What writers really need #2

Since my blog post on what it is that writers really need, I’ve been thinking about the things which reliably support my own work. I thought I might blog about them from time to time in the hope that, if you’re a writer too, they might support yours.

I’m starting with the idea of a retreat. There will be times when you need to be in a place where your sole mission is to write, away from (delete as applicable) work emails / the cat / the partner / the constant stream of admin and chores; you know what I’m talking about. When I’m on retreat my productivity soars in ways which are only partly down to the extra time available. For the rest, a lot of it is about the designation of this as a writing space and as nothing else.

coastal path

One friend of mine retreats by hiring a cottage on a remote coastal path; from one day to the next her only human contact is to wave at the odd walker. It works brilliantly for her, but it would make me miserable as hell. So below is my own very subjective set of criteria for the perfect retreat.

Here’s what I need:

  • I need to be left absolutely alone while I’m writing, but have company in the evenings.
  • I need someone else to cook for me so my head doesn’t have to be full of planning and practicalities (because that’s what I do – relentlessly – when I’m not on retreat).
  • I need quiet.
  • I need no-one else to give a damn how I spend my time, so that I can stay hermit-like in my room for eighteen hours at a stretch or give up on writing altogether and laze on the sofa without feeling the weight of anyone’s expectation. At the same time, and most unreasonably, I need there to be a sense of creative purpose to the place.
  • I’d like everyone to be chilled please, and friendly.


Reading this back, I think I must be a nightmare guest. So demanding! And it did take a few years to find somewhere that ticks all those boxes. Finally, I found my perfect retreat in Devon (here’s the link; I’m sharing nicely).

There’s home-made bread for breakfast, a hot water bottle in your bed at night, and the only time hostess Debs ever interrupts work is if it gets much beyond six in the evening, when she’ll tap on my door, shimmer in, deposit a glass of wine on the desk and shimmer out again.

Deb head shot

This is Debs. She shimmers.

If that sounds like heaven, it pretty much is. Debs describes a retreat as ‘a sort of temporary bubble, inside which there is nothing but you and your writing.’ A writer herself, she says running a retreat has involved her embracing all sorts of roles, from counsellor to mediator to mother figure. You can catch her doing it sometimes, with the lightest of touches. It’s a delicate balance: enough to help, not enough to be intrusive. On a more mundane note, I’m also impressed at the way there’s always a slice of home-baked something-or-other in the snack tin, no matter how greedy I’ve been the previous day.

Retreating doesn’t come free, but part of the point of this occasional series is to look at the alternatives to a £9000 MA course, well beyond the reach of most of us. You can get started as a writer for about a fiver (a free library card, a notebook and pen). Any money you can spare after that has to work hard; a good retreat is one of the places where it works hardest.


And finally, as good food is central to a good retreat, here’s Deb’s ‘non recipe recipe for soup’.

Gently fry a large onion for a long time – a good 20 minutes (it really does make a difference to the taste of the dish). Then add leftover mash, veg, stew, pasta, whatever you have. Chuck in some stock – cubes is fine, or a tin of tomatoes (use your judgement – it depends on your leftovers) a dash of wine, plenty of pepper and whatever herbs – or not, you deem appropriate. You can add a tin of beans if you like, if it needs beefing up a bit. Simmer, mash or whizz up, add a dash of cream or plain yoghurt. Taste taste taste throughout and adjust additions accordingly. Serve with homemade bread if possible and proper butter.




What writers really need #2

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