and disciplined person but the secret to me achieving anything in life is to have projects, goals and deadlines. Without those things, I flounder. I always have.

Me, doing my best non-floundering face.

Me, doing my best non-floundering face.

But the truth is, I’ve needed to take the pressure off myself this year and have a few less deadlines, goals and to-do lists. The only thing that has stopped me from hiding under the duvet each day has been going gently. Withdrawing quietly from anything non-essential that adds nothing to my life. Writing mostly for myself, filling journal after journal, knowing it will never be read by anyone else and revelling in the thrill of that. Trying not to beat myself up about not doing everything I feel I ‘should’ be doing. Time out from life showed me that I can’t force inspiration. I can’t force a story out of me, it will only happen naturally. And perhaps it has more of a chance of happening naturally if I give myself what I need. Like, nourishing and simple meals. Creative play. Daily yoga. Time out from being ‘on’. Daily journaling of my thoughts. Meditation, sitting, supporting my throat chakra (which needed a lot of help, it was no accident I had a sore throat. More on that in the next post!). Self care. The luxury of doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it.

There was a part of me that thought I’d come away from my days in Norwich with the start of the next book, and that didn’t end up happening. But what did happen was I locked the house on the last morning, walked to the station and sat calmly and happily with a coffee and magazine (no phone!) on the train back to London, and felt flooded with a renewed sense of purpose. I was returning to my life with a bit of clarity, a clearer vision and a new pleasure in my craft; a re-dedication to my practice; and a better awareness of what I need to feel creative and balanced, and to make sure I get those things, because that is the only way I will do my work.

In that respect, the retreat was a complete success.

Reading on the way back to London.....

Reading on the way back to London.....

Next post: how I healed my throat chakra in Norwich (now there's an article for the East Anglian Daily Times!)

Have you ever gone away on your own to retreat, recalibrate, start a new project or get your groove back? What did you discover?

renewal by Philippa Moore

A chai to farewell my old, expired passport...

A chai to farewell my old, expired passport...

Ask an expat to name their most valuable possession and I’m pretty sure the answer would be their passport. Not only is it usually proof you have the right to be living and working wherever you are, but it’s your ticket to freedom and your get-of-jail card. It can get you anywhere, especially home.

I recently renewed my passport and I was sad to say farewell to the dog-eared one that had expired. That particular passport was issued in 2006 and to say it symbolised freedom to me would be something of an understatement. It wasn’t strictly speaking my very first passport –  that one was issued in my married name at the time, and I had taken only one trip with it, to New Zealand so I hadn’t even got it stamped – but it was the first passport that I ever really put to good use, and the one that I knew would get me where I needed to be, in every sense of the word. 

I reverted back to my maiden name pretty much the week my first marriage was over. It was possibly a knee-jerk reaction but I was so wounded, ashamed and embarrassed about everything that had happened with my first husband. I felt sick every time I saw his name. So I set about obliterating it from anything associated with me, which was a fairly horrendous process. I had my used-once married name passport cancelled and I remember taking all the documents to the post office to apply for a new one. I couldn’t just change the surname and get a replacement free of charge – I could only do that if I had divorce papers and that couldn't happen for another year minimum, as I had only just moved out. None of it was as simple as I thought. I was still legally bound, regardless of the fact I'd put the rings in a drawer and changed my name back. 

That was the time when the enormity of it all started to hit me. I had made a terrible mistake that was going to follow me around for the rest of my life. I had only just turned 25 and was overwhelmed by the mess I’d made of everything. I thought, somehow, getting a passport in my own name might make me feel better, that it might give me the push to actually start seeing the world as I'd longed to do, because now there was no one to stop me. 

So I tried to explain to the woman at the passport interview why I was there and what I wanted to do but my throat kept closing over with tears I was determined not to cry (I hadn’t yet realised that crying in public is pretty much par for the course with a marriage breakdown). The woman was looking at my birth certificate as I spoke (or tried to) and then she reached across the counter and squeezed my hand.

