Thursday 30 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Final Part

The story of Assynt, the area in Scotland where the retreat was hosted, is a fascinating one. You can read more about that here.

The Assynt Foundation, who works with Top Left Corner, is doing some amazing things for the area.  You can read more about that here.

The history of the Vestey family is equally enthralling. You can read The Rise and Fall of the Vesty Family by Phillip Knightly (although I haven’t yet) or you can read more details here.

Lochinver and the surrounding area appears to be a mecca for creativity. There are artists for every discipline. Actually I don’t think this is limited to Lochinver. In Ullapool we met artists in the local tea shop. It seemed I was surrounded by them. I wanted to be one of them. Must be something in the water.

I’m not entirely sure how much of my transformation was due to the majesty of the scenery, the comfortableness of the lodge, or the stillness of the silence. I do, however, fundamentally believe that a large part of what I learned, what I took away, what I am becoming were the people who joined me on this voyage. I could not imagine having made this journey and travelling as far as I have without the benefit of having them along for the ride.

Obviously I could spend hours in the land of the hypothetical. Would it have been the same with another 12 people? Are all writers supportive and giving? Is the world full of really lovely people just waiting to be friends? Is this a byproduct of the retreat itself and a happy outcome for every Top Left Corner retreat?

I like to think we were special. We were unique. Somehow all the planets aligned and lightening struck in the same place more times than I can count. We are all still in touch. Many of us are on facebook. Some of us are sending emails. Some are only just returning from their extended travels abroad. We are planning on meeting up again during the year and with a little luck and a fair wind many of us will manage to bring ourselves back to the lodge at Lochinver and see what we can else we can accomplish.

In the meantime, I write. I don’t manage my morning pages every page when real life invades but on those days I can feel I didn’t do them. I’m cranky and grumpy and less able to be calm. I’m not writing my blog every day as despite the alarm going off at 5 am I am still just as good at turning it off. This post is a day late. I haven’t written a word on the novel for about 7 days which I’m ashamed of.

But what and who I have taken away with me will last me a lifetime and help me fulfill some of my lifelong dreams.  What more could I have asked for?   Oh, I know.....everyone will buy my book when it gets published!  LOL!!!!

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 5

But the end was nearing and I could feel it.

An unexpected bonus to the retreat was the expanded cast of characters who would enter our daily routine and enhance it in ways unimaginable with little unexpected opportunities to watch, listen, learn and embrace. One day we were treated to a visit from Helen who runs a lovely business dying her own wool for knitting. When she arrived with her tubs of yarn I had to resist just jumping in. Her skeins varied from delicate 2 ply to the big thick and chunky. The yarn had combinations of cashmere, mercona, alpaca. They all felt wonderful as they caressed your hands. The colours came from within Helen’s own imagination and largely echoed the vibrant nature outside the windows of the surrounding Assynt basin.

Or Phil who just occasionally joined us for a walk and as magically as he appeared, he would disappear.

Or Martin, an Iyengar yoga instructor with eye popping blue shorts, who had an exquisite command of every muscle and could move each in isolation of another. He urged me to hold poses for longer than I ever had and stretch my shoulders out way beyond the boundary of the Arctic Circle in a downward dog. And boy, I felt that stretch in the morning.

And John who greeted us and helped lug our bags about on the first awe struck evening, spent the first night with us and then vanished never to be seen from again.

But what had I really accomplished? My objectives were vague. I had always loved writing but felt that my writing lacked depth and was one dimensional. I had written a journal from the age of 9 until I was 36. For some reason I stopped when I met my husband and in the intervening 10 years have completely failed to pick it back up again. My blog was an outlet for a while but that too fell into disregard when I ran out of ideas. I suppose I needed to discover if there was more to my writing than just my day to day, self-indulgent capture and recapitulation of what happened in the last 24 hours.

I needed to discover if I had a creative bone in my body; if my imagination could soar with the eagles. If I had the power to move people with my words the way so many authors have done and continue to do for me when I read. Could I actually take all these ideas for novels, short stories, and journalism articles in my head and put them down on paper? And if I did would they be worth reading.

