Writing Retreats

Martin Goodman - 21st September 2005

Some centuries ago a group of monks moved up into the French Pyrenean mountains and established a monastery. They built on a hill overlooking a bend in the river, and named the place Pezilla de Conflent. Part of those original buildings was a goathouse. Built into the rock of the hill so that water naturally seeps through the internal walls, it's not an obvious place to live, but in the last eleven years it has become my most stable 'home'. Sometimes it takes me a while to settle into the mountain village life, with no bar or shops but the daily bread van where locals come out to meet each other. It's a step away from the enforeced rigours of the world and into some deeper connection with the natural world. The view from the windows is of the river with its trout and turtles, its mountainsides cloaked in oak, its skies with its thousands of housemartins trading day for night wth the bats, and its occasional eagles and herons (a young falcon roosted in the building behind ours, nodding at our early morning hellos as we walked past). It is a gradual joy to unwind from a more reckless pace and simply write there.

I'm back in the UK now - somewhat reluctantly, but who wants to kickstart a routine of self-imposed deadlines after a summer away. Writing tasks were the final rewrites and proofs of my new novel (Slippery When Wet, due January 2006), and a new and wondrous draft of a play, Feeding the Roses. I've worked that play through countless drafts over the years, but this is the final connection with it, hugely satisfying. I would trade a great deal for a fine production (publication day for a novel is the world's biggest letdown, no-one really gives a damn, books are for private consumption, but sitting with the audience for your play is electrifying). My partner James did more slaving, finishing the first draft of his legal thriller, well over 1,000 pages of distinctive handwriting. My reading was of outsider and dystopian literature, 'action research' for a novel I am completing as part of a PhD.

Staring through the window, walking the mountains, swimming in the rockpool, drinking the wine (building my appreciation of Cotes de Roussillon Villages), visiting the vineyards--it all gets to seem such an inspirational and necessary part of the writing life that writing itself seems almost redundant. My internet connection is lousy, TV is in French, news comes through that insanely archaic crackle in which the BBC World Service specializes, and soon all such news seems pointless. Real drama happens through the window, dreams become extraordinary, and if I need new worlds I can always sit down and write them into being.

It's clearly not the place to research the biography I am contracted to (of J.S.Haldane), and I am sure I will pick up boundless enthusiasm for the workaday world with its emails and phonecalls and traintrips and deadlines and teaching schedules soon. Today though I want to step outdoors, find the village dog waiting for me, and walk off into the mountains. The figs in that part of the world are busting with ripeness, and I left far too many of them still hanging to the trees.

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