“You’ll always be Philippa Moore,” she said fiercely. “That’s who you were born. That’s who you’ll always be. He can’t take that away from you.” Her tone was heavy with the wisdom of someone who had been there.

My new passport was issued within a few weeks and my first trip with it was also to New Zealand, so in many ways it felt like a reset, like the first one had never happened. My first ever stamp in it was six months later, in April 2007, when I boarded my plane to San Francisco at Sydney airport. “Departed Australia” declared the stamp, and a few pages down was a UK Ancestry visa safely glued in. My adventure had started.

2016 seemed like an age away back then. But all of a sudden, it was here and my beloved passport was useless with less than six months validity on it, so it needed renewing. And not a moment too soon, as it was getting tricky for an immigration officer to find space to stamp it every time I went somewhere, it was so chock full of evidence that I had revelled in my freedom.

Flicking through the pages is like going to an exhibition of the last 10 years of my life. A UK visa long since expired and replaced with an indefinite leave to remain card; a visa to enter India in 2011 (I wish I’d made another trip while the visa was still valid!); stamps from every country I’ve ever visited, every one of them evoking a hundred memories. The photo at the front was a young woman staring blankly into what felt like, at that moment, a very uncertain future. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to see the world. As she began to make those plans, she realised the future was actually wide open and she could decide what happened next.

I will keep that passport forever. I might even frame it. It's an old friend.

My new one feels different - not just because the design and e-features have changed in the last decade, but it really feels like a new era. The pages are blank. Who knows what they will hold by the time the next renewal comes around....the photo of course is still hideous, but I was pleased that I didn’t look too different after 10 years! 

Waiting at Gatwick Airport for our flight to Cyprus two weeks ago...with the new passport!

Waiting at Gatwick Airport for our flight to Cyprus two weeks ago...with the new passport!

It feels fitting that my first real passport expired the same year my first book, which chronicles the adventures I had with it, is now out in the world. In so many ways I’m still that 25-year-old staring into the camera, trying to keep her head straight. Life is unpredictable, that’s for sure. But one thing I know, I’ll always want it to feel like an adventure.  

I've already got my first stamps in the new passport. The new era has started! 

 

i ain't afraid of no ghost by Philippa Moore

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Photo: Columbia Pictures

I have to confess, I came to the whole Ghostbusters franchise quite late in life – once I met my film buff husband, for whom both Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989) are the equivalent of childhood comfort food. He watches them and he is instantly a little boy again. While I grew up in the same era, I had three younger sisters and so most of the films I was exposed to as a child had to be suitable for all of us. I was also quite a sensitive kid and ghosts were considered too scary! So it was Muppet Babies, Care Bears and My Little Ponies for us, which I don’t think was a deliberate thing on my parents’ part – this was just what was assumed little girls wanted to watch. And we did enjoy them.

Nearly 30 years since the last Ghostbusters film, Paul Feig (director of Bridesmaids and Spy) has revamped the franchise. It is not a remake of the original story, nor merely a continuation of it, but takes the premise of the original, reimagines it and brings it into the modern world. It’s very funny and very clever.

Oh, and the Ghostbusters are all women this time! Something that has a few people up in arms, but I’ll go into that in a minute.

If you don’t know the story of the film, here’s a very brief recap – with many ghostly appearances and happenings in New York City, three physics/parapsychology professors (Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon), linked by the past and by circumstance, find themselves out of their cushy research jobs, joining forces and setting up a ghost removal service. After being called to the Manhattan subway to investigate and attempt to capture a “Class 4 apparition”, metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) is inspired to join them. The government are distressed and want the Ghostbusters to keep quiet. Meanwhile, Rowan (Neil Casey), a hotel worker with a grudge, is scheming to open the gateway to another dimension which will release untold evil upon the city. So, who you gonna call?

A unique update with high quality performances

Ghostbusters is a fabulous update of a much-loved story and manages to be quite unique at the same time. There are many respectful nods to the original but Feig and the new Ghostbusters manage to make this their own. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, with Manhattan rental prices being famously out of reach of most people, the women can’t afford to set up shop in a funky fire station and end up in dilapidated rooms above a Chinese restaurant that fails, to the chagrin of Melissa McCarthy’s character, to produce a decent wonton soup.

