Writers Retreat

In my last post I mentioned the Writers Retreat that I went on in May to finish “Wait for Me”, and today I want to talk a bit more about that experience.

As I said previously, I realised at the start of 2017 that the only way I was going to achieve my goal and finish the book was to take some time out on my own, away from home and work. For my partner and I this was big deal, a big sacrifice. To use up some of my precious holidays, away from him and spend some of our hard-earned money in this way, was a significant investment. I needed to be confident that if I took this step, I would definitely be able to finish the book and hopefully get some return on that investment in the longer term.

Once we had both agreed that I should do it, I started “googling” for ideas about where to go. I think I typed in “Writers Retreat” and one of the first hits that came up was Arvon, who provide residential writing retreats and courses in various lovely locations around the country. After much deliberation, I decided on a residential retreat at The Clockhouse, which is linked to the The Hurst in rural Shropshire.

I booked it early in January, for six nights from Tuesday the 20th May to Monday the 5thof June. Once it was booked I felt really good. I felt as though I was closer than I had ever been to actually writing a book. I felt a huge sense of relief that I could stop thinking about when and how I was going to do it. It felt deliciously self-indulgent to be spending a whole week away on my own. I couldn’t remember ever doing anything like this before in my life, apart from a few years after my divorce and before I met my current partner, when all my holidays were taken as a lone traveller.

The weeks leading up to the retreat were ridiculously busy. We were coming towards the end of the rugby season requiring trips across the length and breadth of the country to attend semi-finals and finals of the different European and National leagues. The week before the retreat we had been staying in an Air B&B in Notting Hill to attend a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace on the Thursday and the Aviva Premiership Finals at Twickenham on the Saturday. We travelled home on the Sunday, spent the Bank Holiday Monday with family and I headed off on the Tuesday morning.

It had been such a rush that I’d had to stop at the first services on the M42, about five minutes from my house, to check that I had even got the dates right. I had a complete panic when the dates in the last email from the Clockhouse were not the same as the dates in my diary, they were for the following week! Frantically, scrolling through past emails I could see that I had actually booked and paid for the week that was in my diary. Either the dates in the email were simply a typing error or  they had got me booked in for the following week by mistake.

Cursing myself for not having noticed this before, I debated with myself whether to ring and check or not. If I did call, only to find that they had indeed got me booked me in for the following week, it would be devastating to have to turn round and go home again. I quickly flicked though my diary, I couldn’t take the following week off as there were already too many important commitments in my work diary. There were no more available dates that I would be able to fit in for the rest of the year. It was a disaster! I would never achieve my goal of finishing the book this year.

I was panicking. I got back into the car and took a few deep breaths. Telling myself to “get a grip”, I decided that the most likely explanation was that it was a typing error and decided just to continue with my journey. If there was a mistake with the actual booking I would deal with that when I got there. It would be their mistake, not mine. I had email confirmation for the dates I had booked and paid for. I set off again, calming myself, trying to push away the negative and irrational thoughts that were swirling in my head. I was listening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 on Audiobook in the Car and was soon lost in the dystopian future where all books were forbidden and burned if they were discovered.

The route took me cross-country via Bewdley, Cleehill and Ludlow on unfamiliar roads creating a genuine sense of escape. The Clockhouse is in the grounds of The Hurst Residential Writing School, situated in the Shropshire Hills a few miles from the Welsh border between the small town of Craven Arms and the village of Clun. The Hurst was the former home of the playwright John Osborne.

I will never forget my week in the Clockhouse. The setting was tranquil and truly beautiful. The property was comfortable and quiet. There was no phone signal, no TV or other distractions, a well-stocked kitchen and freezer full of delicious home-cooked meals for one. There was nothing to do except write. It was perfect.

My accommodation was a small self-contained apartment consisting of a bedroom, bathroom and small office. The office window looked out over the Shropshire countryside, rolling hills, forest and field, and giant rhododendron bushes were all I could see. The weather was warm enabling me to keep the window open most of the time. The cover picture for this blog is a section from a photograph of the view from that window. It will always take me back to those few days where I sat at that desk totally immersed in the post-apocalyptic world of Lisa and Anita, my main characters.

All I did that week was write. I woke early each morning and starting writing in my pyjamas. I wrote all day every day, stopping only to shower, grab a drink and a snack and occasionally have a think and a short walk around the grounds. As the week progressed my hours settled into a pattern that was in harmony with the environment. I would wake and rise at first light to the sounds of the dawn chorus. I would begin to tire around the end of the day and head downstairs about six for dinner. Most evenings I was in bed by eight and asleep by nine.

There were three other apartments in the building and I shared the experience with three other writers. Before I got there I had worried slightly about what it would be like being on retreat with other people. Would there be a pressure to socialize? Would they be noisy and disruptive? I had no need to worry. We were all there for the same reason and during the day we barely saw one another, only occasionally bumping in another writer on the way to or from the kitchen during the day. We agreed to eat dinner together each night at around seven, but after an hour or so of sustenance and conversation, everyone was ready to return to their rooms.

If I am honest, I found the other writers a little daunting and intimidating. They were all very intellectual, professional writers, writing very serious books on serious subjects. The language they used to discuss their work was unfamiliar and alien to me and I felt awkward and out of my depth. My lack of experience and the trivial nature of my writing project relative to theirs threatened to make me feel inferior and a little embarrassed. Some of their conversations about plays and playwrights and writing techniques were impossible for me to participate in.

I had to give myself a good talking to at the beginning of the week. I could talk eloquently and confidently in my own work setting and with my own friends and acquaintances. I had stepped into a whole new world, their world. If they stepped into mine, they would presumably feel just as out-of-place and just as excluded by conversations about clinical research and pharmaceuticals. In some ways it was helpful that I felt uncomfortable in their company because I was there to write my book and nothing else, and that was what I did……..

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