A week in the van in the west – it was blustery. There’s nothing quite like the bite of the Atlantic, falling asleep to the sound of the waves is the best lullaby in the world. On occasion it’s perturbing in the van if the wind picks up (I’ve been known to sit in the footwell, rocking back and forth with my eyes closed, picturing us toppling over at any moment). But being out in proper Irish weather certainly blew away all the cobwebs and opened my soul a little bit more to what nature can do for us. Sand between the toes, hood up, face misted with ocean spray and always, the wind. Wonderful.
It made me think of this poem by Ted Hughes. Best enjoyed in a cosy cabin as the wind howls down the chimney.
For the past week I’ve been living out of a suitcase again and it’s completely brilliant. First my weekend writing retreat just outside Downpatrick and now bumping along the Wild Atlantic Way in the west of Ireland.
I’d forgotten what travel felt like what with lockdowns, jobs and general Real Life happening. Our Big Trip in the van for a whole year around Europe and Scandinavia feels so long ago and yet here I am again, sitting on a deckchair beside Hans the Van, towels flapping in the (not insubstantial) breeze and feeling like this is real life.
So the great retreat, I hear you ask, how was it? Did you get your sample chapter written? Well, it was great and, um, nope. I had aimed for 8-10,000 words and ended up with 6,000 or so. Not bad I suppose, but in the end, the main outcome of the writing retreat with my creative writing group was getting to know them better, and taking some big deep breaths in beautiful surroundings.
Funny isn’t it? You can have a list of things to achieve with a colour-coded (I know) plan to tick as you go, but it turns out there’s been a secret list in front of your nose all along. Generally it involves surprises, unplanned detours, shared giggles, midnight sparklers under the stars and just being. It’s stopping all the hustle. And anyway, what’s a writer to write about if life happens and we don’t take notice?
So I’m pleased with my progress. The Thomas Hardy chapter (a laugh riot, as you can imagine) is not quite done yet, but I know a little bit more about each member of my writing group, and I know a little bit more about what it means to stop and stare at a river for hours at a time.
I’m sure my agent will understand the delay in sending the finished proposal…after all, the working title is ‘The Literary Pilgrim’ and here I am, being a pilgrim. That’s important research isn’t it?
I’m in the middle of packing a bag (chocolate – tick) to go away on a writers’ retreat for the weekend with my lovely writing gang. The Rivermill in the lush countryside outside Downpatrick awaits. It’s not the South Pacific island of Tetiaroa, once owned by Marlon Brando, where Barack Obama wrote his memoir, but it looks amazing. I’ve been drawing up a colour-coded chapter outline (I know) so I feel prepared. C’mere sample chapter of my non-fiction book proposal, let’s be having you.
1. Will I have any bright ideas at all?
2. Will I do some writing or spend most of the time looking out the window and going for walks?
3. Will I love it so much I’ll want to move in?
4. Will I tell my agent I’ve done lots of work (even if I haven’t)?
5. Will I talk to my writing friends too much? (We’re bringing wine…)
6. Most of all: will I get the damn chapter done?
They say a change is as good as a rest. Having spent over a year waking up somewhere new in a van all around Europe, I’ve since moved into an actual house, with walls and everything. And with lockdowns aplenty, I’ve grown accustomed to the same rooms and the same views, even the same cutlery, for crying out loud. I wonder if sameness might dull the senses, the brain not even trying, as days turn into other days and time barely shifts.
Looking at things anew – this simple act of getting in the car and driving somewhere new, will hopefully shake my mind around a little and wake it up. Many creatives say that stepping out of routine and taking a break from life’s tasks can be the perfect way to fill up the ideas pot. Mine’s a bit empty lately.
I’ll report back next week. And hey, if it’s good enough for Barack Obama…
Early September always makes me think about new stationery: all those sharp pencils and lovely notebooks, ready for a new term. Picture me today: the blank page, a flashing cursor, staring out the window, sighing, chewing my pencil. So often I sit in the shed like this, and – well – nothing. There’s just nothing in my head, except mundane thoughts about what to have for dinner. Where’s my muse gone? Do I even have one?
While we’re asking questions: where do ideas come from? I read recently about a writer who was walking along one day and a novel ‘arrived in her head, fully formed’. So she rushed home and got it all down. Envy is ill-advised, I know, but what on earth? I’ve walked along many roads and not once has a book simply ‘arrived’ in my head. It’s quite empty, on occasion, so surely there’s room for even a small manuscript?
Inspiration seems to strike when you least expect it: in the shower, in a traffic jam, or while doing something entirely different. Why does the brain work like this? Try too hard, and nothing happens. Stop trying, and suddenly the ideas flow.
And I’ve also realised that the lightbulb moment is not the hardest bit: it’s wrestling this bright idea into some sort of shape. I’m still writing the plan, and chapter outlines, for my non-fiction book idea, and it looked so beautiful in my head, when inspiration struck (yes, when I least expected it, I think I was doing the dishes at the time) but now it’s an ugly mess, with paper everywhere and scratched out lines of text. Whose idea was this again?
Creatives have various tricks to use when the well runs dry, but I need to be careful about seeking this elusive inspiration – not for me the opium-soaked dreamscapes of the Romantic poets. I’ll try, instead, to harness stillness (think Newton’s ‘a-ha’ moment as an apple fell on his head). Patience is a virtue and I’ve got it in spades these days.
So if I’m lying about the place, gazing out the window, don’t disturb me. I’m waiting for something to fall on my head. I’m working.