I decided to go on a retreat a few years ago. When people asked me why, I tried to explain, but always got a sense I’d left something out; I circled back to the beginning, tried again. Words followed words, my voice grew shrill. I felt there was one piece of information that would clarify it all, but I didn’t know what it was. I kept searching, talking; overcrowding my thoughts with exhausting analysis.
It’s rather like the beginning of a story.
At first, I feel a gentle sense of pressure. I wonder if I imagined it, but no, there it comes again – a jab now. It’s driving me on, but I can’t explain it. I keep searching for answers, starting, having to go back – certain I’ve overlooked the most important detail. But now it’s too crowded – I can’t find my way through.
That’s when I know I need space.
How can writing grow into something if it doesn’t have that?
If we fuss with an idea too soon, then all we have are layers of anxious flapping – all sense of story squashed.
Before I went on the retreat, my writer’s head was solid earth. All I was able to do was make a slow worm’s path through it. I was often worried about missing something in this dense terrain. How could I be certain I was crawling the right path? The story might be over there! But no openings offered themselves, just dark black earth.
I didn’t realise I was jamming my stories up with unnecessary thought. I needed to make space – throw out some earth. But how?
For a while, I tried ranting, splurging on the page – but the writing made me despair. I stopped it coming. Then I felt clogged up again. Finally, I packed up my bike, got on a train and found myself at a house in Somerset with good people who understood the importance of space.
The first time I sat in silence, I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t a course, there were no other retreatees, only the ‘family’ who ran the house.
I woke up at 6am and joined them in a large room, which had several pictures of gurus over an alter, including the founder of the house who was an elderly woman I thought of as Mata, because I couldn’t remember her more convoluted name. I sat on a wooden stool with a rug over my lap and spent an hour trying not to fall asleep, move or cough. And then I got so hungry I went in search of a banana I’d seen in the sitting room the night before.
What if that had been a first attempt at a story? Sitting at my desk, fighting everything that tried to come, trying to fit in.
No, I can’t fall asleep!
Doesn’t it make sense that the first time I sit and look inward all I pick up is exhaustion, when I’ve been pushing myself non-stop for years, surrounded by people doing the same? The first attempt at a story will be hard – we’ve not done it before; perhaps others, but not this one.
And what’s wrong with moving or coughing – writing an unsuitable word, or starting with a plotline that splits down the middle?
When I think of a room of monks, I don’t see them fidgeting and spluttering: they’re still and perfectly calm. But even monks were boys once: running around, shouting, wetting their pants.
Does Hilary Mantel’s precise prose make me fear my clumsy first attempts?
‘Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety?’ Hilary asks in her memoir. She’s had her times of spluttering and fidgeting; the difference is that, over a dozen books, she’s learnt her anxieties to the point of familiarity.
How can we progress as writers if we hold ourselves like a statue and allow nothing to come for fear that it isn’t the very best? How do we think the very best is got to? By exploration, surely. How can the worm navigate the soils of our mind if we turn those soils to stone?
I felt like a failure the first time I sat in silence on my retreat. I thought I’d never be able to do it. The trouble was, I didn’t know what ‘it’ was, and therefore didn’t realise I’d just done it.
‘It’ is the act: the act of sitting, the act of writing.
Because I held greatness up as my model – great literature, great enlightened souls – my expectations were far ahead of myself. I wanted to open my eyes and discover I was levitating.
All we can do with a first attempt is allow ourselves the chance to see what happens. A first draft is a quest. How can we hope to improve, if we reject every clue that comes to us?
There was a church near the house where I was on retreat. I was grateful for the clock, which chimed on the quarter. Otherwise, I’d have felt as though I was staring into never-ending time. It was strange to me that when faced with something endless, without perimeter, the feeling was often one of claustrophobia.
