My Christmas present from my husband was the gift of time, something I’m sure lots of people can appreciate is the greatest gift ever for a working parent. Given how often I have to travel for work, it’s a sacrifice for him in many ways, as he’s left at home holding the (laundry) bag, as always.
He put down a deposit on a week-long writing retreat at Retreats for You, a wonderful bolthole for writers deep in the West Devon countryside. About an hour’s ride in a taxi from Exeter St Davids station, R4U is in a gorgeous thatched cottage alongside the tiny village square, flanked by the only shop and pub in town, and wonderful rolling hills. Everything you could possibly want as a writer is here – from fresh baked bread in the morning, to Wine O’Clock in the garden or in front of the fire, depending on the time of year, to a welcoming desk in every corner of the house.
My friend, Clara, came here a couple of years ago when her book project was stuck, and this is where she finally found the headspace to complete the book that sits proudly on the shelf in the dining room here, along with stacks of other books published by R4U alumni.
I’ve opted for a solo retreat rather than a guided one, partly because I’m all over the place with my writing right now and have no idea what I would focus on for a guided retreat, partly because my writing confidence outside academia is not quite what it could be, and partly because – truthfully – I’m not all that into organised camaraderie. I enjoy being social on my own terms, and I like to be able to bugger off on my own if I want to. The joy of being away with other writers (there are 5 of us in total this week) is that there’s no judgement if you want to hide away and write, read, sleep, walk or just stare into space. You can eat at the communal dining table, or you can take a tray to your room or out to one of the many little table and chairs sets in the gardens. Lie in, stay up all night, wake with the dawn and birdsong…it’s all your own choice. I don’t think I’ve stopped grinning since I arrived here.
One of the other writers here is a young woman who has a first draft of her memoir back from her editor and needs to do her revisions for a deadline coming up around the corner, something that’s been difficult with caring for her ill mother. Another has recently retired and is doing a creative writing MA nearby, where he needs to submit 4 more chapters of his novel as his dissertation. There’s a couple here, also recently retired and newly in love; she is trying to overcome a tricky transition in her novel from the second to the third act, while he – like me – has a stack of partial projects that he’s hoping to progress on, learning from other writers as he goes.
I’m very fortunate in that I have a job where writing is a fundamental part of what I do. Publish or perish, as they say, in academia. Along with a much loved co-author and friend, I’ve just finished over 25,000 words of academic writing, producing 3 papers which stand a very good chance of being published in good journals. It’s not a bad way to make a living. But it doesn’t tap into my creative soul. It doesn’t scratch that itch I’ve had since I was a young girl, the one always with her head in a book or her hands tapping away on the typewriter. What my husband’s given me is a chance to take a breath and get to know her again.
I am doing academic writing while I’m here, but I’ve saved a couple of projects I’ve been looking forward to. I’m also writing this blog, and I spent this morning looking out over the garden building up a character sketch and testing out a scene for a new possible novel. Hopefully this one won’t languish in my box of unfinished projects, and I’ll be able to take home some tools, some advice and some new friends to help me on that front. At the very least, I’m rediscovering how much I love to have my bum on a chair, a keyboard in front of me, writing what I actually want to write. What a gift.