I’ve never retreated anywhere – unless you count retreating to the sideline in PE class in the eternally optimistic view that the teacher wouldn’t notice my absence (really, I was doing them all a favour). So when a wise and encouraging writing friend suggested a writing retreat to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ll admit I was in two minds.
Would I be locked away in a cell-type room with a narrow bed and room only to swing my pants?
Would everyone be earnestly writing away 24/7, too preoccupied to pass the time of day?
Would there be an enforced vow of total abstinence (from the sauce, I mean; I certainly didn’t go on a writing retreat for anything else)?
Answers: yes; no; definitely not.
My accommodation was indeed a cell-type room.
And I know it was big enough to swing my pants because I tried, – in lieu, you understand – of an actual cat. Although I doubt I could have swung my jeans. But here’s the thing: despite Moniack Mhor having numerous other writing spaces – communal lounges by wood stoves; a straw-bale hobbit house where a writer can go the full Tolkein and forge works of wonder to throw into the fires of publishing;
a stone, story-telling circle – I found that I gravitated back to my little room. It was here that I wrote the most words (9310, if you’re counting. I was). It was here that I found inspiration to begin a first draft. It was here I felt energised to keep going. I was content in my confinement. Ideas seemed to expand beyond the constriction of my four looming walls. There might not have been space on my desk for more than a laptop, cup of tea and pack of regulation Tunnocks caramel wafers (these are essential for Scottish-based writers who include them in their retreat riders), but, I reasoned, if Oscar Wilde could turn out great literature from Reading Gaol, then I could turn out a first draft of something that might or might not escape my laptop one day.
And, to be fair, I doubt his view could match this:
And although my room was next to one of the communal bathrooms (actually useful when you’re waiting, towel over arm, ready to pounce when vacated), I’d imagine Oscar was required to ‘powder his nose’ somewhat less comfortably.
Of course, folk were there to write, as was I. But my fears that my fellow
inmates retreaters would be locked away all day, every day, were unfounded. There was always someone to chat with over a cup of tea (at least ten sorts of tea – and I love tea inclusivity…or inclusivitea, if you will), or to take a stroll in the forest with, or to stoke one of the log-burners with. And it was this aspect of the retreat that I most appreciated: the community of writers.
We were all there because we love to write, love to share our writing experiences, and love to support and encourage each other in our writing endeavors. It was a joy to meet such a diverse group of writers; between us we had most genres covered: children’s, YA, adult, crime, script, memoir, plays, poetry…Writers don’t always get out much, but when they do, they like to talk.
Which brings me on to point three.
When the cat’s away, as they say…
Moniack has an arrangement that the writers cook dinner for each other in teams. This means, at 4pm, after a quick briefing on what/how/how much to cook, the staff leave the building. We only realised the significance of this on the final evening, when, after an astonishingly delicious Haggis dinner (OK, I was on Team Haggis), washed down by most folk with wine, and a wee dram, and whisky sauce with the haggis, and whisky in the cranachan dessert, we all realised we were home alone. Did we polish off the single malt? No, we did not. Did we dare each other to read aloud from our hard-earned word-smithing? No. Did we turn in for an early night? No, of course not.
We toured the site, room-by-room, on a giddy comparison quest. Whose room was largest; whose desk the widest; whose view the most panoramic. Childish? Yes! Writerly? Who cares! What a laugh. And, dear reader, I won. Not the largest, widest or most panoramic room prize. No. To the delight of a fellow writer who had laboured all week under the impression that she was installed in the least commodious room, I proudly showed off my small, perfectly-formed, and highly productive
cell room. “Lady Bracknell herself,” I didn’t say (but wish I had), “couldn’t have swung her handbag in here.” My new writing friends concurred, and I won the smallest room sweep stake.
And so we returned to the lounge to celebrate our week of writing, community, and celebration.
Moniack Mhor is a glorious place in a wonderful location with amazing staff and an atmosphere that inspires. I’m going back, and if the only room left is what I shall henceforth call “The Oscar Wilde Suite”, then so be it.
Although the double bed with ensuite would be nice too.