During the week I discovered that I could indeed get the words out of my head. In total I wrote more than 30,000 words not including my morning pages and my daily journal. I started my novel writing the plot arch, most of the character profiles and the first 4 chapters. I am very happy with how Chapter 1 reads although I am still tinkering. I wrote several professional articles which I am hoping to send into to professional journals. I wrote some more articles which I hope to get published in magazines. I wrote poetry! I’ve never written a poem in my life but somehow the people, the place eeked the words from me and they landed on the page resembling something that vaguely resembles a poem. I’ve submitted it to the Royal Berkshire Poetry Competition. It won’t win but I did it.

I write my morning pages most mornings. I’ve skipped them a couple times since I’ve been back and I can feel that impact the rest of the day; my state of mind is distracted and grumpy. I am forcing myself up out of bed at 5:45 in the morning to make sure I have time before work, children, the rest of my life invades this precious space.

I’ve written quite a few lengthy blog posts which you know if you are reading this. I’ve loved writing about it. I cannot recommend this retreat highly enough if you, like me, harbor a desire to write, or just want to see what is in that other side of your brain.

Work continues on the novel. I’ll be sure to keep you updated.

I can only imagine the sheer scale of Mandy’s exhaustion when we waved goodbye as she stood in the purple doorway. I can’t remember ever feeling the conflict of emotions as we pulled away and headed back to our other lives, our other selves, the other side of our brains.

I’ve struggled to find the left side of my brain since I’ve gotten home. My education and professional life seems to have sent that part of me into a long enforced silence. Now that the best has been awakened from its winter sleep I don’t want it to go back to bed but equally I don’t think I can do my job solely from the right side. I am trying to integrate the two.

For now, I’m a writer who just happens to also be an IT Manager by day.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 4

There is earth, wind, fire and water. And then there is Mandy Haggith. She is the fifth force of nature. And nuture. She is tiny but do not for one minute think she is weak. She is strong like a hurricane is strong. And then she is as gentle as a duckling’s feather.

She is passionate about the environment and has written a fabulous book called Paper Trails about the lifecycle of paper from trees to trash. Everything she says or does includes nature. She can’t help it. Several days during the week we were given opportunities to join Mandy on a walk. You got the impression that she was going even if no one went with her so you might as well join in. Some walks were long and others were just in front of the lodge. You never knew where she might take you. But one thing that never failed was her ability to ignite your sense of wonder, heighten every sense in your body like when you were a child doing and seeing everything for the very first time. She took me to places I never knew existed inside and outside of myself.

When she speaks with you she is so thoughtful and considerate. You never get the feeling she wants to interrupt you. Or hurry you along. She just absorbs you and ignites your passion in writing, in poetry, in nature, in people.

The exercises during the week were always optional. There were no rules except to be respectful of one another which just sounded like common sense to me. Mandy held a stream of consciousness writing session at 10 each morning. Some people came to all of them, 1 person came to none of them, others mixed it up a bit. These were followed a few times by writing exercises meant to get your brain thinking inside, outside, and all around the box with the ultimate goal of encouraging and enhancing your writing input and output.

I suppose at some point I could have doubted that any or all of it would work. But that wasn’t why I was there. My logical, left side of the brain told me you are all in, darlin’, give it all you got to give it or just go home with your head hangin’. That left side of the brain sometimes speaks with a Texan accent, just so you know.

So I threw myself all in. Three or four times during the week the afternoons were punctuated with “walks”. Mandy’s definition of a walk is quite broad. One day this was a wonder out around the front garden seeing, feeling, squashing, tasting (yes, eating). I fear a few of us were expecting something bigger (like a climb up the glorious and ominous Suilven mountain) but what an unexpected pleasure to find us just wandering around in front of the lodge and finding wonder so close to where we were. You mean I don’t have to go far to find inspiration? Gee, that never ever occurred to me.

