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.
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.
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.
John Muir says this better than I could:
(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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.