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. Photo: Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures

Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann. Photo: Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures

All four of the Ghostbusters give high quality performances – being Saturday Night Live alumni, their comic timing is never off and they work really well as an ensemble. The one who stood out the most for me, who stole every scene she was in, was Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzmann, a character in the same mould as Harold Ramis’s iconic character Egon Spengler in the original. McKinnon brings great depth, and also an element of great joy,  to the mad scientist stereotype by portraying Jillian as a woman with bags of personality, full of quirks, strength and real feelings. 

Another enjoyable aspect of the film is that all of the original Ghostbusters, plus other actors from the 1984 and 1989 films, make cameo appearances at some point. There’s even a sweet nod to the late Harold Ramis (see if you can spot it).

A political/feminist statement?

It’s a shame that this film has been criticised for being “feminist” and “political” – but the very fact that the revamp of a franchise where the lead characters are female instead of male is labelled as a political act rather than one of storytelling says so much about why a film like this is so important.

If you want to read the new Ghostbusters as a political/feminist statement, there is plenty here for you to chew on. The film does, bravely, address the inherent sexism that is still, despite the advances made since Suffragette times, at large and hangs around both in Hollywood and in our culture like chocolate stains on a white blouse. I found it interesting that in the original Ghostbusters, the four men are discredited, shunned and accused of being frauds at every turn – exactly the same thing happens in this version, but of course it feels more loaded, purely because they’re women. I suppose women being confident in themselves and their abilities, and who are competent in a traditionally male dominated field, are still considered radical things in some quarters - I’ve found that to be true in my own life, that’s for sure!

It’s also incredibly refreshing to go and see a Hollywood blockbuster where the focus is not on the attractiveness of the female leads. The Ghostbusters are intelligent and passionate women who are conflicted, quirky and downright loopy. Apart from a few mentions of Patty’s garish jewellery, the women’s physical appearance is secondary, quite rightly so for a film where they all get covered in the ghosts’ ecto-vomit at some point!

But what about the men?

Another common criticism of the film is that the men in it are one-dimensional and typecast, with cries of double standards that one couldn’t get away with portraying women in such a manner these days. Personally, I think it’s a nod to the fact that women have been and in some cases still are portrayed that way but also the fact that men find themselves on the receiving end of sexism too. The movie’s token stud-muffin, receptionist Kevin (played by Chris Hemsworth who, to my delight, keeps his Australian accent), is not immune to being objectified for his looks. Kristen Wiig’s character makes a beeline for him and insists on the Ghostbusters hiring him even though he is the most useless receptionist in the history of the world. Later on (spoiler alert!), Kevin has been possessed by the ghost of the film’s truly creepy villain Rowan and goes back to the hotel where he was a mocked and undervalued janitor to exact his revenge. Two security guards notice him, with his blond hair and muscular physique, and make a wise-crack about how they hadn’t ordered a stripper. Kevin is also the only character to be ‘rescued’ in the film – in the original, of course, it is Dana (played by Sigourney Weaver, who also shows up in this version!), the love interest, who needs rescuing. This time, it’s the other way around. Read into that what you will.

Because, despite what I’ve described above, the film, to its great credit, doesn’t spell any of this out. There are no attacks (apart from ghostly ones). It’s all just implied, in my opinion. Like most things in life, we tend to get what we focus on and if you pick hard enough at the locks of the basement door, a ghost will come out eventually!

Speaking of the ghosts in this film, they are quite creepy – as is the ecto-vomit that comes out of them! 

If your main objective in going to the cinema is to be entertained then you won’t be disappointed by Ghostbusters.  Is it a perfect film? No. But it's fun and there is much to enjoy about it. All the uproar from critics and trolls spewing forth that this film has “ruined” their childhoods and “women aren’t funny” rings truly hollow if you actually bother to see the film. The laughable thing is that it is exactly the ridiculous, misguided criticism of the film, not to mention the despicable attacks Leslie Jones was subjected to on Twitter, that proves how much this film was needed. And we need more of them.