One day’s walk did push me up the side of a mountain. We didn’t go all the way to the top just to the bothy. Bothy? “What the heck is a bothy?” I hear you say (if you’re not Scottish). I just went along with it and had a certain feeling in my bones that I would know it when I saw it. The walk started out easy if a bit muddy. But I had my hiking boots on so I was appropriately kitted out. There was something satisfying in getting the boots well and truly covered in the mud. And then the walk took a more sinister turn and we were walking up some steep bits but again the path seemed to have a staircase of stone placed there by the power of nature made especially for me to simply walk up. I was gasping for air but not because I was out of shape (ok, a little bit of that) but more because the views across the landscape were literally breathtaking. Who could have guessed that the world looked like that from there?

I was sweating like a stuffed pig. I had packed for the cold, wet Scottish weather everyone had warned me about and didn’t really bring any T-shirts with me. Plus this was a walk out into the wilderness and I’d read all the alarming literature about being prepared for the weather to change at a moment’s notice. The trouble was the sun was beating down on us and I was trying to keep pace with the keener walkers in the pack. These people walked for fun and entertainment. I walk when my car breaks down. Nope, don’t walk then either. I ring a taxi.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take another step a stone structure appeared before me. So, this is a bothy. The skies had suddenly turned dark and ominous and the heavens began to spit on us. As we went entered the bothy, the heavens opened up and it rained and hailed like I’ve never seen it before. Actually, like I’ve never heard it before. The bothy has a tin roof and when the squall convinced me a military fighter jet was hovering above. We broke out our packed lunches all individually packed at the lodge that morning. In my backpack I had tucked away a tin of sardines, some crackers, a wedge of cheese, some dried apple crisps, a pear and a Green & Black’s bar of chocolate. Mandy had brought some ginger beer for us all to share. It was the best picnic I’ve ever had. We talked about the sources of our inspiration and what blocks our creativity. We all signed the bothy book which is like a guest book and packed up our rubbish to take it back down the mountain. As we stepped outside, miraculously/magically the storm stopped and the sun won the battle against the darkness. The path was a lot muddier, the puddles a lot bigger and where there had been small trickles of stream large waterfalls where thundering down the mountain.

Returning to the lodge was easier than I expected and I found myself marching like a soldier headed home. I have no idea where this reserve of energy came from but I was turbo powered. But the real magic happened in the way Mandy chatted to each and every one of us about our lives and our relationship to writing. She was interested in each and everyone of us in our own, her own special way. When she listened to you, she gave you every ounce of her attention. When she gave you advice it was constructive and supportive and imminently relevant and useful.

Just as we stepped on to the slate stones of the lodge porch the rain started to spit down on us once again as if mother nature had grown weary of keeping the threatening weather at bay. We’d only been gone a few hours but it seemed like a lifetime. By body ached and my brain had an electricity storm of its own going on. I went to my room, changed into my cozy tartan slanket with feet. I returned to the lounge and sunk into a big leather chair with my book and began to read.

Next thing I knew a gentle hand was on my knee giving me a little wobble and a soft voice was asking me if maybe I wanted to get changed for dinner. I was slightly alarmed to find that the sun had set and people were gathering in the lounge for pre-dinner drinks. When I went to sit up it was clear that my body was not in an entirely happy place. There was no way I was going to be moving any more than was absolutely necessary. I went to dinner in my slanket. Then I went to bed. And then I went to sleep like a bear out for the full count of winter.

Which was in fact the exception to the rule. I had visions of wasting away my precious writing time with sleeping and reading. As a mother I find it difficult to carve out me time to sleep in on the weekend mornings or just laze about in the evenings with a good book. I was fearful that my sleep deprivation would catch up with me or the books I was reading (Dark Fire by C.J. Sansome and Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld) would prevent me from focusing on my real mission of writing. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

On more occasion than I would like to admit, we would finish our after dinner readings and sharings, each made our own way to our own room. My brain would be full of everything I never knew was in there. I would sit down at the computer and the words would just tumble out of me. And it wasn’t just me. During the nights when the house turned quiet and the fire had died down a casual observer might have thought that everyone had gone to sleep. What they couldn’t appreciate was that our brains just didn’t turn off. Like a freight train hurtling at us without any brakes our minds would unleash themselves on to our laptops and we would frantically write to keep up with the avalanche of words coming out of us. It was like everything that Mandy said and everything that Mandy did and every word we heard and every emotion we’d ever felt purge when the silence of night descended. Nearly every one of us experienced the nighttime energy and produced seminal works in the wee small hours of the morning.

