How to Disappear

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Tomorrow I commence reintegration into the real world. I’ve been holed up in a little cottage outside Lisnaskea, Fermanagh for the last week taking a much-needed break from the rat race. I’ve done writer’s retreats before, (most notably last January in a historical tower, with no heat and very few creature comforts). Some have been positive experiences, some have been deeply frustrating and not very productive. This last week has been amazing, not least because I managed to make my retreat coincide with the only week of good weather we’ve had all year and booked to stay in just about the most beautiful little spot in Northern Ireland. As the week comes to an end and I, very reluctantly, go back to work, here are a few tips for other writers thinking of dropping out of civilisation for a few days. They’re not rocket science, but maybe they’ll help you ensure your precious time out doesn’t end up leaving you more stressed than you were before.

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  1. Be present – Whatever you’re stressed about or currently preoccupied with at home, leave it there. I am terrible at this. I always end up answering work emails on holidays and as a result never actually relaxing properly. This trip I didn’t. I didn’t answer anything but nice, ‘how are you getting on on your retreat?’ type emails and consequently I think I might actually have forgotten what it is I do outside of writing books, (mission accomplished! Though I’ll have to remember before I head back to work on Monday).
  2. Prep– I stopped on the way to Fermanagh and bought enough food and wine to stock the fridge for a whole week. It seemed a bit excessive at the time but as I had absolutely no desire to take my pyjamas off, stop writing and leave the cottage for nearly 48 hours after I arrived I was really glad I didn’t have to  to run out for milk or bread.
  3. Structure your time – A week sounds like an excessively long time -especially when you have the kind of life where all your writing is squeezed into the margins- but if you don’t get at least a little bit of a routine going, you’ll find yourself twittering away your time and achieving nothing. I had a loose routine of reading for an hour each morning, then working on the new novel, taking a walk, having a nap, editing short stories and then watching some mindless TV before bed. This worked for me and ensured I didn’t sicken myself working excessively on the one project. Find whatever system works for you and roughly stick to it. Try not to sleep in too long in the morning or you’ll feel like you’ve wasted your whole day and achieved nothing.
  4. Give yourself a break – Don’t be afraid to break from your routine if you need to. I found that I was much more tired than I expected to be and often ended up heading back to bed for a sneaky afternoon nap. Remember you’re on a retreat, not a hardcore working week. Be kind to yourself in the midst of your productivity, (good coffee, wine, chocolate and a spot of mindless television may also be part of this process).
  5. Walk – I’m a great believer in walking out your ideas. If I get stuck writing a story I quite often pound the streets of East Belfast until I unstick. Being on retreat was a great opportunity to walk out my ideas in a different, (and dare I say it?), more striking environment than East Belfast. Nine times out of ten the writing comes out a little more fleetly once you’ve had a spot of fresh air.
  6. Read – I brought an entire suitcase of books with me and only really made it through two Marilynne Robinsons and an A.S.Byatt. I’m not complaining about this. I usually devour books at a break neck speed and it was a luxury, (and definitely an inspiration), to take my time, savouring such amazing writers over several long pots of coffee.
  7. Turn off your phone – I didn’t actually have a choice here. There’s no mobile reception in Lisnaskea but it was like having one less thing to think about knowing that I wasn’t tied to whatever was going on in the real world. After the second day I didn’t even miss my phone.
  8. Have targets – I came on this retreat hoping to write one short story, two chapters of my book and get my short story collection edited and off to the the publisher. I’d purposefully made these targets to give myself an excuse to book some time off work as it’s not easy to get a week of leave and I needed to give myself a legitimate reason for not using it on an actual, ‘going away somewhere’ holiday. Targets are great for keeping you motivated.
  9. Expect to feel guilty when you don’t meet your targets – A week isn’t as long as you think it is. You won’t achieve everything you thought you would because you are not a machine and you will inevitable be distracted by Woody Allen movies and lakeside walks and afternoon naps. I got a chapter and a half of the novel written and my short story manuscript edited. This is little more than I would have written during a normal work week and at first I felt terribly guilty about time wasted. Then I realised that I’d been writing and editing fully present and not-exhausted and the work was a lot more consistent than it usual is. I decided to stop feeling guilty and enjoy the feeling of writing without pressure. I wish I could write like this every day.
  10. Reintegrate slowly -Today I left the cottage and went for coffee in Enniskillen. It was possibly the first time I’d heard my own voice in a week. It made my head feel a bit funny and I only managed two hours in the real world before I scuttled back to the cottage. I’m hoping tomorrow goes a little better.

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