For the last four weeks I’ve been living in a converted shipping container in a field looking over Loch Long in Scotland. I have sheep on one side of my bedroom, highland cows behind me and, every evening between sundown and midnight, a flock (?) of tiny bats who swarm above the surface of my own front pond. Idyllic is an understatement. (The nightly plague of toads is the only part I could do without. Oh, and the mouse-sized spider who hangs above my bed).
I’ve been staying here at Cove Park as part of their incredible artist in residence scheme. Being given time to write is an absolute blessing. Being paid really generously for the time to write is even more miraculous. It means worries about paying the bills back home can be put to the side and I can entirely focus on your work. Being paid and trusted to use my time wisely without having restrictive stipulations or goals placed on my work has proven to be the most freeing and encouraging thing that’s happened to me since I first started writing seriously fifteen years ago. There certainly hasn’t been a point since publishing Malcolm Orange Disappears five years ago, when I’ve been this free to write without worrying about where my income is coming from.
Like most “full-time” writers I’m used to squeezing my writing into the margins of my life. I juggle dozens of small jobs which pay the most pressing bills whilst trying to carve out a couple of hours daily in order to keep the next book ticking over. I don’t get to experiment much with my writing. I don’t get to try things just to see if they’ll work. I have projects and goals and deadlines; some self-imposed, mostly dictated. I love what I do and I remain thankful for the fact that my job is something I actually enjoy spending time working at, but if I’m honest, recently writing has often felt like a never-ending To Do list of projects which need finished and articles I have to write and edits which require attention. I haven’t had that much space lately to write for fun. I simply haven’t had any time.
I arrived at Cove Park a little intimidated by the prospect of so much unstructured time. I’m so used to being productive and social and goal-orientated and a little bit anal, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to relax. I had a couple of small projects which needed attention. But, for the most part, my plan was to rest, read and write whatever took my interest. I was pretty sure I’d be climbing the walls by the end of week one. I think most people who know me well had similar expectations. Well, it might have been the isolation, or the lack of internet or the incredible scenery outside my window. It might even have been the torrential rain. But I’ve found it much easier to relax than I’d anticipated. I’ve slept eight hours a night every night for the last four weeks. I’ve read thirty two books. I’ve walked two hours each day, (I’ve walked so much down puddly roads and through muddy fields, I’ll be leaving my ancient Nikes here in the bin at Cove Park. There’s hardly anything left of them). I’ve swum outside in lochs and pools. I’ve slept a lot, (did I mention sleeping?) and I’ve been hideously anti-social. (I have not missed any episodes of Holby or Casualty though. I am not a lunatic. I know where my limits are).
To my great surprise, I have also managed to be productive. I’ve written four new short stories, a couple of articles and fifteen thousand words of a novel, (which was terrible and almost instantly binned, though it did indirectly lead to a short story). I also allowed myself three weeks space to read and think about Dementia, allowing myself to process through the experiences I’ve had over the last number of years working with people living with Dementia. When I applied to Cove Park for the residency I’d mentioned how much I’d like space and time to respond creatively to my Dementia practice.
This time last week I was reasonably certain I’d have to tell lovely Rebecca, (who looks after the writers here at Cove Park), “do you know the way I said I’d like to write a creative piece about Dementia during my residency? Well, I never got past the research stage.” I’m pretty sure Rebecca would have been absolutely ok with a month spent researching. Here, they seem to trust that their artists know their own process best. However, on Monday I woke up with the beginnings of an idea I knew I had to start writing into. I have been frantically scribbling all week, pouring over the notes I’ve taken since arriving at Cove, playing with form and structure, taking long thinking walks over the high road, (which has the best views but the noisiest sheep) and basically trying to work out how to express the words and thoughts of a person living with Dementia.
Bizarrely I seem to have written a play. This was not my original intention. I was thinking I’d end up with linked short stories or something more like the Postcard Stories. However, I’ve never before written anything so adamant that it had to be written in a certain form. Ultimately, it couldn’t have been anything but a play. I’m really excited about what I’ve written and the opportunity it will afford me to collaborate with a couple of artists I’ve been dying to work with for a very long time. I’ve already made plans to get the ball rolling as soon as I get back home. Watch this space for further developments.
I feel like Cove Park has allowed me the freedom to experiment outside my comfort zone. Under normal circumstances I would most likely have rushed the creative process and not allowed the ideas enough room to breathe. I would have written a short story or a piece of prose in my usual style. I know arts funding is tight and residencies like this are incredibly rare but I want to make the case for Cove Park’s combination of trust, freedom and proper support as the absolute best way to ensure artists get the most from a residency experience. When you feel like the people supporting you trust you to make the best use of their support it actually leads to more freedom and creativity. Honestly, this month has completely rejuvenated me.