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.


Learn more about the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and check out the 2015 and 2016 Awardees. 

Malachy Tallack

Malachy Tallack has written for the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Scottish Review of Books and many other publications, online and in print. He won a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust in 2014 and his first book, Sixty Degrees North, was published in 2015. It was featured as a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award. As a singer-songwriter he has released four albums and an EP and performed in venues across the UK. He is also contributing editor of the online magazine The Island Review. He is from Shetland, and currently lives in Glasgow.