As far as I can tell, writers are pretty bad at taking holidays. You’re either working or you’re writing and often those two things are one and the same, but it’s not the kind of work it’s easy to shut the office door on. Wherever you are, there’s a little voice in the back of your said squeaking ‘this is all very nice, but shouldn’t you be writing?’ And maybe you should. On the other hand, sometimes you have to have some actual real world experiences, if only to generate new things to write about.
For the last year and a half, all my self-organised trips were short writing breaks. I went for a day or two at a time and each was great but not the same as an actual rest, so when I found out I’d been awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship through Scottish Book Trust and was off to spend the whole of June in Grez-sur-Loing, France, I was both incredibly stoked and a little bit nervous. Would I produce enough work while I was there? Would I find that a long-dreamed-for month of writing time was better in my imagination than in reality? Would I go crazy?
Happily, I stayed pretty sane (no thanks to the mosquitos who all thought I was the best thing since sliced bread – a loaf of Mother’s Pride, no doubt – and thanks in part to the other artists at the hotel) and managed to write a bunch, even though the first few days were largely taken up with feeling weird and wondering what I was mean to be doing. In the end, I decided I was meant to be eating lots of poire amades, exploring the area in a very low key way and just thinking about things.
It was very inspiring to stay in a hotel so beloved by generations of artists and writers and the building and its grounds are so charming I felt like I’d stepped into another life. One of the best parts was the fact that I was away for so long, which meant that even though I was researching and thinking and writing, it actually did feel a little bit like a holiday too. I’m getting the feeling I prefer the working kind anyway.
This summer, I’m scooting off to the south of France to do nothing but write, read and think for an entire month. This incredible luxury has been offered courtesy of the RLS Fellowship in association with Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland, an excellent endeavour that’s been sending Scottish writers to the Hôtel Chevillon International Arts Centre at Grez-sur-Loing (where Robert Louis Stevenson spent some inspiring months) for the last 20 years – including many that I really admire and a few I’m lucky enough to call friends.
I’m off in June (this year’s other writers, Alan McKendrick, Michael Pedersen and Malachy Tallack, will be travelling at different times) and I can’t wait. The longest retreat I’ve ever been on was for a week and I normally only go for two or three days at a time, so a whole month will be just amazing. Here’s hoping my atrocious French doesn’t cause too much embarrassment. Luckily, bread, cheese, coffee and apples are all nice and easy to remember – and say – so I should survive.
At home, there are always things to do. Even if those things are reorganising the drawers or picking hair up from the carpet (don’t ask). Escaping those things is tricky, unless you have the chance to run away for a little while.
I used to think writing retreats were pretty self indulgent and maybe useless. I now know that even if they are a little indulgent it is in a wonderful, enriching kind of way and they are nearly always very useful. Even if you spend quite a lot of the time making friends with ducks or worrying about how close that cow is about to get.
First of all, the guilt of being away from home and your normal life for a week tends to work wonders. Then there’s a distinct lack of distractions. You’re not as likely to pick up the hair from the carpet when it’s not your carpet – or your hair.
And then there’s a glimmer of that great feeling you get when you’re on a proper holiday. That ‘everything is out of my hands because no one can contact me’ feeling. It’s a good one when you’re trying to work.
So far, I’ve tried hiring a little flat to myself, booking a hotel room (both off season) and renting a place with other writing friends. I was also lucky enough to go to Cove Park through the Scottish Book Trust. The four experiences were really different (in the first flat I felt lonely, in the hotel I ate a lot of sneaky olives and oatcakes in my room and at Cove Park I stared at the sky a lot), but ultimately, it was the getting away that was the important thing.
Finding the time and money to escape isn’t easy, especially when it’s to do something that ultimately only benefits you, but it’s really valuable when it comes to getting work done. Sure, it means that instead of holidays where I relax and stuff I tend to spend any break working, but it’s super satisfying when the work is done.
There’s also a bunch of retreats you can apply to, including Cove Park and the current James Hogg residency, but if you don’t mind skimping on comfort, teeny hotels can be pretty cheap. And if it means you’ll spend some time really understanding a project or getting some words down, it’s totally worth it.