The first time I came to Writers Retreat at the Clockhouse in Shropshire run by the Arvon Foundation was two years ago. This is my third time. That first time I walked through the rain battling mud and stones on a forest track with giant redwoods towering above, their trunks like the coat of a horse, slightly coarse, tough and soft at the same time, a surprise in an English forest. They’re still here, growing taller in silence. In the dappled sunshine they seem more benign, their trunks softer, I place my hand against them and find them warm.
I’m very lucky to have been on two writing retreats this year. For years, for the whole of my life really, I never went on any and then, like buses, two come along at the same time. Why would a writer need a retreat people ask me, why can’t you work at home burning the midnight oil, getting up at dawn to cram a few words in here and there? Well I do that too but this break from ‘life’ is something that can help you find your way into a project, to kick start something that can keep you going all year when life steps back in and takes over. It’s my holiday. I get looks of pure confusion, pity even, when I say this is my holiday – why, people ask aren’t you sitting near a pool in the South of France or Spain. Each to their own I say.
I’m thinking about Virginia Woolf’s question in her polemic on female creativity, A Room of One’s Own: ‘What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?’ For me and many other writers like me whose work and family lives are complex and demanding, this is it. Most of us, we work with the conditions we’re given. Normally I write at a kitchen table, or in a café, or on the sofa with the laptop on my knee. I don’t have an office but I have a cupboard under the stairs which stores my files. Sometimes I feel like Harry Potter. This is the norm for most writers. At The Clockhouse I have a study the size of the entire downstairs of my house, a desk and a sofa and a view over the Shropshire hills. If I want to I can work downstairs in another study or outside on a bench with a herb garden at my feet. This summer, I want this to go on. I’ve written more in these few days, and earlier at the Rivermill, than I have all year. I have been envying writers who have sheds at the bottom of their gardens. Deborah Levy rented a shed from Adrian Mitchell’s widow Celia. ‘It was not a posh shed,’ she writes, ‘but it did have four windows looking out on to the garden, a writing desk that had belonged to Adrian with a green leather top’. The legacy of another writer imprinted into the leather surface, I can imagine it, passed down one writer to another. I sit at this desk and look out at the fields which even in the space of a week have moved from yellow to gold. Who has sat here before me? ‘Everyone deserves a guardian angel like Celia’ she writes in The Cost of Living. I’m still looking for mine.
It doesn’t have to be a room though. I’ve brought Kathleen Jamie’s Findings with me, through which she uses journeys in the natural world to explore what it means to write by conveying what she feels and sees in words which are alive to the world she walks in. Reading Jamie’s work I feel she uses the natural world as a kind of shed, doing the work in her head so that when she comes to put the words down on paper, the images are already almost fully formed. Being out in the world, walking in countryside or city the effect is the same. It connects you to the visceral image in a way that remembering or imagining a walk later does not. Once, I remember asking some first year university students to write down an account of the journey they’d just done to get to the seminar room in which we were now working on their writing. They wrote and then I sent them out to do that same journey – it was mostly just from their halls to the seminar room and this time to notice what they were actually seeing, smelling, hearing. Then they rewrote the piece using these details. The difference was astounding but only by doing it did they appreciate what a difference it makes to a writer who wants their reader to see their world as they do, feel it as their characters do.
So, I walk and I write here and when I come back to my study I write about what I’ve seen. One of our lovely fellow writers at the house says we are like flâneurs and we do feel like that even though it is nature we’re observing and not society. On the last day, we take a three hour walk through the woods and instead of going down into the Clun Valley, we go up from where we can see across the valley in all directions. It’s hard going, up and up, we pass through hazel twigged corridors where blackberries at the end of their lives reach out and beg to be picked. We pass a sheep’s skull on a post which could be threatening but feels instead to be telling us we’re heading the right way.
On the walk we meet no one and as it darkens and we begin, for the first time, to feel we don’t actually know where we are (even though we have a map) we start to follow our instincts and we head down through the path that seems to head back where we started. We emerge into a clearing and see The Hurst in the distance as though we could just jump in one leap and be there. We pass the sheep’s skull on the post, the path starts to descend, the sun finally disappears and with relief we find ourselves lead off the estate and down towards the Clockhouse where the evening awaits us.
I will carry the way we feel on this walk with me. I’ve been working on my new novel whilst I’ve been here, a novel where the landscape is completely the opposite of this. My new novel is set in a seaside town, a battered and forgotten town along a flat coastline, but it doesn’t matter. Like Jamie, I use what I know, what I see, to bring authority to my story I hope. ‘When we write about the places we know intimately, our fiction is fuller on every level’ Lee Martin writes in his excellent essay on setting ‘Writing the Landscape’ and writing about every walk I do, allows me to practice this and that’s what I take away from my retreat.
Jamie, K. (2005) Findings, London: Sort Of Books
Levy, D. (2018) The Cost of Living, London: Hamish Hamilton
Martin, L. (2007) ‘Writing the Landscape’ in Steel, J. (ed) Wordsmithery London: Palgrave
Woolf, V. (2004) A Room of One’s Own, London: Penguin