Writers, Retreat!

West Dean gardens
Category: Writing

A few months ago I entered a contest co-run by the fantastically generous people at West Dean College and Myriad Editions for a week's writing retreat. The judging panel included literary agent Hannah Westland and Ed Wood from Waterstone's Magazine, and I thought it was a great opportunity to get my writing in front of some experienced eyes. I never expected to win, so I was suspicious when a woman with a very proper BBC-English accent phoned asking for Miss Logan. I thought perhaps I'd forgotten to pay my council tax.

So I booked my train ticket and packed plenty of notebooks, but I had no idea what you're supposed to do on a writing retreat. Bash away at a laptop for twelve hours a day? Gaze wistully out of windows and write nature poetry? Commune with the Inner Writer somehow? Eventually I decided that this was my retreat and I was going to do whatever the hell I wanted to do.

And so for the past week I've been eating two courses for every meal, swimming every evening in an outdoor heated pool, reading in the garden, watching bees cluster in roses, listening to snub-nosed sheep call to each other, and getting a nicely sunburned nose. Oh, and I also edited my entire novel, wrote three new short stories, arranged the contents and ordering for my forthcoming chapbook, and navel-gazed for a dozen pages of my journal. That's more writing than I would usually produce in two months, and it was all finished in seven days. It's amazing what can be achieved when there's no wireless internet and someone cooks all your meals.

It's amazing what can be achieved when there's no wireless internet and someone cooks all your meals.

More important than the writing I produced was the mental clarity I felt. Novels are tricksy things. They're complex and twisting – characters change, pace sprints then strolls, foreshadowing and theme have to fit together like cogs or the whole thing will screech to a halt. I've spent a year trying to work on this novel, but it's so difficult to keep it all in my head at once. I tried writing out key scenes on post-its and sticking them to the wall. I tried plotting out each character's arc on huge sheets of butcher paper. I tried bullet points and spider diagrams and many, many lists. Holy hell, the lists. But I still couldn't get it all straight in my head.

There's the day job, and family, and friends, and sorting out the gas bill, and going to the supermarket, and playing with the hamster, and oh look X-Factor is on. Life is a constant stream of distractions, and I just don't know how anyone can hold tens of thousands of words inside one brain along with all that other stuff. So my only goal for the retreat was to understand my own creation, to try to contain this chaotic, fiendish thing in my head. I had one week. Seven days where I had no responsibilities, no 'real life' whatsoever. There was no TV in my room and no signal on my phone. It was just me and the novel.

Luckily, it's not hard to be inspired at West Dean. The house is crammed full of stories: the stuffed lion and giraffe heads on the walls; the antique weapons of execution; the staircase that opens unexpectedly into a Dali-esque painting of a naked man in a desert, wearing a hat that’s half Trojan warrior and half lilypad. There are so many potential stories that I didn't even know where to start.

Getting out of the house is inspiring too; I've never been into nature, but I took so many photos of the kitchen garden that my girlfriend refuses to look through them all. Call me a city girl, but I'd never even seen most of these vegetables outside a supermarket. I didn't think that courgettes just fell out of the sky and into the greengrocer's shop, but I never imagined that they grew little orange flowers from their tips. Walking through the greenhouses the idea for a ghost story started to nudge at me, and with every new plant I saw – the fat velvety ferns, the swollen-to-bursting purple peppers, the sinister flycatchers looking like they were about to drop something on my head – the story took shape. I went straight back to my room and finished off two stories that had been languishing on my hard drive for so long that I'm ashamed to even admit it. Fine, it was six months. Okay, a year. The turrets against the bright blue sky, the glass case of stuffed birds, the chaos of flowers: everything made me want to write.

Every evening after dinner I went to the outdoor pool and swam laps. At first my brain was buzzing with stories and ideas and worries. But I kept going, aware of nothing but the rhythm of my limbs in the water. I've tried to meditate but could never quieten my hyperactive brain; swimming laps in the gloaming, I understood how to be still.

And now, finally, I understand my novel too. I edited my messy, disorganised 70,000-word first draft into a lovely, neat 54,000-word second draft. I discovered that the only way for me to fit a whole novel inside my head is to force everything else out. So yes, it was good to write some new stories and ramble in my journal, and it was even better to turn that first draft into a second draft. But best of all was figuring out how this whole flustering, dishevelled, thrilling novel-writing thing gets done – how I can fit it all in my head, after all.

I still don't know what you're supposed to do on a writing retreat, but I know that it's one of the best things I've ever done for my writing, and for myself.

Kirsty Logan

Some new stories:
Bibliophagy, at elimae
Renfield At The Stereo Bar, at Flatmancrooked
Chelsea + Dagger, at Still Blue
On Losing My Voice, at Birdville

Kirsty Logan received a New Writers Award in 2009.