This was so much more than I could have expected, planned , hoped, dreamed, prayed, begged.  And it wasn’t over yet.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 3

We were the last to arrive. We could hear voices coming from somewhere else in the house. John announced our arrival and after putting our luggage down he went looking for Mandy. The three of us stood there smiling at each other not yet having found our comfort zone.

Mandy bounded into the foyer. She looked exactly like I expected her to look but that was because we had cheated and she had friended me on Facebook the day before my departure from civilisation. She showed the three of us to our rooms and John helped us with our suitcases. We were told to meet in the lounge in 10 minutes.

1o minutes? Who does anything in 10 minutes? OK, so no long hot soak in the great big huge bath tub which could have doubled as a hot tub for 6. No splashing cold water on my face or freshening up my makeup. They were going to have to love me or leave me.

I took a quick survey of my room. The walls were a gorgeous periwinkle, cornflower blue. There were two single beds but only one of them had sheets. There were two pillows on each bed and they were huge. This is a good sign. I was slightly alarmed when I saw that the writing desk of my dreams was actually a folding table and the view of inspiration was actually out the back of the house. I had a not so lovely view of a dog run and small rubbish tip. Uh, not exactly what I expected.

I knew that I had booked late. In fact, I think I got the last spot available. Yes, I had planned this way back in April but it suddenly occurred to me when we were on holiday in Cornwall in July that I had completely failed to complete and return the booking form along with my payment. When we got home from holidays I rang Mandy in a panic and she said I could have the very last room. I knew room allocations were on a first come first serve basis and that my room would not be the one with the best view. I took solace in the fact that I had my own bath and toilet so didn’t need to share. But in that one moment, I felt a pang of disappointment.

I raced downstairs after hang up my higgly piggly wardrobe for the week thinking to myself I must have been drunk when I packed and in fact discovered I had not packed enough knickers (underwear) for the week. I was sincerely hoping no one would notice.  I was nervous to meet the others.  Who were they?  And what were they doing here?  Were they going to be authors and professionals who felt my sophomoric attempts at putting my thoughts to paper were ridiculous and more appropriate for a pre-school class?  Would I be able to write anything at all?

A fire roared in the lounge where we gathered only long enough to introduce ourselves but somehow this set the scene for everything beautiful that was to follow. We settled into the big soft brown leather sofas and all of these strangers proceeded to introduce themselves with honesty and vulnerability. They opened up about why they were here and showed us a tiny glimpse inside their souls. I immediately thought this is going to be good.

We were a diverse group but similar in so many ways. Of the 12 of us, only 1 was a man, 3 were Americans (including myself although I was the only one living in the UK; the other 2 had travelled all the way from the good ole US of A to be there), we ranged in age from 41 to 81, 2 of us had lived in Colorado (me and one of the Brits). We had a painter, a geologist, a psychologist, a sociologist, a nurse, a taxi driver, a runner and a hypnotherapist. We were cat lovers and dog lovers and animal lovers. Some had no children, some had children grown and some had children growing. And whilst our groups commonalities twisted and turned the one thing we all had in common was that we wanted to write. We wanted to write like we wanted to breathe.

After a few bottles of wine and the smells from the kitchen had wafted under our noses, we were summoned to the dining room where we enjoyed the first of many down home cooked meals (in the Scottish way) courtesy of the treasured Christine and Tina. Every night, these two lovely ladies prepared a home cooked meal with tender loving care. We ate homemade soups (carrot & coconut being my personal favourite), lasagna, fish pie, chicken curry, venison and cranberry stew and steak pies. We even ventured into true Scottish territory and had ourselves some haggis, neeps (mashed turnips) and creamed potatoes. We enjoyed gorgeous homemade puddings including a cheesecake that was simply out of this world.

