Five Things: Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship
This summer Creative Scotland gifted me perhaps the most wonderful thing I have ever received: a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. This fellowship allows selected writers to enjoy a month devoted to their writing in the beautiful Hôtel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Loing, just south of Paris. Both the village of Grez and the hotel have long been a writers’ and artists’ colony – people such as Strindberg, Carl Larsson, the Glasgow Boys and, of course, the marvellous Robert Louis have all lived and worked there. The hotel is now a hive of writers’ and artists’ apartments and studios. Light. Beautiful. Elegant. French.
I went to Grez determined to complete my novel This Starling Flock, a story of leavings and homecomings set in neutral Ireland and WWII Cornwall. My novel’s ending had eluded me for a long time. The characters’ jigsaw was forever shifting: it would never quite settle beneath my hands. The Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship swiftly changed all that. My characters found their endings, at last, and they did so because I had the time and space to stay still, to be quiet, to listen, to follow them. By the time I left, all the words I wanted were packed snug in my laptop. I have never written so fluently, so consistently, so surely.
Five Things I Loved and Learned:
1. Find your routine. Routine or rhythm is important. And these, I learned, are made as much of space as they are of time. Find the hours and the places that can waken you into writing and hold you there. France this summer was hot. 37 degrees hot. The floor and walls of my apartment could probably have baked bread in the morning-time, so my Scottish white skin and I sought shady spaces. Every morning I took myself down to the shade of the garden and sat by the river and wrote in the company of swans. I wrote until the local teenagers sauntered along Grez bridge around two o’clock and took occupation of the bank opposite with their radios and chatter, both at a very polite volume. That was my cue for lunch. Early evening I would resume writing in my now cool apartment. The rhythm of these days worked for me. I had a timetable. The places and the times soon associated themselves with my thinking and my writing. Writing became my day job in Grez.
2. Love the quiet sense of community. Feel and learn its importance. The sense of belonging was just there in Grez. Even though my days were often, necessarily, solitary, I sensed the group of writers and artists working alongside me, all taken up in their own creative projects. There was writing and painting and sculpting in the air. All these breads proving. Most importantly, there was the shared feeling that what we were doing mattered. We had all been gifted fellowships. I felt like a writer in the proper doing sense.
Since returning and going back to my day job, I have wondered whether or how it is possible to retain this sense. I do not know. I think the community I experienced in Grez is special to the writing retreat. That is the gift. Make the most of it.
3. Avoid the Internet. Mute mobile phones. Do not surrender to the lure of 24/7 communication or the nudges from others to prove your minute-by-minute existence. The Hôtel Chevillon did have Wi-Fi and my mobile enjoyed reception and I admit I used both. The Internet allowed me to research and gave me downtime in the evenings: radio and films were always there. I know, however, that my ability to focus on my writing in Grez was partly due to the absence of the time-gobbling distraction that is the worldwide web. Retreats allow you to reap proper, old-fashioned solitude: the solitude and the concentration that comes from not being available. ‘Do not disturb’. Retreats, for a time, make those words sacred.
4. Treats. Reward yourself. Motivating, celebratory carrots every day. As I was in France, I did not have to look far. Less than a minute’s walk or skip from the front door was the carrot-heaven that was Monsieur Daniel’s boulangerie. Croissants and pains au chocolat and baguettes and petits fours. There were French wines and cheeses at the local grocery. And fine coffee at the bar. All was good. (On your return, consider moving to France.)
5. Realise how wonderful it is to write. To feel the flow, day after day. Bask. Bring this feeling home with you. Bring back the writer you’ve become.