Thursday, 24 November 2011

Adam Bailey's Guide to Writing Retreats

Somewhere between a quiet hour at your desk and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the Writers Retreat. The Priory for procrastinators.

The retreat will be in the country, secluded by enough trees to give the sense of isolation but lit-up enough to scare off the hillbillies. Basically it’s the sort of hinterland people have being queuing up to leave since cities were invented. However, these pioneers were mostly of the 'worker' kind, lured to the city by the distant sound of clanging metal and the smell of burning man-flesh. Writers, though, being a subsidiary branch of Artist, are more into paraphrasing the grim experience than actually going anywhere near it, and will escape to the country before you can say, 'I wandered lonely as a mono-crop.'

Oo Arr
Of course the countryside has been inspiring people for years. These people have mostly been farmers though, and what they've been inspired to do (see 'think outside the box') is feed the brains of cows to other cows and then lean on a fence, have someone turn on the fairground music, and watch their herd start to wobble. Such is the jubilee on the borderline between prolonged isolation and drifting weedkiller fumes.

Making New Friends
Before you go then it's important you buy a Creatures of the Countryside book and learn to identify 'farmer'. The last thing you want to do is, high on the good life, approach one and start waxing lyrical. Remember, the only thing farmers wax is their tractor. And you won't be catching their wives waxing much either, especially in winter, although don’t mistake this wives' let it all hang out attitude for anything like that time learning pottery at Auntie Helga's Hippy Commune in Berlin. The countryside is Conservative. Traditional rules apply. Winter follows autumn follows summer and so on. The last thing you want to do is approach a farmer and gush your newly spun haiku. He'll rub his chin. He's mistaken your doubtful stammering for the confirmation code used with the Nazi he hid in his barn. He’ll reply,
‘Soft sunlight hides the
Inferno, raging in silence;
‘Oo-arr’ to fields sprayed with chemicals’ He’ll shake your hand the special way. ‘I thought you were dead, Gruber.' He’ll then talk for hours about immigrants.

The no-man’s land between customs being full of mines, it’s best to stay in. But what’s the retreat itself like? Apart from the bit about paying for it, each room is carefully appointed with the writer in mind. It has a desk. But what really makes this a writer's retreat, and not just a cottage in the country desperate for money, is that each room has a thesaurus in the top draw of the bedside table. Proof of this will be in the adverts for the retreats which say things like 'providing solitude not isolation.’

There will also be the lurking presence of other writers. Your pens keep going missing. And there's the feeling that the person behind you is writing down your conversation, and whispering to himself things like 'odd syntax, northern dialect, use for idiot character.’

Some retreats are really specialist with few creature comforts and no distractions except the feeling you're being watched from the trees. Such places are for writers who've read too much Thoreau and obviously you'll expect to pay a lot more for these. But for anyone not wanting to write the Great American Novel, perhaps just a few articles to Readers' Digest, most retreats have wash-basins.

Opulent writing retreats, on the other hand, provide rooms furnished exactly like those where great authors once worked. Popular is ‘Thomas de Quincey Lounge’, because there might or might not be spiders climbing the walls, also the ‘Stephen King Hotel’, which includes a special axe-wielding welcome by Jack Nicholson. Similar five-star retreats run special training courses. ‘Autobiography House’ teaches the magic formula: intervening time plus discretion-offsetting advance equals BULLSHIT. And at ‘The Charles Dickens It Was the Best of Writers Retreats It Was the Worst of Writers Retreats’ you’ll learn how to write sentences so long that they give MS Word’s paperclip a hernia and then you take this new skill on a trip to Beijing to breathe in the yellow belch and spend six-months stapled to a sewing machine in a firetrap adding value to cloth where you’ll have the logo of one of the trendiest brands in the world tattooed on your head, which although whilst there it’s for easier asset-indexing, when you get home you’ll be so Luxury and Premium you’ll be envied.

Immersed in the Cilento
It’s worth remembering the basic writers retreat maths – the more expensive it is, the more likely you'll end up joining a cult. For example, a weekend in the Welsh valleys in a house ran by Pat who gives free critiques and if tipsy plays the piano will be a fun and rewarding experience, and just as important, it will have plenty of options for escape. But a fortnight in the mountains of Italy, say, "immersed in the Cilento, ran by two ex-hippy's Lars and Else” is just asking for trouble.

Infinity and Beyond
To sum up, the writers retreat is a place of tranquility, albeit more ‘whale-song CD’ than ‘snorting ketamine off an infinity symbol’. It is at the writers retreat that you can free yourself from persistent conscious agitation for form in every thought and … sorry that’s yoga. Writers retreats are there to bore you senseless and leave you with no excuse but to write.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Alternatively of course you could just to go to prison. You'll have desk, discipline and enough gritty realism to roll a cigarette with. Of course, I don't endorse any of Her Majesties Writers Retreats; going to one will look bad on your CV for when it comes to the DayJob. In fact most employers will, when they see written in the ‘experiences’ section ‘prison’ frown only slightly less than if they read under 'interests' 'reading/ creative writing'. At least prison shows you're not afraid to break the rules and, if rumours about shower time are true, that you have a team ethic. ‘Reading’ just means you sit alone in corners, and ‘creative writing’ that you're probably a woman.

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