After dinner we waddled our way back to the lounge, stoked up the fire and got ourselves cozy. If you felt like reading something you had written, then you were welcome to read it out. If you wanted feedback the feedback was honest but supportive and kind. If you didn’t want to read, well, you just simply didn’t read. No pressure. No judgement. No ill will.  During these sessions we laughed and we cried (just a tiny bit) but mostly we listened.  We listened with the rapt attention of a mother watching her child take their first steps.

And then the magic happened.

Friday 24 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 2

My mad dash for the taxi queue sent travelers scurrying out of my way and I hurled myself at the poor driver, grabbed his arm and promised him the world and all my money if he could get me into the centre of Inverness in the next 20 minutes. The bus station was 15 kilometers from the airport and I convinced myself I would hold my breath for the entire journey if that would reduce our drag and make us go faster. God knows, the taxi driver needed all the help he could get as he proceeded to pour out his life story to me: 4 children from 4 women and he was only 47 and didn’t I think he looked a lot younger. He didn’t seem to want my world or need my money. I snarled a speech about STDs and appropriate use of birth control. I have never wished more that I carried condoms in my handbag than I did at that moment. OK, that’s not entirely true.

Just as we rounded the corner for the station, I had a major panic attack that I had left my wallet on the counter at the airport Starbucks when I thought I had all the time in the world to enjoy a coffee as I strolled to the bus and sat back on my relaxing 1 hour bus journey. Instead I was clutching the cup as I jumped out of the taxi whilst it was stopped at a red traffic light and heaved open the boot of the taxi and started rifling through the various pockets. The poor taxi driver was speechless as he stood next to me watching me meltdown. Some of you may remember I certain trip I took a few months ago to Zurich when after enjoying a full day of polo with even fuller glasses of champagne being quaffed nonstop for nearly 6 hours I thought I accidentally left my card in the cash point machine (ATM) at the Zurich airport. I couldn’t find it when I checked into the hotel and in blind panic rang home for bank numbers and card numbers, then rang the bank and got it all cancelled before realizing I then had no way to check out of the hotel which did eventually let me check out using a debit card. The one bit of the story I haven’t exactly gone public with is that I hadn’t left the card in the cash point at all. In my drunken stupor, I had put the card in a secret stash pocket of my wallet where I had never before ventured and whilst searching for a pound for parking months later happened upon the card thinking to myself, how the hell did that get there? Stayed tuned to the very end of this long and winding road to find out about the latest adventures of my wallet.

Needless to say, my wallet was in the top pocket of my suitcase which is the home I had given it in light of EasyJet’s ban on handbags. Even women are allowed only one carry on which means that if you have a suitcase to carry on you must put your handbag or the contents of your handbag inside your suitcase. Do they know how difficult and disruptive this is? Do they care? Nuff said.

I jumped back into the taxi and apologized for being a wee bit crazy. I knew he was thinking “a wee bit”? He drove to the other side of the road and couldn’t get me out of his taxi fast enough as I threw copious wads of money at him. 15 kilometers in 15 minutes, life story of sexual irresponsibility, near catastrophic public meltdown in the middle of Inverness all for the low low price of £27. Who could ask for anything more? And this was just day 1.

Considering my lack of experience with bus stations, I found the right bus with surprisingly little difficulty despite the fact that I don’t think I properly pronounced the city of my destination, Ullapool, which is where I needed to change buses. The blessed driver even agreed to postpone his departure until I returned from the toilet. Phew. After that coffee, I was bursting and I was scared to death of being trapped on a bus with no loo for the next 2 hours and no access to facilities.

