The thing about being on ‘retreat’ is that it’s perceived as restful. A place where you lie down or dream, away from the world which sent you retreating from it in the first place. A retreat is a pause: the calm far from storms.
And the thing about writing fiction is that the story often doesn’t pause at all. It can be obsessive. Chaotic. It takes over mind and body, though it’s the brain and fingertips which get the most strenuous workout. It’s possibly not unlike playing the piano, the imagination searching for all the right notes.
It’s a rare thing to have this chance to retreat and write. Both my previous novels were written in cramped spaces. Fitted around other commitments, interruptions, invasions. Over this past year I’ve sought isolation, and yet there were still broken things which needed mending. Slates coming down in the winds, flooding, noise.
Here at the Ardtornish Estate on the Morvern peninsula, there is silence. Everything that’s in the surrounding environment can flow into the writing, because there’s enough quiet to allow this to happen. I’m living in a cottage which anywhere else would be described as a house. The rooms are wood-clad and painted in subdued greens, whites and blues. Each window contains a different view: woodland, river, light.
Outside is a vast sky which often rains, refills itself, spills again. When it clears, the blue is blinding. Pink and grey strands of clouds thread through sunrises and sunsets. The birch trees are silver in daylight and become shadows of themselves at dusk.
I’m working on my third novel: a love story. At this stage I’m writing around the theme of love. Experimenting with how to describe emotions. Writing a love story in such an elemental location, where nature is exuberant and full, even the light through the leaves stings my eyes. Catches my breath. Long midsummer evenings can be melancholic.
The environment and the theme of love are merging: awakening a hypersensitivity to nature. There are ferns which look like cathedrals when seen from beneath. Great mossy rocks rise as hills, walls, cliffs – these are the shapes of a muscular landscape. The few dead trees are ancient ones. Bleached sculptural forms, as if every crack has been thoughtfully designed and drawn in pencil long before the tree died. And water. A river. The wider view of Loch Aline, seen from a bridge; a silver mirror which reflects an ever-changing sky.
This retreat isn’t a retreat merely from practical interruptions. It’s from other people. Relationships. Love and all of its repercussions, perhaps. I’m learning how to write about love, while being here on my own. Loneliness comes and goes – it can pour itself out in words rather than tears. So can love.
Since being here, I constantly question notions of solitude, intimacy, and the writing process. Can the writer of a love story be ‘in love’ while writing or will this filter the tale through rose-glowing lenses? Is it best to remain distant from those whom are loved, to write more honestly? And what of lost love? If this is written of, will it be unwittingly found again? Love is often lost for good reason. I am writing fiction – characters who have their own stories to tell. All fiction is in some way autobiographical. These overlaps of imagination and real life seem more important within a love story than in any other tale.
So while retreating and writing, I find myself filled with unanswered questions. How brave, how alone, how lonely do I have to be, to write honestly about love? I am hunting for the answers, willing them to emerge from this landscape of river, rock, woodland, loch.
Every human observes relationships between other humans. People walking hand-in-hand, the late morning couples in greasy-spoon cafes, the sounds from the back row of the cinema. At first these memories come like visitors – remembered more clearly from this distance. Then all this space chases these memories away. And still, I am writing about love.
As I walk along the river, I remember this line from a poem: ‘Nothing in the world is single.’
And love appears everywhere:
The river’s relentless love for the rocks it crashes over. A heron’s passion for fish. So many visible stars – join the dots. The bridge worships its own reflection. Boats hanker for bigger waves. And love’s darkness as well; love can, after all, kill us. If love stories are to be believed.
I’m here to hunt answers and fish for words. So I sit at the desk.
In the next paragraph of my book:
I seek out a lone fisherwoman and ask her to tell me how she fishes.
She tells me she looks each fish in the eye before she kills it.
I tell her that might be love, and ask her if she’s ever seen Cupid.
She says there’s more love in this world than we know what to do with. Cupid’s hiding, afraid of being shot.
And on that note, I look away from the screen.
Outside again, I watch a bee rolling drunk from the heart of every rose around the front door. It could almost be humming these lines from a half-remembered poem:
‘And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?’