Monday, 30 January 2012

Tired and emotional writers - the rollercoaster of writing retreats

I stared at teasels a lot at Totleigh Barton

 Why is going on a week-long residential writing course always such an emotional experience? Every time I go on one of these, I return home feeling as though I have been turned inside out, and then the skin put back on the bones slightly differently from how it was before.

This isn’t anything like the feeling of being flayed by criticism of your writing. Even if the key moments on a writing course have been elation, revelation, epiphany; light bulbs pinging brighter than ever before and sudden, joyous glimpses of the way through the forest, there is always a strange settling of the dust afterwards that unsettles the soul.

Perhaps it is to do with shock. Your writing trajectory turns from a plod to a hurtle, there are too many realisations to process all at once, and the brain goes into lockdown while it deals with it all. In the end this will result in better writing, but the waiting phase is hard.

There is also the sense of having been plunged for five days into a writer’s paradise of likeminded people, attentive tutors, a bottomless biscuit tin and a room where the only disturbance is birdsong or rain spattering the windowsill. It’s not sustainable; any more than a working week and you’d be turning fast into a pastry-dependent ball with trench foot and repetitive strain injury from typing. But even after five days it is a horrible wrench to leave that place. The aspects of life that are normally acceptable evils, such as work, shopping, and navigating non-writers, become affronts.

Having just returned from Arvon’s Totleigh Barton, I am in that uneasy purgatory, going the wrong way from writer’s heaven to real life. I know I am a better writer as a result, but I am too busy reeling to be able to apply what I have learned just yet.

I went on what Arvon call a ‘tutored retreat,’ during which two writers give each of their temporary disciples a half-hour tutorial each day, and in between we all write, drink, wander about talking to ourselves and take turns to cook enormous dinners. It’s astonishing what you can achieve with that kind of attention to your writing, in terms of insight; but it also makes you realise that time is an absolutely fundamental factor in progressing with your writing.

For example, a piece of constructive criticism may be spot on, articulating a problem in your work that deep down you had already recognised; but it is not always possible to make the required changes straight away. It’s as if your story has to rearrange itself in your subconscious, like a person turning in sleep, and once it has settled and the bed has adjusted around it you can write the new shape.

With only a few precious days to write, all the walking, staring into space and regular naps can feel like time-wasting, but they are just as vital a part of these courses as the tutorials. Leaving this haven feeling exhausted, it is a consoling certainty that your story will be turning, and the bed of your brain making its adjustments, for months afterwards.