The bus wasn’t completely crowded but there were enough people partaking in the joys of public transport that I felt very green. The seat next to me was empty so unpacked my handbag which was inside my suitcase and started moving things around making my handbag much more useful. I was tweeting and facebooking until my fingers ached anticipating imminent disconnection from the grid. I surreptitiously sized up my fellow passengers looking for the two women, Kristen and Rhoda, who I had guessed would be on the same bus as I but I couldn’t spot anyone that looked like a writer. Besides, most of my fellow passengers had fallen fast asleep complete with drool down the side of their mouth and even one (perhaps two) rumbling snore(s). So, this is Scotland? I was so jazzed up on my caffeine and the adrenalin rush from the taxi journey I couldn’t even manage a yawn.

The sights outside the window were by far more compelling than my fellow traveling companions. I was soon mesmerized by the landscape passing me by. Somehow I had missed the news bulletin announcing how beautifully stunning this landscape is. All I had heard was that it rained all the time and the midges/mosquitos were evil. So far I had seen nothing other than glorious big blue skies (with some very dramatic clouds) and not a single midge had taken an ounce of flesh off me. So, THIS is Scotland!

The bus driver didn’t really announce any stops and there wasn’t an electronic billboard announcing the next stop so I was hoping it would be obvious when it was time to disembark. Since the bus stopped at Ullapool Pier and was returning to Inverness I made an educated guess that now might be the time to get off. No sooner had I got my luggage and walked round that bus than the next bus appeared.

It seems that time is a wee bit elastic in Scotland. Our bus to Lochinver was scheduled to depart at 4:52 but at 4:55 we were still sitting there. I thought maybe someone had gone to the toilet and we were waiting for them which was only kind considering they done it for me. But at 5:05 we were still sitting there. I resisted my standard mode of operation which would have been to go up and find out what was going on. I figured I had no place to be by any specific time so no skin off my back. You have no idea how liberating that was! Soon another bus arrived and a whole bunch of people got off that bus and got on to our bus. Seems there is a ferry in Lochinver and if our bus had left those people would have been stranded for the night away from their home. Waiting is not a bad thing.

But apparently being late is. The bus driver decided this was his opportunity to practice his Formula1 skills: twisting, turning, up, down, oncoming traffic be damned even if that is a lorry. Thoughts began to race through my mind: I think I’ll just close my eyes, no, that won’t work, oh god, that was a really bad idea, I think I’m going to be sick, hang on, you are going to fall into the lap of the old man with a flat cap, perhaps I shouldn’t have sat at the front of bus, oh dear those suitcases are flying, that suitcase is going to fall on me, ouch, that’s gonna leave a bruise, this may just be the end of my life, is my will up to date?

Every now and again the bus driver would stop and let someone out. Once a young, fiery red haired, Irish girl in her twenties hoisted her backpack up on to her back whilst the bus was still moving (that impressed the hell out of me) and got off when the driver stopped. I don’t know how he knew that was where she wanted to get off. And I don’t know where she was going. It had started to drizzle rain. She had no coat on. There were no cars waiting for her. There were no buildings anywhere around, only a road that headed off to the west disappearing over a hill.

I didn’t have much time to ponder her fate as I watched her disappear and the ride of my life resumed. Every couple of miles the bus would come to a stop and left off a few passengers. As the population of passengers diminished I noticed that the bars on my mobile phone had greatly diminished and I had little mobile phone signal. It didn’t really matter anyway because I didn’t dare release my grip on my seat to type out a witty text, status update or tweet. I couldn’t bear to look out the window and witness the landscape racing past me like my life before my eyes. I began to surreptitiously inspect the stragglers. Who on this bus looked like a Kristen? A Rhoda? I’ve never met a Rhoda although I’ve seen one on television. What does a writer look like? What does someone who would go on a writer’s retreat look like? I was only entirely sure that I didn’t have a clue and no one looked like they were looking for a LaDawn.

I saw the sign indicating we had arrived in Lochinver but instead of the blind good luck I’d had in Ullapool, it became clear that there was more than one stop in Lochinver and I couldn’t remember which one I needed. Before the driver could put his pedal to the metal, I raced to the front of the bus and asked if he knew where I was to get off for where I was going. He asked me where I was going.

