‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau, the great American writer who famously retreated from life for two years to live in a house he’d built in a wood. In the work this retreat inspired, Walden, he explained:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Thoreau is by no means alone in being a writer with a need to both experience and retreat. The openness and clarity with which he described his need and journey on which it took him has inspired many writers since to journey similarly; and it has led, in modern times, to two offerings for keen writers: the writing retreat and the writing residency.
Open any writing magazine and you will find advertisements for retreats all over the world – beautiful and interesting places to which writers can travel and immerse themselves in nature, in history, in silence; in solitude, where preferred, but also in companionship with fellow writers who are on the retreat. The idea is that the writer is able to breathe and reflect, and he or she has the space in which to write, free from the constraints and distractions of daily life.
Writing residencies work a little differently. Whereas a writing retreat is essentially a kind of holiday, for which you pay, a residency is free of charge (sometimes even subsidised) and is based on exchange. The organisation offering the residency grants the writer free use of space – an opportunity to experience a new place and new people, and retreat from everyday life. In return the writer gives his or her skills and/or art to the organisation. The writer’s input can be in all kinds of forms, from poems to stories, workshops to creative writing teaching.
Writing residencies (part of the artist-in-residence scheme) are available in all kinds of places. They are not about retreating from life, going deep into the woods like Thoreau, but about connecting with it: using the art of writing to forge meaningful cultural exchange. All kinds of writing residencies are offered; writers can be resident in places like galleries, museums and theatres, but also in places not immersed in the art world. Recently, for example, Lit Hub published an article entitled ‘8 highly unusual writing residencies’, which included opportunities for writers to write in a bridge control tower in Seattle, an off-grid treehouse on a Scottish mountain, any Amtrak train and… Antarctica.
Would I apply for a residency like this? Well, I can’t say that Antarctica appeals! In a warmer climate, however, it would be wonderful to connect with writers and readers in an inspiring space. For me, it would have to be somewhere beautiful and very romantic; a place where lovers come together, fall in love, pledge to love each other always. A wedding venue, perhaps? I can imagine that the experiences there would be thought-provoking and inspirational for my fiction.
But I doubt very much that I will ever apply for a residency, or book a retreat, because while I love to travel while researching a book and have the experiences that Thoreau rightly says writers must have, I do not feel the need to retreat when I am writing. Here is why:
* I enjoy writing within my everyday life. I enjoy writing at home, in my office with everything I need within reach; in the garden with views of the flowers, the trees, the ocean.
* Writing is wonderful, but it is a lonely pursuit; it is emotionally draining; and it is so easy to become consumed by the story world. After several hours of writing, it does me good to step away from my novel and return to the real world: to cook a meal or tend my garden or take a walk to the local village and meet a friend for coffee.
* Writers like me who want to keep writing, keep publishing, can’t afford to write in fits and starts, to write only when alone or in a special place. We have to write every day, whatever the weather, the mood, the state of the muse. When you write this way, you fall into a rhythm that becomes as reassuringly constant as your heartbeat. Like Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, your philosophy becomes ‘I write because I am’ – because you are a writer.