Cove Park: A Writer's Treat
I told my kids where I was going but they didn’t listen. The night before I was due to leave one of them said: ‘What is it? A writer’s treat?’ No, I explained; it was not a treat. This was a writer’s retreat; very hard work, very, very serious, nothing like a treat at all.
I left home not knowing what to expect but secure in the knowledge that I had three bags of food, a spare blanket and a stack of books.
It was 100 miles to Cove Park which is half way down a peninsula in Argyle, overlooking Loch Long. Claire and Caitrin from Scottish Book Trust were there to meet me and five other winners of New Writers Awards, with food and wine and a helping hand down the hill from the main building to our individual accommodation, in ‘cubes’.
These were shipping containers transformed into fabulous living spaces with a small kitchen, bathroom, writing desk, sofa and a double bed. One wall was entirely glass, which opened onto decking built over a pond. From there you could admire the view or feed the ducks or photograph the highland cows coming for a drink.
My main concern was how to make the most of my time at Cove. I’d brought with me an idea for a short story, six existing stories to redraft, and lots of good stuff to read. But there was a possibility that panic at the sheer freedom might paralyse me.
At first I was very distracted – the view was constantly changing and I found myself gazing through the glass wall at the colours of the hills and the forests and the sky. The sunset on the first evening was a pink and gold spectacular and I wondered if I get my writing done at home because I’ve got nothing to look at except a clump of dandelions.
In my cube I had no mobile reception, no internet access (there was access in the main building a few minutes’ walk up a steep hill) no television and no radio reception - despite experimenting with my radio in every conceivable spot in the cube. I’m a news junkie. At home I sometimes have BBC News on a loop, I also have Facebook open all day, check Twitter every now and then, and read at least one newspaper every day plus other articles online. All of which makes me wonder how I get anything written at all.
At Cove it was me and my laptop, my notebooks and my reading.
I decided to structure the day; new writing first, then rewriting, then reading. Interspersed were two or three marches up the hill to check for messages and catch up with my fellow writers.
The six of us met each evening, taking turns to make supper. It was fantastic to find out about everyone else’s lives as writers. We talked about what we’d achieved that day, challenges we’d encountered with our writing, favourite books and writers, films – good and bad – and generally shared experiences and told stories.
During the week I realised the retreat wasn’t just about how much writing I could achieve during the six days, or about meeting other writers, but about establishing writing practices I could take back to my real life.
I’m a disciplined and organised person but having lived for a week without newspapers, radio, television, DVDs and mobile phone, and with severely curtailed access to the internet, it underlined how much time and energy is wasted.
Not only that, but how issues that seem so important on the internet clutter up my brain and tangle up my creativity. Case in point: the first two days of the retreat coincided with the Hilary Mantel/Duchess of Cambridge/Daily Mail furore, and I found myself irate about it and marching up the hill to log back on and continue the debate. Ridiculous.
I realised it was important to start writing before I went up the hill to log on for the first time in the day. At home I read the paper and check the internet before starting anything else. But I know now that every day there’s a part of my brain that’s fresh and ready and waiting to be creative but instead of taking advantage of it I’ve been filling it with random rubbish from the internet and then having to do battle with that before I start anything useful.
Newspapers and internet and Facebook are part of life; they are good fun and often useful but they can bleed into the entire day and warp it. They need careful corralling.
Thank you, Scottish Book Trust and Cove Park for helping clear away some of life’s white noise. It’s been an experience, a luxury and a real writer’s treat.