It was at this point that I realized I didn’t know how to pronounce Glencanisp and that all I really knew was that I was going on a writer’s retreat to meet a woman named Mandy who ran a organisation named Top Left Corner. None of this came out of my mouth in any coherent way so that another human being could make any sense of it. Maybe he wasn’t really human in the way Lewis Hamilton can’t really be human. But he appeared to understand me and mumbled something that vaguely sounded like “next one” so I returned to my seat not feeling any better informed.

At this point, having revealed myself as the bus idiot, Rhoda and Kristen revealed themselves as fellow retreaters. Before we knew it, the bus had stopped again and the driver was mumbling something which sounded vaguely like “this is your stop” but could have just as easily have been “get off my bus you stupid women”. All three of us remained seated. OK, so they couldn’t understand him either. At this point he raised his voice and told us to get off the bus. Well, perhaps not those exact words but definitely words to that effect.

The trio retrieved their luggage and fell off the bus and looked for a woman named Mandy. There was no woman here but at least the rain had stopped. When only a man was in the car park I was certain there was a mistake and was ready to get back on the bus. But he introduced himself as John and asked if I was LaDawn, Rhoda or Kristen. He relieved of us our belongings and packed it all into the back of his estate car (station wagon).

Rhoda was very persistent that we stop almost as soon as we started to pop into a shop. She wanted wine and with my trip having frazzled every nerve ending, I felt that a bottle or 7 wouldn’t go astray. I also knew that the arrangements were that we were responsible for providing our own alcohol although the joining instructions had indicated wine would be provided on the first night. I didn’t want to risk running out either. I sided with Rhoda.

We crossed the road to the local Spar and whilst I bought a single bottle of wine, I was impressed when Rhoda purchased a bottle of gin. Kristen had a good nose around the shop but didn’t feel the urge for intoxication courage.

My mobile phone had lost any and all single at all as soon as we turned down the single track road towards the lodge. The sun was beginning to set and dusk was upon us. We were surrounded by breath taking scenery and were able to introduce ourselves properly to each other.

Soon we pulled up in front of the lodge. The door was purple. Who paints a door purple on a grand and genteel lodge? I hadn’t expected a purple door and now everything I thought I might find behind that door was pulled into question. What was I going to find behind that purple door? Who was I going to find behind that purple door? It started to rain and John opened the door and we stepped in.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Writer's Retreat - Part 1

I've been blocked. Just in case you have missed the bloomin' obvious I haven't posted to this site since April and even before then the frequency of my blog posts was in serious decline. I think I made some excuses about not having enough time but whilst that was certainly a factor it wasn't like the day suddenly had less than the 24 hours it had always had.

I believe I stopped writing because I didn't know what to say and I didn't know how to say what I did want to say.

I've always harboured a deep desire to be a writer, not just a blogger but a fully fledged, card carrying, published in paperback, want to see people carrying my novel around type of writer. I don't want to be famous like JK Rowling but known to my readers like Lionel Shriver or Ian McEwan: unrecognised on the street but moved to tears and/or laughter by their words.

So I finally decided to stop letting my dreams be jut dreams and trust in myself to make them a reality. But carving that time out of the chaos of my life is not only difficult, I found it quite simply impossible. I've got a full time career which to be fair has pretty much defined me for all of my adult life. I've got a husband who needs and deserves more of my attention. I've got 2 amazing children who I don't play with as much as I would like or should. I've got a high degree of commitment to my friends and communities which make it painful to say no when they need me.

This past year I have been plagued by pneumonia, back pain, weight gain, stress and general fatigue and when it all got to much I decided it was time for me to stop saying no to me and stop depositing some serious investment into my well being, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

I am back on the treadmill of losing weight. I've lost 14 pounds so far and the battle continues. I've set myself some aggressive targets but also some whopping big rewards. but the weight is a symptom not the problem. I needed to dig a bit deeper.

I decided to escape into the wilds of the northwest corner of Scotland. I haven't been to Scotland much having only been to Edinburgh twice for short weekend jaunts. This is most certainly the furthest north I've ever been in Great Britain since there isn't much more north to go before falling off into the North Sea. And the west coast is littered with only islands requiring boat, ferry, surf board which was perhaps a step too far for me this time.