So, if you care about equal representation in Hollywood, if you want to see more blockbusters and action comedies with real women front and centre, if you want your sons and daughters to grow up in a more equal world, or if you just want to forget about life for two hours, pretend you’re nine years old again and have no idea how much sugar is in a Choc-Top ice-cream, go and see this film. It’s sassy, smart and fun.

Ghostbusters is currently showing in cinemas in the UK, the US and Australia, release details for other countries are here.

that's where the donuts come in by Philippa Moore

Some rather spectacular donuts at Bread Ahead in Old Street, London. When it was a choice between cold pizza or one of these for breakfast on Saturday, I chose the custard donut.

Some rather spectacular donuts at Bread Ahead in Old Street, London. When it was a choice between cold pizza or one of these for breakfast on Saturday, I chose the custard donut.

I have gotten to know a lot of writers and I know now we’ve all been there. Not the same thing at the same time, but the truth is always there: sometimes it’s so hard, and you really don’t know how to make your work work, and it feels like months or years of may have been wasted and you continue to be, beyond all heroic efforts, right smack in the middle of the job, rather than at the end, as you had so brightly hoped.
People will tell you that you need a thick skin to be a writer, what with all that disappointment and rejection, but I think part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to be able to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment. No writer should turn the volume down on her own emotional register. That’s her instrument. We have to feel everything. Which also sucks. That’s where the donuts come in.

Excerpt from a brilliant article by Ramona Ausubel on LitHub, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety. 

words help me to be in the world by Philippa Moore

Photo of Laurie Anderson by Clifford Ross, via BOMB Magazine

Photo of Laurie Anderson by Clifford Ross, via BOMB Magazine

I listen to the radio most days. Today on BBC Radio 6, I listened to Laurie Anderson interviewed. Her voice had a lovely calm quality, listening to her was like hearing a bedtime story read to you when you were a child, but some things she said made me jolt to attention and reach for my notebook to scribble them down.

She said that life can be so intense and overwhelming, for many of us, and we often aren't sure of the right thing to do, so she and her late husband Lou Reed came up with three rules to live by. I loved them and thought I'd share them as you might love them too.

Don't be afraid of anybody.

"What would your life be like if you were afraid of no one?" Laurie asked the airwaves. It's quite a sobering thought.

There has only been one time in my life where I can honestly say that I steamrolled over fear and didn't let it stop me doing anything. It was a brief, golden time when I was 25 and 26, in the immediate aftermath of the end of my first marriage. That period certainly had its dark times, but the fear that had so defined my life up to that point was suddenly on mute because I no longer felt I had anything to lose. I no longer 'over thought' anything. I just did things and didn't really consider what anyone else might think. It was wonderful.  And so freeing. 

Get a really good bullshit detector. And learn how to use it.

This is something for me to work on. I need to trust my gut more and be less afraid of making it known that something doesn't sit right with me. I need to switch the discs on my cerebral mixing deck and stop overthinking everything. If I overthink, my bullshit detector's batteries get low. 

Be really tender.

I love this one. It's a nice antidote to the harshness of everyday life. I want to apply it to my art too. Hannah Kent told me that one of the best things you can have as a novelist (and as a human being) is empathy. I've been absorbing myself in research for what I hope will be my next book and the characters are slowly making themselves known to me as the notebook I started just as a place to scrawl the occasional line is nearly half full already. The challenge for me with this work is exploring the worlds and inhabiting the minds of women who are so different to me, who are going to make choices that I don't think I could. So I'm keeping 'tenderness' in mind as I read, scrawl and get to know these people.

I think I need tenderness for myself too. It's very tempting to keep pushing myself, make life centre around "the next Big Thing" but, again and again, being present and in the now is what frees me, unplugs me and helps me move forward. The minute I stop all the pushing, all the pressure, is always when all the good stuff happens. Patience, and tenderness. 

"Words helped us both, a lot, to be in the world," said Laurie towards the end of her lovely interview

Me too, Laurie. Me too.