retreat

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (final instalment)

I've been sharing the blog posts I wrote about my experience at an Arvon writing course, to mark seven years since the experience. Please see this post for background and parts 2 , 34 and 5 to catch up so far. This is the final instalment! 

This post originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

And so I sat, as I let the enormity of the decision I was about to make sink in.

Did I want to keep going with The Memory of Us? At this very moment, the answer is no. I want to have a break from it. It isn't fun to write anymore. I have invested so much time and energy into it, and I know is a story that I will tell, that will be told. I just need to have a break from it. It just isn't inspiring me at the moment. The direction I have taken it in is definitely the wrong one, and I will need time to find my way again. I need to forget about all the bad influences on it, the doubts, the fear, the threats, the heavy weight of expectations. It needs to be free of those and find a new way through. I know I set the bar too high for myself, telling myself it could be nothing less than a masterpiece. It is no wonder I have struggled so much.

I want to write about what I have seen, done, felt and known. I want to be able to sit and write with authenticity, humour and vivacity. I want writing to be fun again. In those few hours of writing that other story, purely from my own imagination, I had a glimpse of my writing life as it could be, and I wanted to grab it with both hands.

It didn't hit me how bored I'd been with The Memory of Us until I'd finally admitted it out loud. I don't doubt that, eventually, the story will be told. But when - that is a question I don't have an answer for right now. I think the decision to focus on other things that are a bit more fun to write is a good one - and I also think it's been building for a while. I was just too afraid to admit it. The characters just weren't setting my imagination on fire. I've been frustrated and disillusioned for quite some time. But how could I admit this, after so much investment, so much work, over the past two and a half years - to say nothing of all the coincidences and twists of fate that led me to think yes, yes, yes, this is the story I've been waiting for.......

I've really let my pride get in the way here, I think. And I'm not short changing The Memory of Us, by any means. I just want to have a break from it. It did not prove to be stimulating or inspiring company in the near week I was with it constantly. When I talked to Morag about it on Wednesday, she seemed to think that this project had been weighing me down quite a bit, and it wouldn't be a tragedy if I put it aside for a while. 

"But what would be a tragedy," she cautioned me, "is if you stopped writing all together."

There's no danger of that! Now, it feels like the possibilities for me have grown a bit wider. With time and energy to devote to things I do want to write about I feel like there are wider waters for me to cast my net. Topics I might not have thought were really my thing now intrigue me. I want to give pleasure with my writing. And I think that will only happen if it is a pleasure for me to write.

There are so many things I want to write about. I want to write about relationships, friendships, parents and their children, about people chasing their dreams. I want to write about people transcending circumstance. I want to write about fear and desire and love. I want to write about my country, the cities I've lived in, why I love it, why I left it and why I might or might not go back. I want to write about the city I live in now, where my freedom and independence came of age. People have told me often over the years that my own life has a wealth of material - and maybe it's time I started listening.

I don't really know what expectations I had coming on this course really - there was part of me that thought I'd walk away with The Memory of Us virtually finished, and there was another part of me that knew it was crunch time, and there was another part of me that wanted it to be the start of something, the end of the beginning, as Churchill put it. 

So there you have it, my decision. Out in the open. I am free. I wonder what will happen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The last night of the course was excellent. Over dinner we were given the task of writing a poem about any aspect of our time at Moniack - I wrote a traditional Aussie ballad about "Donald", this enigma of a character who had started making an appearance in the group class work! It was fun to write, and I didn't struggle with the rhyme like I have done in the recent past, I felt like I did as a teenager, making up silly poems for school plays or to make my sisters laugh. We all read our poems aloud to laughter and applause. Then, just as we were being served dessert, we heard the strains of....bagpipes?!

Not unexpected, I suppose, seeing we were in the depths of Inverness, but it sounded like it was coming from the kitchen! Sure enough, the door was opened and there was one of the Moniack staff's daughters, in a kilt, playing "Happy Birthday" on the bagpipes! It was one of our group's birthday, and they had arranged a cake and a piper in her honour. After the birthday song finished, the piper launched into a traditional tune and we all started clapping and stamping - it was amazing! All I needed to make the evening complete was a dram of whisky :)

I then poured an enormous glass of Cabernet Syrah and settled in for the group reading, which was taking place in the main room in front of the roaring fire. Everyone read. It was wonderful to finally hear some people's work, having been curious about it all week. Some of it was exquisite. Everyone's work is so different. The voices were so unique, no story was the same. It was wonderful to feel, possibly for the first time in my life, completely unintimidated. It was impossible to compare our work to anyone else's, because all the projects really are so different. It was really nice to feel among peers. Happy that I'm doing my own thing, and they are doing theirs.

