I was supposed to be setting off next week on a (self-made) writing retreat in the north of England. [This is beginning to look increasingly unlikely, but I am still hoping against all hope.] My first time away from home since Christmas 2019, a much-desired change of scenery and a chance to work peacefully on some new writing ideas. I’ve realised that most writing retreats seem to be monastic-style cells, with minimum of distractions, set in a pretty landscape, and perhaps with a comfortable communal area (and someone else preparing your food, ideally). Here are some which caught my eye.
Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.
- Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.
2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.
On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.
3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house
The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!
4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’
5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.
After 20+ years spent in Great Britain, why oh why have I not visited Wales before? The combination of mountains and sea is exactly what my soul has been craving ever since I came to this island and a worthy substitute for my Genevois home which I miss with all my heart. This was enhanced, of course, by glorious weather and the serene setting of David Lloyd George’s house at Ty Newydd.
Reading, writing, listening, talking, eating, breathing, touching poetry as if it were the most important thing in the world. A protective glass bell for even the most fragile bloom to grow and blossom.
Under the gently challenging guidance of George Szirtes and Deryn Rees-Jones, who created a real feeling of community of like-minded people, who discuss your work rather than your personality or what they would have written instead. Profound admiration and respect to Polly, Jenny, Sophia, Jane, John, Antony, Dafydd, Christine, Simon, Vanessa, Margaret, Mary and Arji, who stretched my mind, made me laugh, made me cry and made me want to persevere. People who are serious about poetry, regardless of age and background, not ‘retired hobbyists’ (as implied in that controversial report). Not that there is anything wrong with opening up the world of poetry to hobbyists either…
To be honest, I was the most amateurish one there, the least experienced and the least ‘serious’ about poetry, too easily distracted by my other writing and blogging and reviews. It really brought home to me that you need to dedicate yourself seriously to poetry, to reading and writing it every day for years if you want to improve rather than just have a few happy accidents of phrasing.
The first few days I was panicking about not being productive enough: I had been hoping to repeat the feat of October in Provence of 35 new poems in 5 days. Particularly since at this particular point in time I could not really afford the fees (reasonable though they are, compared to other courses). It was almost as if I were measuring out spoonfuls of ground coffee and expecting a spectacular yield of nectar by the end. Then I learnt to relax: there are times of accumulation which are just as valuable as those productive times.
Ideas can come from anywhere, from following the course of a river through the woods, from blackberrying your way down the path to the sea, from watching a dog gambol on the beach to finding a rare volume of ecclesiastical history in the profound peace of Gladstone’s Library.
How to keep the momentum going after this week out of time and space? I need to spend part of every day with poetry, not just turn to it when I am procrastinating on my novel or when I have an odd moment of inspiration. I need to practise and improve my craft, which means finding a writing group dedicated exclusively to poetry, although the more generic local one is a good source of inspiration in other respects. If I cannot find one geographically, perhaps I need to organise an online critiquing group.
One can never have too many books. They are the most beautiful decoration to a room and they bring endless delight and inspiration to yourself and to others.
Do not attempt to outrun a field of Welsh cows, who are nothing like as blasé about intruders as their Swiss cousins.
Villeferry is the name of the tiny village where we had our writing retreat last week. L’Atelier Writers is the brainchild of writers Michelle Bailat-Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, who did their MFA together in the US ten years ago. Now all of them are busy working mothers as well as writers, so they know just how difficult it is to find the right physical and mental space to dedicate yourself to writing, especially long forms of writing such as novels. They found a quiet place in the Bourgogne, a grouping of restored village houses set on a slope, and offer the perfect mix of quirkiness, tranquility, emotional support and bookish discussion.
We had mornings and afternoons dedicated to the lonely pursuit of word count and polishing of drafts, lively lunchtime discussions of craft and goal-setting, plus readings and literary parlour games in the evening. I rediscovered the joy of writing and of community. It was just what I needed at this difficult period of transition in my life and has made me more determined than ever.
I am tempted to keep it all a secret, so that it maintains its cosy, intimate feel in years to come. Here are some pictures to show you what ‘appalling’ conditions I had to work in…