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What I learned on Retreat

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I’m back in Edinburgh after a month writing in Italy. In a week’s time I launch my second picture book, The Grouse and the Mouse. I’m moving house the following weekend. So I’ve gone from having no urgent agenda to having a long and urgent to do list. It feels a bit overwhelming. So I thought I’d write about my retreat to try to take some of the lessons learned back to everyday life.

What were the best things about being on retreat?

1) Time to reflect

Sometimes we’re so busy doing things, we forget to look up and think. Here’s some cherries I spotted above me on a walk. To remind me to stop and look up.

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2) Wild Swimming

I was with Ali (week two retreat buddy) and we weren’t planning to swim. We were walking along a river through the valley with mountains on either side of us. Every now and then there was a roar of a small waterfall and we trecked through the undergrowth to find it’s source. One of these waterfalls had hollowed out a natural pool – it was so perfect I decided I was going in. Ali said she would come back another day – when she had swimwear. I undressed and spent a while procrastinating – apologising for my too small pants (so I had a builders bum). I sat on a rocky ledge with my feet in the water willing myself to be brave enough to jump. It was freezing. Ali got so bored of me counting to three and not actually jumping that she decided she might as well join me. Also apologising for her not-the-best underwear. And we jumped in. It was amazing – freezing cold followed by that tingling I-am-alive warmth. So this is to remind me to go for it. You might not always have the right clothes (or be ready) but sometimes it’s good to take a leap.

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Read about wild swimming adventures closer to home in Scotland here.

3) Walking in the mountains

There’s something so calming about time and space outside in nature. I know I don’t live in the mountains, I live in Edinburgh but I live by the sea. I can go for walks there. The highlands aren’t far away.

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John Muir says this better than I could:

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(taken from Tales from Our Wild Park)

So this is to remind me to go outside.

4) Retreat buddies

Being creative brings joy and life. But it’s also lonely and scary. The act of creating is taking a risk, the act of sharing it with others puts you in a vulnerable position. But if you don’t take that risk, you won’t get the feedback you need to improve or know if you’re on the right track. So one thing I loved was sharing work on retreat. I shared writing with Sian (week three retreat buddy – that’s me and her below). I enjoyed being useful and constructive and encouraging to her and her feedback helped me massively to work on and improve my work.

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With week two buddy Ali, we swam and walked lots as well as doing some drawing. One afternoon we were walking along a path where a whole load of butterflies were drinking from some puddles. As we walked they took off – around 40 butterflies flying all around us as we passed through their puddles. It was like a film. Here’s one of Ali’s drawing’s from the retreat. It makes me think of moments like the butterflies – the magic of retreat:

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So this is to remind me to not create in isolation, artists need other artists.

5) Food and sunshine

It was also really lovely to have someone to share meals with and we took it in turns to make food for each other. I loved the food – it was all so fresh that everything we cooked tasted amazing! It was lovely to have sunshine too.

What were the worst things about being on retreat?

1) Insects

I got so many bites. They itched. I took pictures but I don’t think you want to see them.

2) Being propositioned

You say you’re not interested and that you have a boyfriend they say “why is he not here?” and “you should finish with him”. You say you need to get on with your work they say “you have been working for three hours already, I have been watching you. When will you stop working and go for a drink with me?!” and so on. It gets very tiring. Especially when you’re on your own and you’re trying to work and they won’t leave your table.

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3) Heat

It was a bit too hot. Like at night in the last week it was too hot to sleep. So that made me less productive in the day.

4) Being cut off

There was wifi every now and then at the cafe in the square. And in some ways – that was great. I was less contactable and this gave me time and space. I wanted to write without the distractions of every day life and work. But there were some proofs for a book that was going to print and it needed to be looked over. And my time slots for the Green Man Festival needed to be finalised. I needed to check in for my flight home. I had to send a list of email addresses for book launch invites to go out. And so on. So when I needed to do something it often took a few days because I was waiting for wifi to work – so I guess not being able to be distracted properly became a distraction.

5) Loneliness

I was on my own week one and week four. I started to find it hard to cope near the end of week one. Partly because of point 2 above and partly because I was trying to deal with a challenging situation in the UK and partly because I was in a village with no-one to talk to in my own language. Here’s one of the stray cats from the village demonstrating how I felt:

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And do you know what I did eventually? I wrote a blog I’d never publish and sent it to a few friends and I told them how I was feeling. I asked if people could say some encouraging things or funny things because I needed cheering up. And they did. I was sent cat photos and dancing videos and emails from people who shared how lonely they’d felt on retreat and cheery texts and words of advise and one friend called me. It was so good to actually speak to someone! And thanks to that and texts and emails, I knew I wasn’t alone and that people cared and it totally cheered me up. And I realised I was really lucky to have such lovely friends and lucky to have an opportunity in a beautiful place to do some writing. So this cat is to remind me, if you’re feeling rubbish and alone it’s okay to ask for help.