Sometimes I’d wait for the chiming, counting the moment I could leave. Other times, I’d spend each 15 minutes lost in contemplation, jumping from one idea to the other: going over troubles, problems, arguments, concerns, thinking about my writing, working stories out, going over dreams, going over past events, thinking about recipes, food, exercise, clothes; aware of my body – feeling my hips tense, my back hurting, my feet beginning to go numb, my ankles stiffening up, desperately needing to move, but thinking, no, no, I shouldn’t make a noise. I was aware of all the other sounds in the room, every time someone moved, sneezed; every time someone left, someone arrived. Aware of it all and thinking that I shouldn’t be, thinking that what I should be was in a state of absolute unknowing, unaware of everything that was going on around me: not able to hear the chimes of the clock, not thinking: I wonder who that is? when they come in the room; not inclining my head and slightly opening my eyes when someone sits next to me. And certainly not – on one particular morning when I’d come to sit, listening to everyone leave the room, suddenly knowing I was alone, and saying: it’s just me and you, babe! to the image of Mata above the altar.
By this point I thought I was a very bad retreatee.
I found a map in a cupboard and went for a fourteen mile walk. I wished I wasn’t me. Then I wondered who I could blame for the fact that I was me. Then I felt angry and pathetic because all I wanted to do was cry.
This was how I used to feel about my writing.
Why? I would wail at a calamitous first draft. How could I have written something that makes no sense?
‘Work out what it is you want to say,’ Hilary Mantel says.
But how can we work that out if we’re too busy berating ourselves?
Later in the retreat, I was sitting in the evening. Something had shifted – though I didn’t realise. I was now in total despair. I thought I’d gone backwards, but actually this was progress: I was giving my feelings attention. Rather than trying to ‘behave’ by staying awake and not squirming on my stool, I was simply sitting there in total desolation. It felt horrible – terrifying – but there wasn’t anything else I could do. There’d been this large deep black pit, tagging along behind me, and I was too tired to dodge it anymore. I wanted the chase to end, so I threw myself in.
At some point, I noticed the strange feeling of claustrophobia had left me. I was no longer holding myself in. This black pit was dark, but spacious – frightening, but not constricting. The feeling of being hemmed in had been replaced by endless sadness. Suddenly, I didn’t want to criticise myself anymore.
In my mind, I saw Princess Leia.
I have no idea where she came from. I liked Star Wars as a child, but I’m not a fanatic. It’s the moment where Luke finds the recording of her in R2D2. He plays it over and over, fascinated. At the end of the recording, she bends over – to press a button on R2D2. That was the moment she came into my mind, bending like that – to me it seemed to represent compassion. But there’s also her message: help me, Obi Wan Kanobi, you’re my only hope, she says – although I didn’t remember that when I first saw the image in my head. That evening at the retreat, when I saw Princess Leia, she was standing behind me, bending over to my ear. She said two words. With Love.
How do you create space? For me, the task has been a dissolving. I started with a head full of earth. Everything was coming at once, and I wasn’t listening to any of it. But slowly I began to pay attention – with love. I took a handful of earth, held it in the palm of my hand, watched it – asked for help.
You’re finding this story hard, it told me.
I continued to watch. Asking, why? would only pile on more soil.
I comforted the person who found the story hard, rather than criticised them. I continued to watch the clump of soil; see if there was anything else it wanted to say. After a few days, it began to crumble. This lump began to break up into fragments, which became specks. They got to the point that they became so tiny they were just air.
These days my head is far less dense. My stories have a lot more room. The process is the same, but now I recognise the fear – my tendency to constrict myself when I’m embarking on a new piece. It even happened with this post, but its familiar now – a feeling of being overwhelmed, out of my depth, wanting to run.
With love, I always remember.
I treat myself how I would treat my favourite author if they told me they were trying to get a first draft out, but finding it hard. I’d make them comfortable and safe. I’d cook them lovely things. Tell them to rest, to take a moment to get outside and look at the sky. I’d reassure them.
The next time you want to wail, put that thought in your hand and look at it. Don’t question it, don’t criticise. Speak it to yourself, whatever it is. At some point, you’ll feel comfort and you’ll have the strength to explore a little further and allow that first draft to come – messy and scrappy but infinitely beautiful for the clues it holds for you to continue your quest.
Helen Mackinven on Freefall Writing
Chris Barnham on Mining Loneliness