I read my short story with gusto and humour, and some exaggerated accents - I got laughs where I hoped I would get them, and I was pleased with the flow of the narrative. There were bits I was really pleased with, that I could hardly believe I had written at all. Morag came up to me afterwards, her eyes shining, and told me how pleased she was, and that my writing just "sparkled" in that story. That made me very happy.

When we'd all read, Morag and Tim spoke briefly about the week and what their advice was to us upon leaving and going back to our normal, busy lives. Morag's wish for us all was to have energy and courage. Tim said for us to keep the momentum going, to continue to make the time and space to write every day.

I have definitely come away with that feeling. To keep the energy going, now that it has been unlocked. The course description was about falling in love with your novel again. I went a bit deeper than that. I fell in love with writing again.

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 5)

Another suitcase in another hall.....

Another suitcase in another hall.....

This week I've been sharing the blog posts I wrote about my experience at an Arvon writing course, to mark seven years since the experience! Please see this post for background and parts 2 , 3 and 4 to catch up so far.

This post originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

Friday 9th April 2010

The last full day on the Arvon course. Hard to believe, really. It's been amazing what writing something every day has done for me. It's reemphasised to me just how important it is, as any successful writer will tell you, to just show up every day and write. It doesn't matter what you write, or whether it's any good. You just have to do it. It sounds easy, doesn't it? But the truth is, it's hard. It's very, very hard. If it were easy, there would be no need for courses like this really. I don't know what my own reasons for avoidance have been - perhaps a whole host of psychological barriers it would take a textbook to explain, perhaps just pure laziness. Wanting to get out there and live life rather than just write about it, maybe.

This morning was our final class, with Morag, on plot. She showed us a photo she'd taken on holiday in New Zealand a few months ago. It was a sign in a shop window. We had to come up with a character, a set of circumstances and a things that gave them solace, grief and uncertainty. From this we were to develop a plot.

I don't think I stopped writing for the entire two hours. I was completely lost in it. Words, ideas, energy just flew out of me. Facts, history, real life timelines had no place. It was just up to me, so off I went.

Until that moment, I had forgotten how much fun writing is. I hadn't written this way since I was at school - well over ten years. Something was unlocked. My cheeks were pink and my eyes were bright. I felt energised, happy and excited about what I'd written. It's been ages since I've felt like that.

Went and had lunch, and then joined some of the girls on a little drive down to Loch Ness. Snapped photos of the vast, impressive Loch. You only have to look at it to know that it's bottomless.

Then we returned to Moniack and I went upstairs to work. I was still buzzing with the energy of what I'd written earlier. I loaded up The Memory of Us and stared at the last bit I'd written, feeling dull. My eyes hurt looking at it. I didn't want to try and write anything. The energy I had from earlier was bouncing off that impenetrable, invisible wall.

I was so very frustrated. I picked up my journal and reread the story I'd written by hand in my journal that morning. It was pretty good, I thought. It sparkled. It had wit and vivacity and a sense of fun - all things I want my writing to have. So I just thought I'd type it up, from the notes. Just to have my fingers moving, to be doing something instad of sitting there, stewing, feeling frustrated.

So I typed it up and enjoyed every minute of it. Tweaked a few things, but I typed away until I got to the natural point of conclusion and then sat back and surveyed the work I'd done. Two hours had just flown by.

Then I had to think about what I was going to read at the group gathering that evening. Everyone had been asked to read a small selection of their work - it could be anything we wished, anything we were particularly pleased with or attached to, anything we felt showcased us well as writers.

So I clicked my mouse over the still open Memory of Us document. Read through it. Well, skim read it really. All the words and thoughts blurred together. It really is the dullest thing on the face of the earth. Well, maybe I'm being too harsh. I noted a few random paragraphs where I thought "that's pretty good" or "I like that", but these were just lone paragraphs, unrelated, from different parts of the story. I had to read aloud for at least 5 minutes and I had maybe 60 seconds worth that I was happy with?!

Then it hit me. 127 pages. Over 40,000 words. And there wasn't any significant chunk of it I felt was worth reading aloud to people. I felt like I'd been whacked in the chest.

And then I looked at the story I'd just written. Granted, it was only a first draft and wasn't perfect, but I liked it! It had something! I liked Viv and Rose and Col. I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to know what happened at the Auckland Cup. I wanted to know what happened to that ten dollar note that Helen Clark used to pay for the brooch.

I wanted to read that story aloud. I felt that those couple of hours I'd spent on that story had revealed so much about what kind of writer I want to be.

And so I sat, as I let the enormity of the decision I was about to make sink in.

Yes, I'm terrible and will make you wait for the next bit. Ha ha!! :) 

i must begin again: a writing retreat in norwich

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?