July 21, 2024

As the windshield wipers cut back and forth, and my house disappeared in the rearview mirror, I wondered if I was going to cry. I tried to remind myself that I was on my way to do something lovely: I had booked a three-night stay at a hotel in Devon to work on my novel: my first ever solo writing retreat.

I drove away from a world of chaos, my seven-year-old crying at the front door, my nine-year-old worrying about a science project, my mother-in-law unexpectedly in the hospital and my husband juggling it all. everyone.

I had been away on my own before for book tours and literary festivals, but those trips were clearly defined as “work” because they were at the behest of my publisher. But a solo refuge felt excessive in a way that made me feel thick with guilt.

I have long been intrigued by the idea of ​​a solo retreat. It sounded great, but what if it didn’t suit me? I haven’t spent three nights alone in a decade. I am happy when I finish a thought without being interrupted by one of my children. Will I get stage fright and not be able to write a word? Would I feel lonely and guilty and cry in the car?

Well yes. I could have chosen to attend an organized writing retreat, such as a Arvon course, where people gather to write and learn together, but it was the solo element of this adventure that resonated. My requirements were to find a quiet hotel near the sea where I could hide and write undisturbed.

When I arrived at Soar Mill Cove Hotel, I knew I had found just the place. Situated in a picturesque valley near Salcombe, it is a short distance from the South West Coastal Road. I was shown to a room with a simple desk and a comfortable chair in front of wide glass doors that opened to a view of the ocean.

I unpacked and shuffled around the room, setting up my laptop, choosing the music I would write to, laying out my notebook and pen. There. Ready.

I checked my laptop. I was there working on my ninth thriller and, with a deadline fast approaching, I had to put my head down and write.

I didn’t set myself a word count target because I think 100 good words are better than 1,000 bad ones. Instead, my goal for the three days was to sink deep into the world of the book and write from a place of connection, because for me, that’s when the best words come.

Sitting at my new desk, I opened the Word document of my manuscript and began. I felt strangely self-conscious, like someone was looking over my shoulder. I tried to muscle out a few words. They were leaden, unyielding and stiff, but I forced them onto the page nonetheless. No flow condition occurs here. I let myself go at it for an hour, wondering why I had come all this way to write badly when I could do it at home.

I slump back in my chair in frustration. The guilt rushed back. I should be with my family. I shouldn’t be drifting to Devon with my creativity for a doomed date. My gaze wandered to the view beyond those wide, glass doors. The rain thinned and there was the sea, wind blew and blew under billowing clouds. Maybe I could use a walk.

Growing up near the coast, the sea has always been my go-to place to clear my head. I set off, wandering through the damp valley until I reached a secluded cove. The tide was in, waves beating against rock and throwing foam high into the air. The effervescence and energy of the sea was contagious.

As I stood there, salt on the skin, clearing my mind, I realized that, for the next three days, my time was my own. My schedule was not dictated by the rhythms of family life. I could walk when I felt like walking. Eat when I wanted to eat. Write when I wanted to write. The freedom felt dizzying. I looked up to see the first slice of blue in the sky and a rainbow arching over the valley, ending – quite auspiciously – in my hotel room.

Buoyed by the good sign, I went back to my room and my waiting laptop and this time I actually wrote. I felt connected and clear of my feelings, the guilt of getting away finally quieted. I didn’t leave my desk until lunchtime.

The next morning I woke up early and discovered my favorite thing about a solo writing retreat: that first cup of tea. You wake up. You boil the kettle. You return to a scene you wrote the day before – and you don’t have to talk to anyone. You don’t have to sort out PE kits or brush someone’s hair or make a lunch yet. It’s just you, the tea and your work going on.

By noon, with several hours of words under my belt, I was ready to feel my face again. I set off on the coastal path, alone except for seabirds darting about and a meager herd of deer. I paused in the shelter of some rocks and took out my notebook and jotted down an idea about a plot problem I was struggling with. Writing outdoors, with a view of endless horizon, felt like heart-searing goodness.

A few hours later, I returned to the sanctuary of my room and discovered my next favorite thing about a solo retreat: room service. Two beautiful scones, thick with Devonshire cream and homemade raspberry jam, arrived minutes later. I have rarely been happier.

That night I opened the only book I brought with me on the retreat, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the sea, first published in 1955. The author, a mother of five, describes how she spends some time each year alone at a cabin on the beach. There she would write and think, then return to her world and duties feeling restored. She writes: “There is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.”

I began to think she might be up to something. If, like me, you work from home during a busy stage of family life, inspiration is often cut short by the school run or the dozens of other small tasks that parenting involves – so don’t have Interruptions for three days felt like I could light those flames and let them burn bright.

I chose to be offline during my retreat. No social media. No Google rabbit holes. No reach to call a friend or turn on the television. I was also relieved to discover that I quite liked my own company. I talked to myself, laughed to myself, and was amazed at the number of hours there are in a day when they are all your own.

The guilt I left with receded. I knew it was valuable time. I wrote more in three days than in the previous three weeks. But it was never about output. It was about creating space, being quiet, sitting with myself and seeing what happened.

A solo retreat isn’t just for writers or artists or creatives. It is for anyone and everyone of us. A hotel may not fit your budget. Three days may feel like an impossibility. But carving out an hour on a regular basis, in a space you love, where you can sit and be still, might just be possible, right? I wonder what you will discover in the silence.

Five ways to get the most out of a solo retreat

Choose a place that inspires Choose an environment for your retreat that excites or inspires you. New environments stimulate our neural pathways and aid creativity.

Dadagain back communication Stay in touch if you must, but a digital detox can be valuable in reducing distractions and creating space.

Pepper the day with pleasure This time is for you. Try asking, “What would I like to do?” rather than “What should I do?” Run a hot bath, take a leisurely walk, or order yourself a cocktail.

Accept all the feelings A retreat is rarely wall-to-wall inspiration. There will probably be moments of frustration or loneliness or distraction or guilt, so try to accept them and let them pass.

Pursue creativity over productivity You don’t have to be too ambitious with your goals. Taking a solo retreat is more about having the space to go deeper with your work, rather than the physical output. Think of it as topping up the tank.

Lucy Clarke’s latest novel, The Walk, is published by HarperCollins at £13.99. Buy it for £12.31 from guardianbookshop.com

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