Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship: The Fear of a Retreat
Malachy Tallack, author of 60 Degrees North and a 2015 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellow, thinks back over his time on retreat in France and speaks about how to manage the fear of the blank page.
Despite the fact that I spend most of my days writing (or at least thinking about it) the prospect of a month in which writing was the only thing required of me was exceedingly daunting.
All the little distractions that I curse at home – the meetings, the household chores, the social obligations from which I am too polite to extricate myself – would be gone. All the excuses I make for not producing words would be invalid. The best thing about a writing retreat, it turns out, is also the most terrifying thing. For a whole month, there would be nothing to blame for my lack of productivity except my own incompetence.
There are different ways of dealing with such a fear, of course. I could have taken myself aside and offered the sort of wise, caring advice that a good friend or a mother might offer: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Enjoy the time away. Any writing you do will be a bonus. Don’t beat yourself up.
The reality of writing is that some days the words arrive and some days they do not
I am always grateful when people offer me that kind of advice. It shows a genuine concern for my wellbeing, and I’m lucky to have people who actually care about me. But I never follow their instructions. I never actually manage to be kind to myself. Partly because I’m suspicious of anything my mother tells me, but mainly just because I can’t.
The only way I can get words on the page is by not being kind to myself. If I waited for inspiration (or even just for the inclination) to hit me, my paper would always be blank. That is not an attractive prospect.
Two years ago I gave up all work other than writing because I realised financial necessity was the best way to get me to sit down and produce sentences. And it worked. First I completed the book I’d spent years trying to write, then I completed another one.
But even so, the reality of writing – at least for me – is that some days the words arrive and some days they do not. And while, on those unproductive days, I will bully and berate myself for my failure, there is nearly always some excuse I can make to ease my sense of defeat. In fact, perhaps the only thing that makes such days bearable is the availability of other factors – domestic tasks, paperwork, inconsiderate friends – on which I can offload the blame.
If I waited for inspiration (or even the inclination) to hit me, my paper would always be blank
So a month in France with nothing to do except sleep, eat, perform my ablutions and write was at once exciting and alarming, and I approached it as one might approach a man giving away free presents on the street: eager to get something for nothing, but nervous about what exactly that something might be.
As it turned out, though, I had no need to be nervous. For not only did I succeed in producing a respectable number of words over the course of four weeks, I also learned that one is never entirely free from distractions and obligations. I might have been hundreds of miles from home in Grez-sur-Loing, but I still had to buy food and cook my dinner; I still had to do my laundry and answer my emails; I still had to pretend to be sociable sometimes. Even in France, I always had my excuses.