Ever wondered what a writers’ retreat is like? Me too…
Author Jackie Copleton (A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016, a BBC Radio 2 book club pick and a Richard and Judy Book Club choice last year) kindly obliged me with this explanation…
Alone with the Voices in My Head
By Jackie Copleton
I’m just back from a two-week writing residency in rural Ireland in January, probably one not best suited to those who like the comfort of a street lamp or a café that hasn’t closed for winter. But I loved my stay at the Heinrich Böll Cottage – including all the solitary hours and one offer to marry me off to a neighbour who sold turf.
The ‘Secret’ of Writing Retreats
The cottage had a fire but no internet or television and only one radio channel. By day three I already knew which presenter to avoid. Nightfall came at 5pm and unless I wanted to put on a luminescent safety jacket and walk ten-minutes in the dark to the nearest pub for human company, that radio was the only contact with the outside world. It was lonely but I wrote shedloads. I had little to do by way of an alternative. And therein may lie the ‘secret’ of a writing retreat.
The temptation to get the whip out and only write from dawn to dusk is understandable if you’ve forked out money on a tight budget for a self-funded stay and that voice in your head keeps asking, ‘Can you afford this? Is this whimsical self-indulgence? Why can’t you just write at home?’
However, a writing residency isn’t just about the words, it’s about space and time. The best lines, the plot breakthroughs, the aha moments of observations or dialogue often come when you’ve fallen in a bog or have run into an abandoned house to avoid the hail or you’re having a stand-off in the middle of the road with an annoyed looking tiny horse.
Despite setting myself rough word targets a day, I also managed to get outside to walk, cycle and drive over Achill Island in County Mayo. I saw megalithic tombs, a deserted village, treacherous cliffs, rainbows and stars. And I suspect these spots of beauty, rather than chaining myself to a desk, were what helped me get the words out in a flow rather than a dribble.
I have no idea if what I’ve written is any good, but in a fit of enthusiasm I went from that funded solo retreat to a subsidised self-funded one with other artists at beautiful Cove Park in Argyll thinking I’ll push on and try to finish a first draft – but I’ve hit a tiny wall. I’m still writing but not in the flurry I experienced in Ireland.
As I type these words a couple wearing matching slippers are curled up on the sofa opposite me in front of a wood-burning stove at the main centre. They look the picture of domestic compatibility while my book and I appear to have had a small domestic. Our slippers are not matching but we are still talking to one another.
That’s the thing: you can find the perfect location, a great set-up (solo or surrounded by inspiring other writers), have an action plan and the money saved but if you’re not feeling it, you might as well be at home doing the ironing or getting your tax returns completed, with Facebook, Netflix and Radio Four all providing a glorious noisy thrilling distraction until the words bubble to the surface.
However, if you get the opportunity, go for it. But remember to leave your chair at regular intervals – you’re collecting experiences not just writing about them.
(Top pic shows the paperback cover, while the bottom picture is the hardback.)