Category Archives: process

Writing retreat

Because I am tortured by the compulsion to not only write stories, but also document every little thing I see and do, here is a blog post about my recent writing retreat experience (condensed version!).

DAY 1
So, I’m off now to my writing retreat (read: isolated cabin out in the bush with no wi-fi or washing machine, but affordable). I’m going to work on my manuscript that terrifies me. Don’t worry, I’ll be OK …

 

 

I picture part of my novel set in a place where I lived in my youth. I should have realised that coming back here — where I haven’t been for years, except for funerals — would be confronting. A strange, hopeful yet empty feeling gripped me as I drove the flat, dusty roads. Like returning ‘home’, but knowing that no family or friends are waiting anymore. Every road, every turn, holds a memory: there’s the parking bay where we had to stop when my daughter was little and she got car sick; there’s the spot where I blew up my Camira because I didn’t put water in the radiator; that’s the turn-off to the house where we used to live …

Enough nostalgia! Crying to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’ is ridiculous!

Writing retreat not so hellish after all.

Through the window of my little cottage:
6pm
Treated-wood porch — boards of clay-yellow and dust-grey. The screws in pairs look like eyes, the scratches below them like mouths. A fly is dying, kicking, spinning, spinning. A green-and-brown ceramic duck leans over the edge of the porch, into the dry air as if it were water. Above, from the awning, a gum leaf twists, dangling from a thread of spider’s web.
7pm
Long shadows are becoming one, covering the earth. Light filters through trees; breeze ruffles leaves gently. The landscape is almost colourless — Tom Roberts faded greens and yellows. Clumps of dry grass grow out of clay. Cracks in the earth. A stony, bitumen driveway leads to the road. The fences are in need of repair. The white letterbox leans sideways towards the give-way sign. Trucks gear down and rumble past on the main road. Sunlight glints off chrome.

Across the road, the cow-milking shed is more rust than tin. The tank behind the shed resembles a space-ship or a giant silver breast with a nipple on top. Cattle graze in the long grass of the paddock. They look like brown rocks in a sea of wheat-coloured foam.

The light takes on a golden hue. The distant sky is white. At the horizon, dark trees stand still, cow-coloured, tinged with blue.

Birds call.

7.30
Hints of pink. The cows are coming home. Headlights are flicking on. A kookaburra laughs.
8pm
The solar lights rimming the porch of my little cottage are lighting up. The trees are dark silhouettes against the sky. The clock on the wall ticks. Trucks zoom along the main road, lit up like Christmas trees — white, orange and red.

DAY 2
I am sharing my writing retreat with mice. In the dead of the night, in a cabin out in the bush, it’s hard to tell the difference between the sound of mice and that guy from Wolf Creek.

Luckily I bought some cheery reading for when I can’t sleep.

Routine:
5–6 Get up (no alarm set)
Write
9 Walk around property ½ hour
9.30 Breakfast
10–2 Write
2 Lunch
2.30–5.30 Write
5.30 Walk around property ½ hour
6 Wine and music time
? Write
? Dinner
? Write
10–11 Bed, reading

Wine and potato chips for dinner?
Why not?
No shower since Monday morning?
Oh well, maybe tomoz.

 
 
Cottage, olive groves, weird wool-less sheep

DAY 3
Mice were quieter last night, but I woke with a sore, throbbing right arm and pins and needles in my hand.

Me: I can’t feel my fingers!
Brain: I’m not surprised — after sitting and writing for so long at a very un-ergonomic table and chair. You need to adjust your posture, take regular breaks and do some stretches.
Me: I think it’s a stroke!
Brain: Can you poke out your tongue straight? Somebody told me that’s how to tell if it’s a stroke.
Me: [Rushing to bathroom, poking out tongue in mirror] Heart attack?
Brain: It’s not a heart attack.
Me: Some other illness …
Brain: Stop being silly.
Me: I think I can drive to the town, make it to a doctor in time.
Brain: No. We’re not leaving until we have a first draft.
Me: Maybe just to a chemist. Get some aspirin to thin the blood. And some bandages, just in case.
Brain: Sit down and get back to work.
Me: I can’t. I can’t breathe.
Brain: Breathe. If you’re good, we might go for a drive to the river later.
Me: You mean leave the cabin? [deep breathing into hands]

One of the weird wool-less ewes had a lamb this morning.

DAY 4
It wasn’t mice, but flies that kept me away last night. I’m not one to take fly-spray lightly, but the buzzing bastards annoyed me so much that I got up and sprayed them. And then stressed about the dangers of inhaling the chemicals from the spray in the air.

Hand is better, but now shoulders are aching and throat is sore (what could they be symptoms of?).

