I’ve done a couple of terrific Arvon courses over the years (one was when I was putting together my first full collection, Excisions, and the other was when it had just been published and I wanted to bump start some new writing) and I went with several writing mates for a week’s ‘writing retreat’ in Norfolk in 2007 – that was very productive, since I came home with the beginnings of the poem cycle ‘Self-portrait without Breasts’.
But I’ve never before just gone away on my own to a quiet place, unsupported, undirected, as I did for four days and nights this past week.
I chose Ripon Theological College because I’d read about the gorgeous new chapel there, and then discovered there are college rooms to let, with B&B at a reasonable rate, and meals in the College dining room too if you want to buy into them. Although I’m a lapsed Roman Catholic convert (what a journey…) and am no longer actively involved in formal Christianity, the idea of staying in a place that’s truly engaged with the life of the spirit really appealed to me early this year, so I booked in.
There were many aspects of my time at Ripon that worked out particularly well:
1. It was just me. Sometimes I like to be solitary. The days at Ripon were spent entirely on my own. I spoke to no-one, apart from exchanging a few polite words with people I passed on my walks or on the way back to my room.
2. I had chosen a little ‘flat’ which had its own kitchen and bathroom, and a large bed-sitting room. Perfect. I took all my meals (which were very simple, i.e. bread, apples, cheese, salad) on my own, in my space, so that I could continue reading, or thinking, or writing.
3. My room overlooked a 300-year-old copper beech tree. I stood at the window and stared at it for periods between doing other things. I found myself talking to it by day three. It talked back. These were interesting conversations.
4. The chapel was beyond the copper beech tree, across from my room. I could see it from my window. The bell was rung before every service and I could watch the sisters and the students come and go. I went to a beautiful service there the first evening, and at other times I let myself in and wandered or sat in the stunning light-filled space. It reminded me of Vézelay. At night the glass at the top of the chapel glowed with light from inside, as though the building had just landed from outer space or was about to take off.
5. My room had a desk with a proper chair, and joy of joys there was an Ethernet cable. I had read there was access to WiFi in certain parts of the College, but had resigned myself to not having the internet in my room. In fact I was delighted to find the wireful variety for my laptop. I do like to be able to look things up when I’m working, and I wanted to be able to work on my own in my cell. Perfect. I’m not sure I’d be able to do one of those ‘retreats’ where there’s no internet access. Perhaps it’s great for fiction writers who have all their writing planned out. I’m currently working on several projects for which I need to be able to rootle around on the internet. Even though I took a small library with me to Ripon, I had occasion to research plenty of things via the Ethernet cable.
6. Which brings me to social media. I am quite a user of Facebook, less of a user of Twitter. I didn’t ban either for the duration of my stay, but rather I took a vow of silence for as long as I was actually in my cell. Seemed reasonable. I allowed myself to post the odd post when I was out and about (photos taken on walks, mainly) but while I was in my cell, I was allowed very limited ‘read-only’ access. This worked for me. I was on my own after all, and it was good to drop in and see friends’ posts a couple of times a day, but I didn’t make comments. That was restful.
7. I was clear that I wasn’t there to make myself do anything I didn’t want to do. Especially guilt. I thought a lot, which I needed to; planned and plotted quite a bit, which I wanted to; read and listened a lot, which was wonderful – especially as I could be the book slut I am, and have several books on the go at once. And I wrote, but not under any pressure. In essence, I was kind to myself – there was no ‘You must do this now’ and there was certainly no timetable. I walked when the rain stopped, ate when I was hungry, went to bed when I was tired and got up when I was ready.
I’ve come back calm, recentred. Recalibrated, I want to say.