I am just back from a self-imposed isolation where I buried myself away from life-form to thrash out a plot line for my novel. But lest, you think it was a punishment, it was one of the most treat-like things I have done in a long time….
As modern writers, perhaps one of the most difficult aspect of writing is finding the time to actually write. No angst-ridden garrets for us, more’s the pity. Just angst-ridden mortgages I suspect. For many of us, writing is not (yet) the ‘day job.’ It is squeezed in between life and living, and all the jobs and responsibilities that go with that. As a writer with my own copywriting business (the day job) and three children to raise as a single parent (the day and night job), writing my novel has to be squeezed and nudged and slipped into whatever crevice from the chaos I can find…. usually early mornings and late evenings. When I was asked to write my book Daughter, Mother, Me; A Memoir of Love, Loss and Dirty Dishes in just 5 months, it meant I didn’t have a weekend or a night off in that time. And for those who do write full-time, there is still usually the pandemonium of pendulum’s swinging in every which direction.
Many of us have become adept at switching the writing brain on and off. But what about the thinking space? For me, that is the hardest to find. And so writing retreats have become a very popular side-step from real life, a chance to dedicate a chunk of time to just thinking and writing.
It is perhaps no irony that the first definition for retreat in the dictionary is “to move back from a place or situation especially because it is dangerous or unpleasant.”
Given the state of my email inbox and kid’s bedrooms, I can relate to that. But the second definition is probably the one that is meant: a place of privacy or safety : refuge.
And sometimes for writing, a refuge is what is desperately needed.
Just last week I wrote sitting at a little desk, on a balcony overlooking a stunning vista of sun-shimmered mountains. I was ‘on retreat’ in Alpujarra in the Andalucian mountains, just down from Granada in Spain. If I leant out of my balcony, I could pluck an orange from the tree and have a mid-morning snack without leaving my seat (which is just as well as the village was so isolated, there were no shops). I retreated from the dangers and unpleasantness of my normal life (it’s not that dangerous or unpleasant really, except when I really want to write) of work, kids, rain, and responsibilities and took a monastically simple, yet beautiful room at a writing retreat high up in the clouds where my head needed to be: in the clouds, thinking of nothing but what I wanted to write. The room was simple because I didn’t need much… a bed, a bathroom and a desk. Because I was there to think and write and nothing else.
Writing retreats are a haven for those who need solitude to finish a project, inspiration to begin a novel, space to think, and a place to sink into an ocean of creativity that only secluding yourself and surrounding yourself with other creatives can achieve. Writing retreats, both in Ireland and abroad are fast becoming a thing of necessity for writers to get the space and pace needed to let their creative thoughts flow.
This was my second writing retreat, the first being the wonderful Anamcara in the Bearra peninsula. I am also heading to Tyrone Guthrie in Annaghmakerrig later this year. What seems to be a common thread to the tranquil nature of most writing retreats is the landscape. A room with a view is enough to get the creative juices flowing – there is no better art, no more poignant poetry, no words to describe with stunning impact the creative output of Mother Nature.
But epic views aside, what can a writing retreat really do for you, a writer, in need of some space?
Torrents of Tranquility
Most writing retreats have enforced quiet times. This means that your own writing space, as well as other nooks and crannies (there always seem to be gorgeous writing nooks and crannies in retreats) have designated quiet times to ensure minimum disruption and maximum tranquility. This not only creates an atmosphere of productivity, but ensures the annoyances of interruptions don’t follow you from home. I personally prefer wifi, but some retreats don’t have any so you can retreat from the world completely. Sometimes writing needs tough love.
To offset the tranquility and isolation, it is often the case that some or all mealtimes are a communal affair, whereby all other artists at the retreat get together over food. For me, this has been as important as the quiet writing time. Surrounding yourself in a community of creatives can be nourishing and inspiring. In some retreats (like Tyrone Gutherie) it is just dinner, in others it is all meals. Building your network of writers is important at the best of times and bonding over a week of writing can make some long-lasting sparing partners.
Many writing retreats also provide options for mentoring sessions with professionals, and /or sharing and critiquing opportunities with fellow writers and editors. Again, having the opportunity to talk through a plot line, get professional advice on writing or using others as sounding boards is a chance we often don’t get in such a concentrated way back at home. Often we writers work alone, searching for solace at our keyboard, so having the option to connect, share and seek support from other writers is a treat.
It sounds obvious but when you don’t have to get children to school, shop for food, mow the lawn, cook food (the great thing about most retreats is that the food is usually of a very good standard), it is amazing how many extra hours in the day you get to write. It means high swathes of dedicated time to delve deep into a project and give it your undistracted attention, which is just impossible in the normal mill of life.
For me, writing retreats are a treat that I give myself to allow my writing to take centre stage every so often. This time I was here for a week, although most of my fellow residents were there for two, to get my head around a plot and structure for a novel, which is not something I can switch on and off, but rather need immersing in, in a way I cannot get at home. But I was doing so much more. I was recharging my writing batteries with endless days just writing, thinking, gazing at the mountains, listening and talking to other writers, eating great food, and doing little else. Except plucking the occasional orange from a tree.
This has also been published on www.writing.ie