I am writing this on a train on the way to Gladstone’s library for a few days. I am taking a novel for adults I wrote 10 years ago and going on a tutored retreat with the novelists Shelley Harris and Stephanie Butland. I can’t wait to see Shelley again, meet Stephanie for the first time and go to this beautiful place I have heard so much about.
The first time I met Shelley was at Retreats for You in Devon two or three years ago.
I was there to ‘get away from it all’ as I was very stressed as a carer trying to support my unwell elderly parents - and I remember embarrassing myself by bursting into tears at the table. I remember being there with a wonderful (as yet unpublished but watch this space!) writer called A.J. Pearce and Shelley and they and Deborah Dooley, the person who runs Retreats for You, being so kind. I remember that when I went to bed at night there was already a hot water bottle in my bed - and I felt so cared for by that small but (literally) warming gesture. I remember sleeping lots, and good food, and walks and great chats with Shelley and A.J and the other guests, and lots and lots of writing. I remember Shelley gave me very helpful feedback on a bit of the unpublished ‘Girl with a White Dog’ I read out to her, and A.J . gave me the invaluable advice to go to Germany if I was setting my novel there! I did, and the final pieces of my first novel ‘Girl with a White Dog’ fell into place.
I am no longer a carer as such. My mum sadly died last year, and although I keep an eye on my 88 year old dad who lives opposite me, & go to occasional hospital appointments with him, he is amazingly independent and cooks for himself. But I still have four children, and life is very busy, and I seem to have been ill alot these last months, so it is wonderful to get away, even if I will miss my lovely husband, children and dogs.
I’m going away to write, but I am also going away to gain perspective. Last night I had delusions of divinity (not really - just a bit of lack of perspective!) and couldn’t sleep for worrying about the world. It was a bit like the scene in Bruce Almighty with the emails. Like most writers, my imagination can be a foe as well as a friend, and I worried extensively and uselessly about world peace, climate change, war, refugees and (rather self-absorbedly) myself and my family too, and then I said a prayer, got up about 5 am and sorted out the family laundry. That small thing helped. I might not have solved the world’s problems, but my family had clean clothes. And, though it might not be about international relations, for my teenagers facing the stress of what clothes to wear for a non-uniform day today, that does matter!
Despite my night time delusions, I don’t know how to fix the world, but I do know that if it is going to be fixed it will not be by my worrying or thinking I am God but by my and other people’s practical love and kindness. It will be by millions of people doing ‘small’ things like leaving hot water bottles in beds and letting people cry and rest, it will be by people making people welcome - whether tired writers or carers or refugees- and listening to each other and by people remembering that kindness years afterwards.
So I want to thank people like Deborah Dooley and her husband who welcome writers (and others) who need to get away from it all , for how they make the world better, and for how they make those they welcome feel better for years later. And I want to thank teachers and critics and fellow writers like Shelley and A.J., who are gentle and constructive with criticism - who welcome our words and give them shelter and the nourishment of attention. Kindnesses last for years - words turn into novels, and the memories last long after we have got away from it all and returned home.
P.S. I am here at Gladstone's library now and it is GORGEOUS. Highly recommended!