I was once lucky enough to be awarded a writing residency in France, in a village where Robert Louis Stevenson had spent time with a colony of Swedish landscape painters. At last, I could fulfil my teenage fantasies of being a writer in France, a country, unlike Australia, where creative pursuits were not considered non-remunerative wankery.
The little village wasn’t exactly the Left Bank. The boulangerie only opened for about five minutes in the morning and another five minutes in the late afternoon; it was easier to shop at the charmless supermarché in the next, slightly bigger, village. The village square was usually deserted.
For someone who lived and worked alone, I wasn’t short of solitude. Unlike so many women my age, I wasn’t housekeeper, cook and laundress to husband and children. In the guestbook, one well-known Scottish writer described the bliss of not being shouted at for socks in the morning rush. (Where do children learn to treat their mothers as servants? Where indeed.) I required no respite from what feminists call the emotional labour of constantly tending to the feelings and needs of others.
What I wanted, apart from the vindicatory thrill of being a writer in France, a country whose cranky, insular, burning banlieue, post-imperial reality bears little resemblance to its historic civilisational status, much less the tourist imaginary, was the company of other creative people. What I longed for was collegiality. What I mostly got was more solitude. I went for long runs in the forest and made weekly trips into Paris to escape the deafening tranquillity.
In the summer just past, I was told that my much-finished novel needed yet more editing—serious structural work, not tweaking. At the same time, I received an email from Moniack Mhor announcing untutored retreats. I’d booked such a retreat for June 2020. Although writers aren’t at all superstitious as a rule, I wasn’t going to ignore such obvious synchronicity.
The writers’ centre is a restored farmhouse in the Highlands, near Inverness. Because of COVID restrictions, numbers were kept low and everyone had a separate bathroom. Meals were taken outdoors under a marquee with heater panels. (A young writer from South London shivered nonetheless, not having brought quite enough clothes.)
At these gatherings, the chemistry is variable. I’ve been on retreats where I’ve hardly had a conversation and people crept around like cat burglars, avoiding eye contact. Perhaps because we’d all been locked down for so long, there was no such Trappist restraint. The first dinner under the marquee, we finished several bottles of wine. Other writers! Book deals, agents, publishers! We couldn’t stop talking.
The next day, the silence began, along with a few mild hangovers. The etiquette at these retreats is that if you see someone hunched over their laptop or intent at a notebook, you might nod if you catch their eye but otherwise you creep on by. There must be no interruption of the sacred, often elusive flow. The usual obligation to stop what you’re doing and interact, because it is impolite, especially for women, to ignore other people who expect, indeed, demand, your attention, is divinely suspended. On that first day, very early in the morning, I moved quietly around the kitchen to collect my breakfast, politely ignoring the writer of Young Adult novels in the next room, sitting with his back to me at the long table, his hoodie up, as clear a signal as any: Do Not Disturb.
And yet, it was a very social week. I went for shared walks through the nearby forests and along the narrow local roads, passing fields of somnolent cows and prancing baby goats. People lingered to chat after lunch and dinner. If anyone peeled unobtrusively away, nobody tried to retain them, or took offence if a walk was solitary. Conversations could be kept short or wound up with none of the usual awkwardness. The right to retreat inside one’s head without apology or explanation was absolute. Solitude was prioritised, but there was also companionship, as desired. It was introvert heaven.
And yet, on the last evening, I mistook the time of dinner and came down fifteen minutes late to find everyone at table and halfway finished. Following the convention of the retreat, nobody had come up to find me and risk interrupting creativity in full flood. I had a ridiculous, almost emotional, moment of feeling abandoned.