Did I get work done?

Yes. I wrote a middle grade novel (for age 6 – 9 years) I first started on retreat two years ago. It’s about an otter who’s an artist. Many of the experiences I had while I was out walking became part of the novel. I also rewrote a couple of picture books I first began six years ago, one about a frog and one about a worm. And I did some sketches for another book I’m writing. And wrote a first draft for a version of sleeping beauty (with cryogenic freezing) that I’ll be performing at Unbound at Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Would I do it all over again?

Yes definitely, but I’d prefer to do it here, in Scotland.

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Posted by on July 10, 2015 in Events, illustration, nature, Writing

 

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Making Space in Italy

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I’m staying here, in the mountains in Italy for a month. I’m on a writing retreat. I’ve been here a few days now and I’ve been thinking about what it means to have space and slow down.

Claudia
I was working in the piazza earlier in the week when a girl asked to draw in my notebook. She was about five and her name was Claudia.

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She started her drawing with a line at the top and bottom of the page. She smiled at me and I said “very good” in Italian. She continued to draw a figure at the bottom of the page. She explained it was her and she wrote her name. I smiled and went to take my notebook back. She pulled it back and started another picture on the next page, with a line at the top and bottom. She explained in Italian, this was her friend Bernadette:

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She turned the page and explained she now needed to draw Stephanie. At this point I turned the page back and pointed to the space above her self portrait. She could draw Stephanie there.

She shook her head and smiled and turned the page again. I turned it back. There was loads of space and this was the only notebook I had. 

She said something Italian in a loud annoyed voice and shook her head. So I said okay and she turned the page and grinned. She left a page defiently and grinned again before drawing Stephanie. And then she left me to play with her friends.

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We All Need Space
And I realised the thing she wanted was space. It was part of the picture. Yeah there was room to squeeze Stephanie into her first drawing but she wanted to use more pages. That’s why she marked out the top and bottom first – the whole page was part of the picture, space included. And even at five,  she wasn’t going to let anyone take the space from her.

Boundaries
When we’re busy our space gets less and less. We’re not always good at drawing lines to mark our boundaries like Claudia did. We squeeze things into every gap and we miss out on the space in life.

Space to rest. Space to think. Space to create. Space to notice others. Space to love. Space to be.

I had an email from my literary agent Lindsey earlier today. It was reminding me that I had the luxury of time and space. Normally I’m writing to deadlines, this trip was something different. Lindsey said:

give yourself room to breathe

So I’m going to try to do that here. I’m listening to Lindsey and I’ll try to be like Claudia, the kid I met who used lots of pages and knew she needed space.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2015 in illustration, Writing

 

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The Skiff World Championship

If you were on a writing retreat in Ullapool and it happened to be the Skiff World Championship you’d join in a little wouldn’t you?

Today I swapped my pen for an oar when the Portsoy Skiffettes offered me a row. My friend Chris (he’s rowing for Newburgh) told them I’d never been on a skiff. “This lassie wants a shot!” someone shouted and they quickly assembled an experienced cox and three experienced rowers and soon after we headed out in their hot pink skiff.

I’ve been in a rowing boat but this was different. The oars are much longer and you just have one each. I needed to watch the oar ahead of me and time my oar to hit the water at just the same time. You have a seat each so the oars are staggered. I loved it, my arms are aching a little now but that’s a good thing. Here we are afterwards, that’s me in the green:

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The Portsoy Skiffettes built their own boat, just like the other teams here. They explained it’s a community boat that brings people of all ages and backgrounds together. The World Championship has heats for over 40s, over 50s and over 60s so it’s something people enjoy well into retirement.

I must confess this afternoon’s row isn’t the first bit of joining in I’ve done. I was at the opening ceremony on Monday – here are the skiffs with their oars in the air saluting Princess Anne:

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On Tuesday I purchased a bright green skiff hoodie (I know, proper joining in now!). I also discovered the wonderful Sephira – a musical ark from Pennsylvania designed to play music in the range of whale speak:

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On Wednesday I caught the mens over 60s final :

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Yesterday I met my local team from Edinburgh, the Newhaven rowers:

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I love the team portrait created by the girl above:

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Today I watched a few races, rowed on a pink skiff and stayed for the prize giving ceremony.

