To Retreat or not to Retreat


The word ‘retreat’ makes me think of moving away from the everyday life (necessary for me), but I think of this writing time more as moving towards something – the world of the word and imagination. You can call me Jacqueline Lucky Saphra. I have a dear friend who purchased and renovate a medieval cottage in Suffolk three or four years ago. When it was finished, she sent me a photograph of a bed with a white embroidered quilt on it and said ‘This is your room’. Never mind A Room of One’s Own, just try A Cottage of One’s Own. I know some don’t have a room, let alone a cottage and I am conscious that I’m privileged in this; I justify this to myself with the thought that I really do work while I’m here. I work harder than I ever thought possible. I have a key at all times and come here whenever I can. Some retreats are more successful than others, but this one and the previous one have been the most productive by far. This is because my project is specific. I’m working on my next collection – some of the poems go back many years.

I’m reminded of the Arvon courses I used to go on and how much I loved them until I began to resent the routine – the calls to mealtimes and washing up and even the on-going company of other writers, however lovely. I began to realise that all I needed was to be alone. It’s different for people who live alone anyway, I know; for them the change is in being around people all day, but for me it’s delicious to wake up with my own thoughts and stay with them.

Today is day five of my writing retreat and I find myself running out of steam so I’m taking a break and writing a blog. I have been most attentive to my process – I’m always interested in process, and it seems I need to stop for a while. It’s been a whirlwind of thought and activity up until now. The mornings I wake up slowly, let thoughts surface and grow sometimes for an hour or two before I rise. I’m going slightly feral, stop caring what I look like, don’t look in the mirror, live in tracksuits and eat muesli for dinner. I do shower every morning because it helps me to feel clearer (and no doubt less smelly – although I’m the only one who’d know that). Mostly I pass my days without speaking to anyone except the lady in the (award-winning) local bakery, a brief phone call home or a nod to people I pass on the path when I go out for my daily walk along the marshes by the estuary.

Lately I have been thinking of the retreat as gradually immersing myself in a body of warm water where I can somehow, by a process of metamorphosis, breathe and move without really trying. I had thought that nine days of this would be far too long, but it turns out I have a long list of poems half written or barely started as well as a manuscript to knock into shape. And poems take a long time. As I’m so fond of saying, if we were paid by the hour we’d all be millionaires. Yesterday I spent the whole day working on a triolet (that’s an eight-line poem but four of them are repeated, so four lines really). At home, I would be rushing it, or having to take breaks to do domestic things or have conversations or go out to meet people. Here, it’s just me and the poem. I can take my time and it feels amazing and almost ecstatic like a kind of religious experience when it’s working. So amazing that by the time I head out for my afternoon walk round four o’clock, I feel as if I’m wearing seven league boots or perhaps winged feet like Hermes; the work gives me such momentum and I have walk off some of the excess energy. I’ve learned to love the sound of the bells on the boats on the estuary, the calls of the seagulls (not so pretty) and the sight of the birds (starlings I think) startled out of the hedgerows as I go past. And the rhythm of walking often produces the most useful insights of the day. Although sometimes I’m fooled by that rhythm as well.

Yes, it’s a challenge and the poetry isn’t working all the time and I have to talk to myself. I have to remind myself that it’s going to be okay, and if  it isn’t, it doesn’t matter because this is my process. Whatever is not salvageable is taking me towards what is. I have to remind myself to focus on the journey and not the arrival. Being alone encourages you to dialogue with yourself. I have to pat myself on the back and give myself breaks and cups of tea and even cake. I have to say to myself ‘Look what you’ve done! Look what you’re doing! Bravo! Keep going!’ or ‘That’s a bit shit, Jacqui, but don’t worry because it won’t all be shit’ –  because writing here is like writing anywhere (though yes, it’s more intense) and nobody else will say those things to me, not on demand anyway. I feel, as I go deeper into this book, as if I’m often taking myself by the hand and leading myself towards the darkest and most difficult places.

But you know, it’s all fine really. Right now my everyday life feels further away than the work of my imagination. And what could be finer than sitting here in the fading daylight musing on poetry and process all on my own, with my thoughts wandering away to the question of whether to have strawberries or banana with my muesli tonight? Or both! Maybe I’ll have both!

And by the way, read this: my constant companion this week has been Lowell’s late poem, Epilogue

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