Why A Writer Needs A Retreat



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A calm spot where you can sit and think – it should be easy to find, shouldn’t it? But if you live in a city, beset by sirens, trucks, people and (in London) weird weather, it’s not quite so simple. The idea that space is all writers need can be misleading.

I never intended to become a Hispanophile. My first experience of the Med was drinking too much cheap gin and passing out on my copy of Herman Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf’ at 18 in Benidorm. Now I tackle the hardest parts of the writing process away from my London flat. Last week I had intended to start a new book, but it didn’t happen; every day there were peripheral jobs; around 30 unpaid articles for ‘Forgotten Authors’, manuscript edits, meetings, two hospital check-ups, several post office trips, interviews, a photo shoot, then boring stuff like fixing computer software and doing laundry.

When I hear the words ‘writers’ retreat’ I imagine conferences on networking and lectures and exercises, and ‘How To Write’ classes where the emphasis is more on sitting in the sun drinking wine. Here’s one I came across; Yaddo is an artists’ community located on a 400-acre estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Its mission is “to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment.”

I can’t think of anything more counter-productive to the practice of writing. People are naturally competitive. What must the nightly dinner conversations be like? It’s the same feeling I get at Shakespeare & Co in Paris, which is in love with the romantic idea of writing, not with the nuts and bolts of actually producing books.

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Writing is a job that smacks of pretension if you say you need a place to think. You can’t answer questions about the process truthfully because you simply don’t know. While researching ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I often came across writers who gave up because they couldn’t think clearly; many lived in small flats with families.

But it’s not just about finding a retreat. You need time – to be able to walk away and return, to delay, to displace, to absorb and reject. An open horizon. But of course life isn’t shaped like that. If you care about others, you have to accept that they place limits on your time.

The demands on me in London are high. I’m part writer, part manager. There are stories in ‘Forgotten Authors’ about publishers funding writers from their own pockets and handing them house keys. That certainly doesn’t happen now. Recently Joanne Harris has been fighting literary festivals, trying to get them to pay authors; every event you take on requires preparation, every festival knocks half a week from your schedule.

When I head for Europe my responsibilities are largely put on hold and I start clear-sky thinking. Suddenly I’m filling pages with ideas and scraps of plot, dialogue, characters. No matter how much I try to analyse it, I can’t make sense of why it works this way. I get more sleep, and that brings clearer thinking. In a warm country I can go out any time of the day or night. I become a fanatical watcher of behaviour because it all happens outside.

I might strip away the physical issues, but I still have to juggle a schedule. Writers distance themselves from involvement in order to think. Too much distance and you lose sight of your readers. Too much involvement and you’ll never write another word. As attractive as they sound, writers’ retreats will never solve these problems.

7 comments on “Why A Writer Needs A Retreat”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    For the deepest creative or analytical work, most of us need a quiet place free from disturbance and also free from the possibility or prospect of interruption. I used to find late at night was a good time, but nowadays staying up late gives me headaches, so I have to find other solutions. The problem is mainly one of interruption. I can work on a train journey or I could if I could manage to use a pencil or a keyboard on a moving train … .

  2. Marty Knox says:

    In the middle of the USA, between my grandkids, great grandkids, siblings, in-laws, cousins, friends, big family and the small town (pop 600) where everyone knows your business- I’m busy and distracted. Daily chores, animals etc. don’t ever go away. I can’t write at home even when I hide out in my bedroom /office. I get a solid eight hours of writing done, it flows like magic, at my local library. I hide in the corner with my laptop and track productive time actually pounding away on the keys, thinking, dreaming and writing.
    I love your characters, settings and quirky plots. I’ve been a fan since the first book came out. Always looking forward to devouring a new adventure, keep up the excellent work.
    Traveling on buses and airplanes also work well. A simple spiral bound notebook, a good pen, and no electricity, phones nor internet work wonders also.

  3. Vivienne says:

    I think we all need a retreat, even if we are only writing up our diaries. Even alone at home I find it hard even to put a To Do list together, let alone think of being creative. Responsibilities somehow creep into the atmosphere. Hope Barcelona regains its calm soon.

    I am looking forward to Forgotten Authors: new people to find but some, I think, will not have been forgotten by me.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Various authors have different solutions. I like Marty Knox’s above, but then as a librarian I’d like everyone to find what they need in a library. A local poet has a house which belonged to a writer before her. I think the house itself motivates her. Too much silence when you are accustomed to noise would not help.
    Anyone know what is special about the New York Society Library? They have 300,000 volumes housed in a landmark building but why are they important?

  5. Bill says:

    Helen, you asked and so I looked it up (re:the New York Society Library). Never had heard of it. Are you suggesting it’s a good place for writers to write?

  6. Roger says:

    Dfspite your disapproval of poetry, you might appreciate the sentiments: https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/hope-a-d/persons-from-porlock-0418034

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Bill, I thought it might be. Wendy Wasserstein says she could never write at home but now writes plays here. It also looks like a beautiful building and is only open till 5pm so you’d get home for dinner.

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