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How a solo retreat helped trelight my creative fire
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How a solo retreat helped trelight my creative fire

As the windscreen wipers cut back and forth, and my house disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I wondered if I was going to cry. I tried reminding myself that I was on my way to do something lovely: I’d booked a three-night stay at a hotel in Devon to work on my novel: my first ever solo writing retreat.

I was driving away from a world of chaos, leaving my seven-year-old weeping at the front door, my nine-year-old worrying about a science project, my mother-in-law unexpectedly in hospital, and my husband juggling it all.

I’ve been away on my own before for book tours and literary festivals, but those trips have clearly been defined as “work”, because they were at my publisher’s behest. But a solo retreat felt extravagant in a way that made me feel thick with guilt.

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of a solo retreat. It sounded wonderful, but what if it didn’t suit me? I hadn’t spent three nights alone in a decade. I’m lucky if I finish a thought without being interrupted by one of my children. Would I get stage-fright and not be able to write a word? Would I feel lonely and guilty and cry in the car?

Well, yes. I could have chosen to attend an organised writing retreat, such as an Arvon course, where people gather to write and learn together, but it was the solo element of this adventure that appealed. My requirements were to find a quiet hotel near the sea where I could tuck myself away, undisturbed, and write.

When I arrived at Soar Mill Cove Hotel, I knew I’d found just the place. Nestled in a picturesque valley near Salcombe, it is steps away from the South West Coast Path. I was shown to a room with a simple desk and a comfy-looking chair set in front of wide glass doors that opened on to a view of the sea.

I unpacked and shuffled things around the room, setting up my laptop, selecting the music I’d write to, laying out my notebook and pen. There. Ready.

I eyed my laptop. I was there to work on my ninth thriller and, with a deadline fast approaching, I needed to get my head down and write.

I hadn’t set myself a word count target, because I think 100 good words are better than 1,000 bad. Instead, my aim for the three days was to sink deep into the world of the book and write from a place of connection, because for me, that’s when the best words come.

Sitting at my new desk, I opened the Word document of my manuscript and began. I felt oddly self-conscious, as if someone were watching over my shoulder. I tried muscling out some words. They were leaden, unyielding and stiff, but I forced them on to the page nonetheless. No flow state happening over here. I made myself keep at it for an hour, wondering why I’d come all this way to write badly when I could have done that at home.

I slumped back in my chair frustrated. The guilt rushed back in. I should be with my family. I shouldn’t be gallivanting off to Devon for a doomed date with my creativity. My gaze strayed to the view beyond those wide, glass doors. The rain had thinned and there was the sea, wind ruffled and heaving beneath blustering clouds. Maybe I could use a walk.

Having grown up near the coast, the sea has always been the place I go to clear my head. I set out, wandering through the damp valley until I reached a secluded cove. The tide was in, waves pounding against rock and flinging foam high into the air. The fizz and energy of the sea was infectious.

As I stood there, salt on skin, mind clearing, I realised that, for the next three days, my time was my own. My schedule wasn’t dictated by the rhythms of family life. I could walk when I felt like walking. Eat when I wanted to eat. Write when I wanted to write. The freedom felt giddying. I looked up to see the first slice of blue in the sky and a rainbow arching above the valley, ending – rather auspiciously – on my hotel room.

Buoyed up by the good omen, I headed back to my room and my waiting laptop and, this time, I really wrote. I felt connected and clear-headed, the guilt of coming away finally quietening. I didn’t leave my desk until dinner time.

The following morning, I woke early and discovered my very favourite thing about a solo writing retreat: that first cup of tea. You wake. You boil the kettle. You return to a scene you were writing the day before – and you haven’t had to talk to anyone. You haven’t had to sort out PE kits or brush anyone’s hair or make a packed lunch. It’s just you, the tea and your work in progress.

By afternoon, with several hours of words under my belt, I was ready to feel some weather on my face. I set out on the coast path, alone except for wheeling sea birds and a skittish herd of deer. I paused in the shelter of some rocks and took out my notebook, jotting down an idea about a plot problem I’d been wrestling with. Writing outdoors, with a view of endless horizon, felt like heart-soaring goodness.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the sanctuary of my room and discovered my next favourite thing about being on a solo retreat: room service. Two beautiful scones, thick with Devonshire cream and homemade raspberry jam, arrived minutes later. I’ve rarely been happier.

That evening, I opened the only book I’d brought with me on retreat, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, first published in 1955. The author, a mother of five, describes how she’d spend a stretch of time each year, alone at a cabin on the beach. There, she would write and think, and then return to her world and duties feeling restored. She writes: “There is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.”

I was starting to think she may be on to something. If, like me, you are working from home during a busy stage of family life, inspiration is often cut short by having to race off on the school run or attend to the dozens of other little tasks that make up parenting – so to have no interruptions for three days felt like I could light those flames and let them burn bright.

I chose to be offline during my retreat. No social media. No Google rabbit holes. No reaching to call a friend or turn on the television. I was also reassured to discover that I quite liked my own company. I talked to myself, laughed at myself, and was staggered by the number of hours there are in a day when they are all your own.

The feelings of guilt I set out with receded. I knew this had been valuable time. I’d written more in three days than I had in the previous three weeks. But it was never about output. It was about creating space, being quiet, sitting with myself and seeing what happened.

A solo retreat isn’t just for writers or artists or creatives. It is for anyone and all of us. A hotel may not suit your budget. Three days may feel like an impossibility. But carving out an hour on a regular basis, in a space you love, where you can sit and be still, might just be possible, right? I wonder what you’ll discover in the silence.

Five ways to get the most out of a solo retreat

Pick a location that inspires Choose a setting for your retreat that excites or inspires you. New environments stimulate our neural pathways and aid creativity.

Pare back communication Stay in touch if you need to, but a digital detox can be valuable for reducing distractions and creating space.

Pepper the day with pleasure This time is for you. Try asking, “What would I like to do?” rather than “What should I do?” Run a hot bath, take a leisurely walk, or order yourself a cocktail.

Accept all the feelings A retreat is rarely wall-to-wall inspiration. There will probably be moments of frustration or loneliness or distraction or guilt, so try to accept them and allow them to pass.

Aim for creativity over productivity No need to be overly ambitious with your goals. Taking a solo retreat is more about having the space to go deeper with your work, rather than the physical output. Think of it as topping up the tank.

Lucy Clarke’s latest novel, The Hike, is published by HarperCollins at £13.99. Buy it for £12.31 from guardianbookshop.com

Source: theguardian.com