A writing retreat

I’ve just emerged from a week of writing. For one beautiful solitary week I have mind-mapped and connected, unpacked ideas and engaged with them in depth, followed tangents and played with constraints, all the while working longhand in various notebooks and sketchbooks and without a computer. It’s been wonderful.

I stayed in Room 6 at the Healesville Hotel: a light-filled, high-ceilinged retreat of a room with a little writing desk set up just for me. A couch sat invitingly under a window; a well-crafted hat-rack dignified my choice of outdoor coat, indoor cardie or dressing gown; a kettle for tea was filled from an old-fashioned corner basin. Enough to read and write in comfort within my yellow-doored room, with plenty of other spaces or nooks to make or find. Downstairs there were three open fires, upstairs a long balcony, and out the back, a sprawling beer garden with heavy wooden tables and the dappled light of autumn’s falling shapes in their happy golden browns and reds.

I approach my writing with a balance of structure and provocation. I propose frameworks; I work within them, pushing right out into their newly-charted edges; I experiment. For me, having multiple writing tools is essential to this. Spaces and materials provide their own constraints and their own inspirations. I packed my red leather suitcase heavy on materials and light on anything else. Pencils for mind-mapping and schematic diagrams; pens for notes and text; an indexed ideas book I’ve kept for well over a decade; an A4 notebook on artistic and professional development; a small block of blank paper for fast ideas and immediate scribbles; two large acid-free sketchbooks, one with only a few pages left; manila folders with notes and records of past projects and publications; a hardbound A4 notebook charting the origins and development of a set of ideas that began while collaborating on an international, interdisciplinary project; my current year professional diary; the current volume of my journal.

Each day I began with an immersive activity – reflecting on past work, writing in my journal, sketching the floor plan of my space – letting that activity reach its natural end before making the day’s plan before mid-morning tea. I’d started out the week inventing a schematic representation of everything I had brought with me, drawing connecting lines as I observed relations and analogies of various kinds, and in doing so, making what became my intended outline for the week. All week I kept adding and annotating, reviewing and refining. Along with each day’s plan and its own reflections, I set myself a recursive array of constraints, allowing my reflections on technique to become generative.

I love experiencing that tangible sense of the interplay between word and language: between the single element with its shape and sound and meaning, and the open system which gives it its meanings, extending its connotations and possibilities via a world of cultural, political and physical complexity. There is a texture that I make as I write. Making text with my hands means making marks on a page, all the while feeling and watching their pressure change alongside my excitement and passion or depth and patience. Dancing blue lines and watchful pen shadows inscribe a field of movement, and reading back only intensifies this.

I’d brought only two books along with me. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec has long been my handbook for experimentation, suspending my usual techniques and habits and jump-cutting my perceptions and judgements. By contrast, W G Sebald’s Austerlitz offers a radical extension of long-form prose, as well as being – importantly – a book I hadn’t read before. I do not write fiction, and I am inspired by writers who contest the boundaries of non-fiction. Perhaps next time I will bring OuLiPo’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (Daniel Spoerri), and David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion.

I documented with care and attention. One double-page A4 spread lists everything I wrote or made or worked on each day. There were 57 things. One of the sketchbook pages was devoted to the Big Ideas to emerge from my week. There were seven. There was plenty of reflection on process and technique, as well as the detailed development of artistic, literary or professional projects. One misty afternoon I devoted hours to unpacking the viscosity that sets in towards the end of a piece – where structurally and content-wise it’s all there, and all that’s left is to select with forensic patience the very precise word for each moment. Some words are place-holders; they’re set onto the page, but without real commitment or love. They’re blocks of leading, awaiting the lightness that comes with meaningful sentence completion. Often I find myself working a mixture of words, sounds, allusions and I know that if I don’t work within the temporality of those materials, the viscosity will set into a bland form that I wasn’t intending, and I’ll have to prize it out of its framework and risk it shattering into meaningless individual clumps. Working quickly with my hands, I create a smooth space for words to compose and recompose, until finally the viscosity has been overcome with the words whose forms it was always setting.

Sometimes as a writer, what you need and crave and can’t find the most is time. I made myself some time by planning ahead and blocking it out, and then I made myself some extra time by leaving town. Now I’ve got a kit of ideas and outlines and timelines and plans and finished pieces, as well as a beautiful collection of new diagrams whose depths I can recreate and reinterpret each time I work with them. Most importantly, I have a rich investigation of my current textual preoccupations, and the enduring strength of having immersed in what I love.