Sunday, August 14, 2016

Advance on Retreat? The value of getting away from it all


For years I’ve heard about people going away on a writer’s retreat. Usually a large house or collection of picturesque cabins in some rural idyll, where you could go to be alone with your muse during the day, and gather in the evening for literary discussion over the dinner table and a few bottles of decent claret.

Or something like that.

The Villa Diodati, near Geneva, where Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin
met during the summer of 1816 and produced works such as Frankenstein
Truth is if I ever had to write about a writer’s retreat, I’d have to make it up. I’ve never actually been on one.

Perhaps it’s because I come from a journalistic background, where I didn’t so much have a muse as a tight deadline and an editor with a big stick.

(Usually with nails in it.)

Back when I still had a day-job, I’d write fiction anytime, anywhere. In the car on the way to photoshoots, in hotels and waiting rooms. Entire chapters were written on flights. The idea of needing to go somewhere, well, special in order to put words on the page seemed wholly unnecessary.

writing on the move
But the past couple of years have been tough and filled with distractions. For the last month or so I’ve had my head stuffed with the complexities of house renovation. My To Do list seems to get constantly longer rather than shorter.  I was trying to do everything at once and it felt like I was failing on all fronts.

A kick-start was called for. Time away from the construction work. Time to allow the cracked ribs to knit back together without over-stretching them again. And time to get my head back into writing the new Charlie Fox book. I have, after all, already got a decent chunk of it written. What I needed was to get back into that mindset, that zone, to breathe the arid air of the Middle East, to smell the burnt powder of a firefight, to feel the totally alive buzz of living through Charlie’s eyes in that electrifying sliver between the ‘what if’ and the ‘when’.

A stint of cat/dog/house-sitting was just what I needed.

And so I find myself in the wilds of Derbyshire, in a beautiful house with two magnificent cats and a shaggy dog with one of the loveliest temperaments (unless you happen to be a cat … or a sheep) I’ve had the pleasure to encounter.

one of the softest dogs you'll ever find ... unless you are a cat
It’s taken me a couple of days to settle in, to find my own routine in among the three walks a day the dog requires, and the attention at least one of the cats demands.

fabulous sunset over the Derbyshire countryside
It also took me a little while to get out of the DIY mindset. OK, so almost the first thing I did, on autopilot, was go round and tighten up all the loose handles on the kitchen cupboards. But apart from that there is nothing to be done. And my own house cannot be worked upon from a distance.

There is nothing for me to do now except enjoy the stunning views, walk, sleep, eat, heal, and write.


So, I’ve been re-reading the book so far, making odd little changes. A word here, a sentence there. Gain a comma, lose a full stop. It’s all preparing me for the next blank page, when I will have to launch into clear air and see where the story takes me.

And I have to admit that already Charlie is beginning to talk to me again inside my head. She’s nudging me to Get On With It. And she’s carrying a big stick.

With nails in it.

So, what do you think about writers’ retreats? Have you ever been on one, or seriously considered it? Do you think you’d benefit, or do you prefer to be somewhere familiar with your own stuff around you? And if you’ve never written, do you think you might take to it, in that kind of atmosphere?


This week’s Word of the Week is magistricide, meaning the killing of a teacher or master, from the Latin magister, meaning a master, chief, superior, or teacher, from magis, meaning more or great.

20 comments:

  1. Re: your big question... Never say never. Art, being a human endeavor, requires the input of human experience. It also requires a careful balance of isolation and distraction, experience and imagination, stress and relaxation. The trick is... the 'balance' is different for different people, and it's different for the same person in different times and circumstances. It's a dance, and the artist must KNOW when it's time to speed up, when it's time to slow down, when it's time to pirouette and when it's time to stop.

    As for magistricide, let's hope we never see it here, as here live magisters aplenty.

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    1. My dear EvKa, what lovely words. And I take your point about balance being different for the same person in different times, although I'd quibble over being an artist. I tend to think of myself more as a craftsman. Well, maybe an apprentice ...

      There have been a few teachers against whom I would quite happily have committed magistricide. Perhaps it's fortunate I didn't spend too long in formal education after all.

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    2. Truly beautifully put, EvKa. Did Annamaria help you with it?

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    3. Now, now, Jeff. Play nice ...

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  2. As an adjunct professor, I'd far prefer had you chosen magisterial as the word of the week. But, considering your condition...and the stunning photographs...all is forgiven. Plus, I'd be afraid not to forgive you.

    As for writing retreats, I once long ago went to a "workshop" put together by a friend out by my farm. She lived in a 1700s (modern for you I'm sure) farmhouse in the middle of a National Park and the goal was for us all to sit together and inspire one another.

    Let's put it this way. I made some great friends, but little literary progress. I prefer writing alone, not discussing my WIP with anyone but my own multiple personalities, because I really don't know where its headed until my characters tell me.

    As for that engraving of the Villa Diodati at the top of your post, it strangely summons up a sense of my farm, not so much from the shape of the structure... perhaps from its tie into Frankenstein, for my farm sits close by the inspiration for Jason and Friday the Thirteenth... which brings me back to thoughts of magistricide...

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    1. Ah, Jeff, you know as far as you're concerned I'm just a pussy cat ...

      I too like to write alone, but find that spending too much of the rest of the time on my own makes for a sense of disconnection from humanity. Animals are good companions, but somewhat lacking in conversation, I find.

      I confess I didn't know there was any kind of real inspiration behind all those Friday the Thirteenth movies ...?

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  3. And of course, the Magis Haggis- the great chieftain of the pudding race .... as somebody once said. I think he used to go on retreat to Edinburgh.

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  4. And of course, the Magis Haggis- the great chieftain of the pudding race .... as somebody once said. I think he used to go on retreat to Edinburgh.

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    1. The pudding race ... is that related to the egg-and-spoon race?

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  5. Writer's retreat? I find muting the phone, not plugging into wifi and spreading out on the kitchen table comes up for me. Not that I wouldn't mind Villa Diodati.

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    1. I for sure thought you were going to say, "spreading out on the bed," but if "kitchen table" works for you, who am I to question what inspires. :)

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    2. Ah, wifi is usually necessary for me in order to write. I fact-check all the time, and sometimes those facts alter the course of the story for me. I know they say you can fix a page but you can't fix a blank page, but I prefer to get it right to start with, rather than guess and then have to go back and restructure the scene.

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    3. Now Jeff, what did I say earlier about playing nice ...?

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  6. Oh, Zoe, how I would love a writer's retreat. For a long time, I had trouble finding enough alone time to write. Now I have more loneliness than I want. I imagine a lovely sylvan place, where I can work like a demon all day and find a circle of friends to eat and talk and drink wine with when the sun foes down. Sounds like Nirvana. And I could use a few weeks of it, RIGHT NOW.

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    1. But you have your wonderful place in Florence, Annamaria, which most writers would kill for as a place to sit and chip away at the word-face. For me there is definitely a happy medium between uninterrupted writing time, and human contact. I think I need both in order to flourish.

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    2. Yes, Zoe. When I am in Florence I have more of both (which is what I to need) than I do with my life in NYC. Please notice that I am ignoring Jeff's insinuation that I check into a monastery. Whether I would like that or not would depend what the monks were like.

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    3. I shall hope for some charming monks for you, Annamaria. And ones who interpret one particular part of their vows as celebRate.

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  7. Could be considered slightly monastic, Jeff, but I believe crime writers do a little more of the making merry than is stipulated in most holy orders ...

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  8. Zoe, I'm afraid the idea of a retreat for writers would find me planning ingenious ways to kill those taking part. Writing, like masturbation, should be done when one is alone.

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