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A Diary Of Retreats

Emylia Hall seeks the clear, quiet places from which writing can spring.

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

November 2012. Shaldon, Devon
The only passenger on the ferryboat, I hug my rucksack to my chest as the engine judders and the water churns. I’m simultaneously romanticising the scene – the writer in a lonely place – and unsettling myself. I’ve never been away entirely on my own before. I’ve booked a hotel room for four nights; not, it turns out, in the elegant Regency house overlooking the sea, but in an annex at the rear, where inside there’s a dejected kitchenette and a phone that doesn’t work. As I lock my door from the inside and sit on the edge of the bed, I ask myself what I’m doing here. Not ten miles away is my parents’ cosy cottage. And at home in Bristol there’s my writing room, with its honey-coloured floorboards and books and pictures and a husband calling up the stairs, ‘coffee?’ I set out my laptop and notebooks. Instead of a desk it’s a dressing table and I try to avoid looking at my uncertain face in the mirror.

My first novel was published in March, and I experienced all the delight and anxiety that such a time brings. Now I’m feeling the pressure – privileged pressure – of having a deadline for my second, and a raft of edits from my UK and American publishers. Already it feels like a long time since I’ve inhabited the clear and quiet place from which writing springs — and I want to find it again. Why Shaldon? Because I was on the beach here, last summer, when I received the news that a publisher wanted to buy my novel. It’s a place where magic can happen.

I can’t pinpoint when the change occurs, but over the next three days I come to see my room as both sanctuary and hive. My work-in-progress proves to be the only company I need. I make a pot of coffee, put on my headphones, and squeeze my legs into the tight space beneath the dressing table. And when I feel I’ve been too much inside my own head, or am cramping with pins and needles, I stride down to the beach. The ever-shifting water gives me a sense of fluidity: here, nothing can be stuck for long. Practically, I make headway with tricky edits and enter a deeper dialogue with my work. Spiritually, I feel refreshed, invigorated.

I decide to always do this, to retreat with my book when we both need it most.

November 2013. Mousehole, Cornwall
My work-in-progress third novel is set in Cornwall’s far west and I’ve had this retreat booked in for months. An entry in my writing diary from back in the summer reads ‘So long as I can get to Mousehole, I’ll be okay.’ I’m five months pregnant, but this proves only a partial distraction: aside from buying a knitted rabbit and a copy of The Mousehole Cat from a shop in the village, I’m focused. The first draft is due in March: the same month as my baby. So this is a boot camp for one, and I play the role of both drill sergeant and private. I devise a schedule, and willingly institutionalise myself. I write 15,000 words in three days, and mark my triumph with a candlelit dinner in the hotel’s deeply inviting dining room. I end the night in the bathroom with my fingers down my throat, having realised too late – damn candlelight – that the roast pork was pink. As a mother-to-be I’m anxious at the best of times; I spend the last hours of my retreat googling toxoplasmosis.

July 2015. Elba, Italy
‘Women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves,’ says Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift from the Sea. My son is seventeen months old and I’ve never been away from him for more than a couple of hours. Now I’m on my own on the Tuscan island where my fourth book is set. The prospect of this trip has long-sustained me: as I pushed the buggy through the streets of Bristol, strung out with fatigue, my mind has been turned to the sun. For five days and nights the sheer pleasure of being responsible only for my writing and myself is astounding. Everything else – the perfect skies, the pistachio ice cream, the superlative beauty of the place – is icing. Alone on Elba, there’s no gap between the world I’m writing, and the world that surrounds me: it’s pure flow. I cry as I leave the island. And then I cry with pleasure at seeing my son again.

I decide that this is what retreats are, and this is what they must be: gems. It’s their rarity that makes them precious.

January 2016. St Ives, Cornwall
A studio apartment in a narrow street in Downalong. My head is an inch from the ceiling. The kitchen is inside a cupboard. As a holiday house it would be claustrophobic, but for me it’s the perfect burrow. I’m part way through a major rewrite, and here I immerse myself to an extent that everyday life – especially with a rambunctious two-year-old – rarely permits. I cover the counter-tops with Post-it notes. I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I stand at the top of the island in the last of the light, watching a winter storm hurl itself at the beach. I buy an enormous pillowy focaccia and eat it slice after slice. I talk to myself: a lot. And whenever I feel a nip of loneliness, or a sense of dislocation from the connected world, I write my way through it, knowing that when my retreat is over I’ll miss its quiet intensity.

November 2017. St Ives again, Cornwall
I’m writing out of contract for the first time since my first novel. I’m in unmapped territory, so I’ve chosen familiarity, and a house to huddle up in: a detached one-bedroom cottage tucked down an alleyway. In the spring I went on a research trip to Los Angeles and a fierce cold robbed me of all my senses – and much of my energy – for my entire stay; I’m yet to come to terms with the disappointment, so this retreat has much to make up for. But when the time comes, I’m tight as a bowstring. My son is struggling to settle at preschool, and navigating his emotions is among the hardest tests we’ve faced. My husband has given me his blessing for this time away, but it takes me several days for my body and mind to unclench, and for the guilt to ebb. Yes, I write. But I think a lot too, and maybe that’s what this particular retreat is about: restoration and inspiration — not word-count. I stride over the cliff-tops and gulp in the air. Never in my life have I felt such an acute ‘before’ and ‘after’: when I return home it’s as if I’m resistant to all stress triggers. The sea change is mine, and I float. I know this state can’t last, but it’s a happy by-product. The work, I think, will remain.

November 2018. Carbis Bay, Cornwall
A secluded cottage, set in a steep wooded valley. I’d booked this retreat in order to work through anticipated edits on my Los Angeles book. I’d pictured myself sitting at the wooden table with the fire crackling, slices of Soreen on a china plate, fingers flying across my keyboard as I moved towards the final furlong. But my agent’s feedback, two days before I leave, is that there is still substantial and fundamental work to be done. I’ve never felt more desolate about a novel. On my first night I light a fire and the room fills with smoke; I throw open the windows and door, and the dark, wet, forest pushes closer. I wake at 4.30 am with an immense headache, the house creaking and groaning around me. In the morning I realise I’ve forgotten to buy coffee, so I put clothes over my pyjamas and trek to Tesco in the rain. Through it all I’ve an unwanted earworm: Orange Juice singing ‘rip it up and start again’. But then I walk the coast path to Porthmeor Beach, eat a sticky toffee pudding at midday, and watch surfers turn tricks in the waves. From my solitary outpost I contact writer friends, and the company of their emails cheers me. I find a perfect otter shell and pocket it for my son. Over the next few days, I reconnect with something lost. When it’s time to go home I’m no closer to knowing what to do with my novel, but I’m okay with that. To return to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, ‘Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach — waiting for a gift from the sea.’

These last years as a writer I’ve only learnt one thing for sure: for me, there’s no greater gift than a coastal retreat.

Emylia Hall is the author of four novels. Her debut, The Book of Summers, a coming-of-age story inspired by childhood holidays, was published in 2012 and translated into eight languages.

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