A Retreat of One’s Own
What are the places that make your heart lift? What do they look like? What do they require, if one is to write? It was Virginia Woolf, of course, who said that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” On retreat, you might not be guaranteed a room all to yourself (and you will most certainly require money, for these things must be paid for) but the best places for retreat offer themselves up to you, allow you to find your “room of your own”, a place you can return to, to puzzle out your words.
For me, it must have a view. How about this one? It should not have a mirror that you have to face while writing. I have assaulted many a hotel room mirror with a towel, lest I catch myself gurning mid-sentence. It should have a table, or at least a wonderful chair with arms wide enough to support a laptop on crossed legs. It might have books and candles and, if you are lucky, a place to build a fire.
My new favourite place for a writing retreat is Tilton House, in the South Downs, nestled in Bloomsbury-on-Sussex. (It is the former Georgian country house of economist Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina wife, who was not taken into the chilly bosom of Virginia’s sister’s circle.) Keynes said of Tilton House, “There is no better air than here for work.” Who will disagree with him? Not I.
This is a picture of Keynes’ study, now the library, the room I found to work in, though I did have to occasionally share it, and gladly, with other writers who were collected together by New Writing South to work with Vanessa Gebbie. You cannot see the walls of books or the wood stove fire that burst into triumphant life an hour and a half after building it and giving up. Over 6 short workshops, guided visualisations, walks and suppers, we were all encouraged to look at our work in new ways and to challenge the assumptions we had made about our work thus far. It was a weekend of laughter, insight, and tremendous vegan fare.
I was lucky enough to have a room of my own, but I did not write at the adorable desk. I did write, huddled under the covers, listening to Radio 4 and pheasants. But most often, I padded down, back to the library. Nearer the kettle, to be sure – another retreat necessity – but probably also to be nearer the glow of others’ writing, the cats and dog, the warmth of a circle of people with shared interests and desires. If the Bloomsbury set lived together to share their interests in beauty, truth, and friendship, so do writers seek out writers for conversation, confirmation, affinity.
Now, back in my own room, I am struck by what I have. I have a view out of three small windows, to the house and to the neighbour’s allotment-style garden and a sky broken only by an ash tree. I have a broad desk and walls of books. I have candles and if I do not have a fire, I do have a Calor gas heater, which I have just rolled, grunting, out of the way so that I can squeeze in space for a yoga mat, inspired by Tilton House’s heart-lifting yurt to make a greater commitment to the practice and shirk yoga no more. If the vegan fare will not continue, I have at least committed to having lunch. I tend to write until I fall over, but I can now see the value of eating midday.
Most of all, I have got my groove back. I have been labouring the last few weeks to empty the last book from my head and work space, while others read it and decide what they will make of it. I have cleaned my desk, but still I have not written. I was hoping the retreat would allow me to transition to the second book that is ready to be rewritten, and find I am now ready to rewrite it. If you find yourself stuck, or in need of a heart lift, find a place where you can retreat, whether it’s Anam Cara, Arvon, Yaddo, Tilton House – or even if it is just in your own room and the circle of writers you find is on Twitter. But if you have that bit of money, it is a wonderful investment in yourself and your work. My retreat was paid for with winnings from the recent Mslexia contest, and I am very grateful to it, and that I didn’t have to spend that money on groceries – which are also very essential for writing. Speaking of which, I’m off for a digestive. Even though it’s lunch time.