Daring to go on my first writers’ retreat was the first time that I had dared to call myself a writer. I had gone in the hope of filling my days with writing, of writing new stories and coming up with new characters.
I spent most of the ten days on the Greek coast staring out to sea or lying in a hammock, listening to the crickets and birds, with regular breaks for homemade cake and glasses of wine.
In terms of physical creativity, it was very non-productive. But it did teach me that beautiful surroundings did not necessarily lead to instant inspiration.
The next writers’ retreat I went on was in the desert – and I was too overcome by the beauty and austerity to do anything more than write about how it made me feel. I wrote poetry again for the first time in twenty years. I cried at the sunset. I felt my soul scrubbed clean by the wind-scourged sand.
But trying to work on a novella, based in Edinburgh’s Old Town, was too foreign for these big blue-sky retreats.
I have come to learn that the warm sunny places of this word inspire me by themselves, and make me want to write about the experience of my senses, about how I fit into this alien world. I marvel at the effect the heat and constant sunshine has on me physically and emotionally. I note the different cadences of speech, the minutiae of daily life, the little new rituals which I follow. Most of all, I am entranced by the colours: a flash of vermilion, a splash of cerulean, a dash of heliotrope.
Drowned in colour, I find that I cannot create anything outwith the realms of my senses for toffee.
But in the cold dark parts of the world, I can immerse myself in a note book, in a blank page, and create new people, new circumstances, a new world. There must be something about the fact that in the north I cherish the crystal light, attune myself to the changes in the season, and seek warmth in front of a log fire or under a pile of feather quilts, which means that my mind can wander off by itself without the fear of missing something new.
In the final days of November last year, I went on a writers’ retreat in the north west of Scotland, to a place called Moniack Mhor, not far from Loch Ness. The daylight hours were short – the sun rose around 9am and it was dark by four in the afternoon.
For four blissful days, I drank pots of tea, ate cake, walked and took photographs. I met some fascinating writers with intriguing projects. But most of all, I wrote. I finally finished that novella I had failed to make headway with in the desert. I finished it to such an extent that it has crossed the threshold into novel-length territory.
I tried to sum up how writing in this place made me feel in this piece I wrote at the time. I tried to reflect on the familiarity of the landscape to me, my innate appreciation of it. How that I felt so much part of it, that it did not get in the way of my creating something new.
It is traditional for literature to describe winter in the north as some bleak, colourless drab entity. Yet I look around me here and see a technicolour landscape. Muted, of course, if compared to the high summer when the sun is shining and the air is clear, but colour none the less.
The earth is rich, coffee-stained, the grass is short and green, or long and golden. The hills are blue and purple, with white traceries of snow. Threes are red and silver and dark green, and the bracken gives russet footfalls to the hills.
In the day, the sky is kingfisher, or dove or crow. In the gloaming, it is mauve and lilac. Inbetween the day and the dusk, the sunset is scarlet and cramasie, tangerine and gold.
On other retreats in other countries, the colours have overtaken me. Colours so bold, so demanding that I can only write about my present state. I cannot focus on the fantasy of my written creation, only on the vibrant reality of my now.
But here, here the softer colours are part of the landscape, their essential cloak. Here I come with a novella and leave with a novel. The wrinkles and knots of the plot are smoothed out, character problems resolved, and dialogue flows.
Here my writing has taken over, has been allowed to stand and flourish. And the colours are beautiful.