Just as the ceremony began some loud music started to play from a nearby car. “Shhhh!” people said angrily, aiming their voices in the direction of the noise but then… a bunch of rowers in red t-shirts jumped into the middle and started dancing. It was North Berwick, the largest crew here. More of the crew joined in waves until finally, two men in drag joined the flash mob:

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After the ceremony I went to find the Dutch team in the campsite. I’d heard they party all night long and have the most fancy camp gear. I can confirm they really did bring leather sofas:

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And a hoist barbecue:

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There’s just one day of rowing left in the world championship and it’s close on the leader board:

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As for the writing you’ll be pleased to know it is still happening despite the skiffs. I’ve written four picture books so far and I hear back from Floris next week. I’m going to start a new project this weekend too. You can read more about what I’m doing on my writing retreat here.

Find the fabulous Portsoy Skiffettes online, on twitter and on facebook.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2013 in Events, Writing

 

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I’m on a Writing Retreat

I’m staying in a beautiful harbour village in the north-west of Scotland. This is Ullapool:

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The Plan

I’m taking a month out to write. I’m excited because

  • It’s a month full of potential and possibilities
  • I don’t know if I can do it so it’s a new challenge
  • I’ve started already, this is day 3 and it still feels exciting

The projects I’m working on are:

  • Picture books for Floris
  • A sitcom (or two sitcoms)
  • A series of young adult fiction novels

Picture Books

Floris are the biggest children’s publisher in Scotland. A couple of months ago they invited me to tea and asked me to write for them. I know, ridiculous as it sounds that really did happen. I’m still amazed (you know when you’re thinking have they got the right person here!?) so I’ve made writing for Floris my main priority. Here are some of my Day 1 ideas (for a picture book set on Shetland):

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On day two I put these ideas aside and wrote a new story about a pheasant and a mouse. This time I didn’t plan out ideas on luggage tags. I just typed the whole story straight from my head. It’s strange how no two stories get written in the same way.

Puzzling it Out

Writing picture books is really a big puzzle. You need to create a great story and great characters but you also need to tell the story across the right amount on double paged spreads. Each page has to be sufficiently visually different to the page before and you want people to keep turning the pages to see what happens next. Every page needs to be perfect. Thankfully Floris are helping me so I’m in good hands.

Sitcom(s)

A year ago I wrote a sitcom and got some feedback from BBC comedy and from Edinburgh screenwriter Adrian Mead. I wrote about pitching it here. I’ve not had chance to work on the sitcom in light of the feedback so I’m looking forward to getting back to it. I’m encouraged by the fact that BBC TV Comedy said it was funny. Apparently that’s the hardest thing to get right. I can work on the things they’ve suggested like developing one of the less developed characters but if it wasn’t funny there’s no way I’d spend more time on it. They also said they were happy to see any new versions or anything else I write so on that note I’ve got an idea for a new sitcom (but we’ll see how the time goes!)

YA Novels

I’ve planned a series of 12 young adult fiction novels set in Scotland. Originally I pitched them to CBBC as a television series idea but now I’d like to try to write one of them as a novel. They have a science theme. If they work then that’s great but if they don’t then that’s okay. I just want to give it a go, that’s what this month is about.

Food, Sleep and Slowing Down

I’m enjoying cooking and eating well. I’m staying with another writer and we’ve been taking it in turns to make meals. I’m also enjoying sleep and not setting my alarm. I know writers are supposed to get up early and write several thousand words but I feel a lot better when I’ve slept and that helps me to write better too.

This may sound lazy but if you know me you’ll know I’m generally one of those people who does too much. I’ve had bosses who have asked me to give 50% instead of 100% because my 50% is most people’s 100%. I don’t always have time to eat or even get dressed when I’m busy so I’m trying to slow down a while I’m here and look after myself.

Exploring Ullapool

Most days I go for a walk.

On Wednesday I tried to join the Ullapool running club but no one turned up so I went on my own run and ended up a bit lost. A family of deer followed me and I met a lizard. Once I was on the right path again I relaxed and that’s when the story I was working on that day got exciting. It just goes to show hills and getting lost are great for creativity.

On Thursday I visited the library and the lovely CHORUS exhibition (bird song, bird photos and bird boxes) in the Macphael Centre:

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Today I visited art exhibition An Talla Solais, these two little squares are part of a miniature works of art from 100 artists. It’s called  ‘VOYAGE: A Journey in Tiny Steps’:

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World Skiff Championship

Next week it’s the world skiff championship. The village will be bustling with tourists and competitors. Princess Anne is opening the championships so I’ll pop down to the harbour for that. I’ve spotted several teams out practicing already:

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My Residency
I’m excited to be writing in Ullapool. I should mention I’ve been working as the Scottish Book Trust Reader in Residence at Leith Library 2.5 days a week for the last 9 months. The library part of my residency just finished but I’m still funded for 3 months to do my own practice. That’s why I’m able to take one month out to write – I would never normally be able do something ike this. It’s all thanks to the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland. It’s also thanks to my writer friend Mairi for letting me stay!

UPDATE: Read about the Skiff World Championship (and how I ended up in a rowing boat) here.

 
 

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