So this is an odd sort of retreat – an Italian restaurant in the middle of a city I know and love well – Carluccio’s since you ask, but not the city, that’s my secret. It’s one of my favourite places this restaurant but it is a retreat, a writer’s retreat, because here I am sitting and writing.
And I’m not alone. There are four of us, round the edges, three women and one man, laptops and notebooks and reading books open to make us feel less conspicuous, safer in our space. It’s wonderful really. I don’t know how they feel but I feel calm; I’m on retreat because no one (and I mean no one) knows I am here. And isn’t that a true retreat? Where you run away and tell no one where you are? I wish….
This isn’t the truth of course, that I’m running away. I’m here for work, teaching writing even though tonight I’m hiding. So far, in my notebook I’ve started a short story, drafted an idea for a radio play and listened into several fascinating conversations which (as any writer worth her salt will do) I’ve written dutifully in my notebook for future reference. I’m taking my own advice on writing dialogue and opening my eyes and my ears to what I find around me. I listen in to one conversation about Italy, a holiday just returned from and a story about a boat trip and a beach and it brings back a memory…
I was staying with friends in the south of Italy one summer quite a long time ago near the town of Scilla not far from Reggio Calabria. Known as the site where the Scylla, the great sea monster, thwarted Odysseus’s passage home from the Trojan War in Homer’s great epic poem ‘The Odyssey’. Scilla boasts a rocky promontory which juts out under the sea into the Strait of Messina. My friends were sailors and had sailed through the Strait many times. The trick, they told me, was to stay in the centre of the Strait which had strong currents which pulled boats into the rocks, dashing the hull into pieces. The currents could also throw them off track, upturn a boat trying to navigate its way through. This had happened to them once, their boat was ruined. Odysseus had to make a choice at this point in his journey – just like my friends: trust that they could navigate their way through the swirling pull of the vortex, the Charybdis, or be eaten by the Scylla which would reach down from the rocks and take every last man on the boat. Between a rock and a hard place. The myth taken from the reality. This was one of the first times I became aware of the way stories can turn into something else, but that somewhere, somehow, they hide the truth.
At the moment I’m thinking of fairy tales with my friend the artist, Natalie Sirett, for a collaboration on story telling: she’s seeing what I’m hearing and what we’re both searching for is where the truth begins. We’ll keep you posted.