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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?