I started my research back in April and decided a wee small chunk of my bonus would be spent on a Writer's Retreat. I had no idea what a writer's retreat was or what you did or what to expect. In fact, I found great difficulty in packing. Normally, I can get myself packed for a trip in under 30 minutes. But for days I circled the luggage struggling to come to terms with the dress code. What do writer's wear? What is their uniform of choice? Did I need high heels and a ball gown? Would I be allowed to wearing my pajamas all day long? At 2 am I surrendered and threw random items into my suitcase and hoped I was appropriately booted and suited.

Normally, the obsessive part of my personality ensures that I research any new venture with relentless energy and focus. I buy books about the subject. I speak to experts. I take classes. I do google searches until the wee hours of the morning. Nothing is approached without the full spectrum of the latest research committed to memory. But not with my writing.

I think writing is something you are rather than something you learn or do. I've always written and long time fans of this blog have commented on more than one occassion that I sure used to have a lot to say. But I knew that I wanted to add some dimensions and depth to my writing and I certainly didn't have a clue where to start to get the novel out of head and on to a page.

Lat Saturday, the alarm went at 5 am. I showered, dressed, agonised over what and how many books a writer takes to a retreat. Shouldn't I be reading rather than writing? But I couldn't help myself as I picked out 4. Just how much reading could one do in 7 days? A lot, if that writer couldn't write, I reckoned.

The children were eased out of their slumber bribed with the promise of a McDonald's breakfast and deposited in the car. Abigail couldn't decide if missing me was a good thing or a bad thing.

Whenever I've flown out of Luton airport, we've parked the car at the long stay and taken the bus to the departures hall. But Marc had to go round the round abouts several times before we figured out where to drop me. As I exited the car and unloaded the suitcases from the boot, I dropped the book I was carrying and it started to rain. I was trying to kiss the children and my husband goodbye, pull 2 small suitcases and keep the book and magazine from getting wet whilst trying to get the hood of my coat over my head and stay out of the way of impatient fellow travelers more eager than I invading the space behind me. I could hear the frustration in their sighs. I nearly started to cry. What was I doing? Why was I doing this? This was crazy and I had clearly lost the plot.

I entered the safety of the departures hall and found comfort in the predictability of an airport. I know what to do when I see an arrow pointing at Departures. I approached the desk, handed the small man with the perfect haircut my passport (photo id, not because I was leaving a country) and the boarding card I had printed out at home. I heaved one suitcase on to the belt becoming aware that my carry on was much heavier than my checked luggage which seemed wrong on so many levels.

I received my boarding pass back and made my way to the departure lounge to wait. I had managed to get a pretty good deal on my flight from EasyJet and I was trying to focus on the positive aspects of money saved as it became clear that the scheduled time of departure was clearly not going to be met. I don't know why I always expect EasyJet to do as they say they will. They never have in the past so why should they start that day?

Amazingly, despite a 30 minute delay in boarding the passengers, everyone was on board and we headed north landing 15 minutes before our scheduled arrival time. Clearly we passed through some space and time continuum because we almost landed before we took off with no time zone changes. Or I had already lost touch with reality and all concept of time, which is entirely possible.

There is only one building at Inverness Airport, one gate, one luggage carousel, one Starbucks (hurrah!). I had a 4 hour wait for my bus to Ullapool so I made myself comfy and immersed myself in technology fully aware that before nightfall I would be off the grid. Where I was headed had no mobile phone reception, no wi fi, no internet, no connection to the wider world other than a landline phone which I was entirely convinced I still knew how to use.

I lost track of time in twitter, facebook, hotmail, text messaging, my book, my magazine, my thoughts, my head. With about 30 minutes to go before the bus departure I decided to enquire about where and how I might purchase a bus ticket to Ullapool at the Information booth. Politely, the lady informed me that I couldn’t get there from here. My nervous breakdown was unfolding before her very eyes as I realised it was a very real possibility that I would miss the only transport that day to Lochinver and the gateway to my dreams.