Through the window of my little cottage:
7am.
The warm night has melted into a cooler morning. The light, of indistinguishable colour — white / blue / grey — brushes over the darkness. The gum trees are silhouettes. A rooster crows. Birds chirp, warble and twitter. The constant traffic hum from the main road becomes heavier.

Oh, wow, look! A rubbish truck! It’s emptying the bin on the roadside. So interesting.

Time to leave the cabin for a bit?

I am leaving the cabin today. Didn’t yesterday. But, yes, today I am leaving the cabin! Going for a drive to the river. Although I’m worried that I won’t be able to find my way back here (maybe take my laptop with me, just in case).

Leaving cabin.

Here I go …

(Later) Left the cabin. Tried to find my childhood home, but couldn’t. Found the river.

The river
Dead leaves, dry grass and strips of bark crackle-crunch under foot. At the edge of the embankment, willows hang next to dying gum trees, half-uprooted, leaning, reaching towards the brown water. An almost vertical drop of pale-yellow clay leads the way down to the river. It meanders around slimy rocks, and fallen trees, bark-shed, grey, their snarly roots exposed. Blue sky and woolly grey clouds shimmer on the surface. Birds call, insects flitter and the breeze annoys the long wheat-coloured grass. It feels like somebody is watching. Just the trees — watching and whispering to each other. I don’t like it down here.
 

DAY 5
It wasn’t mice or flies or dead hands or trees that kept me awake last night. It was a prick of a mosquito — buzz, buzz, buzz in my ear all night long.

I hear it’s raining in Melbourne. Don’t think it ever rains here. Looks like another warm one today.
 

Spoke too soon — it’s raining here now. The drought has broken; the dust is being stirred up anyway.

Ten minutes later … Rain’s stopped now. Back to work.

Later (night, dark) … OMFG — a storm. A big storm! Lightning, thunder, wind, rain. I’m in a Stephen King novel. Help! Mummy!!!
 

DAY 6
Despite mice, flies, hypochondria, mosquitos and wild storms, I finished my first draft.

My little cottage in the wilderness was the perfect place to work on this stage of my novel. I think Sidney (my protagonist) would be pleased with how I have used the surroundings to build her world.

Time to go back to the real world now. It might take me a while to adjust, having not spoken to anybody, aside from my sheep friends, in six days.

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Writer and Storyteller are fighting again

Storyteller: The writing workshop was good.

Writer: Yes. A great group of writers.

Storyteller: And we got some terrific feedback: Shiveringly good imagery; love the intrigue and impending danger; can’t wait for more of this very mysterious psychological thriller.

Writer: Mmm.

Storyteller: What’s wrong? They liked it.

Writer: Psychological thriller, S.T. A thriller.

Storyteller: *widens eyes* *blinks*

Writer: I told you I didn’t want to write a thriller.

Storyteller: Thrillers sell.

Writer: I wouldn’t know, I don’t read them.

Storyteller: I’ve seen you reading them.

Writer: No, S.T, those are ‘literary thrillers’.

Storyteller: *scoffs*

Writer: This is your fault.

Storyteller: My fault! If it wasn’t for me what would you have?

Writer: I’d be writing happily — just seeing what my characters do.

Storyteller: A pile of unconnected words you’d just keep polishing forever and ever.

Writer: Very shiny words.

Storyteller: If anybody is to blame, it’s Stephen King.

Writer: Stephen King?

Storyteller: I know you weren’t really reading Jane Austen back in high school.

Writer: Shut up!

Storyteller: You shut up.

Writer: Oh my God, S.T, how about the trailer for the new It movie?

Storyteller: Yaaasss!

Writer: Not that I really want to see it.

Storyteller: Sure. *rolls eyes* So about this book we’re writing?

Writer: I have doubts.

Storyteller: Surprise, surprise. Let’s just forget about genres and labels and try to write the best book we can.

Writer: You’re going to make it a thriller, aren’t you?

Storyteller: I have some great plot ideas.

Writer: Too much plot will ruin my character-driven exploration of the human condition from a flawed perspective. I think of it as like A Bar at Folies-Bergere — the angles of the mirror are skewed; in the reflection the barmaid leans forward to the customer in the top hat, but in reality she is standing straight, ambivalent to his attention. In the grand balcony, reflected impossibly behind the barmaid, a woman looks through opera glasses at something beyond the frame.

Storyteller: You know we’ll have to delete that chapter about the Manet painting before any editor sees it?

Writer: No we won’t.

Storyteller: We’ll see.

Writer: What’s beyond the frame is important, S.T.

Storyteller: Like in It?

Writer: No, not like in It.

Storyteller: Let’s just sit back at the computer. Want your boat, Georgie?

Writer: Te he.

Storyteller: And a balloon? Come on then. How about a ‘literary thriller’?

Writer: I hate you.

Storyteller: Everything down here floats.