A perfect place to write
GETTING AWAY:Whether you’re an established author, or someone who has always had a secret urge to give it a try, going on a writers’ retreat is a tried and tested way of finding inspiration, writes CAROLINE MADDEN
WRITING IS A SOLITARYpursuit, but finding solitude can be difficult. The 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau moved to a shack in the woods in search of the simple life. Dylan Thomas used to shut himself away in his “word-splashed hut”, a shed perched on a cliff ledge, from 2pm to 7pm every day so that he could write, think and sleep. Roald Dahl would disappear down to his private writing shed at the bottom of the garden, which no one else was allowed to enter, and it was there that he wrote all of his children’s books.
However, most 21st-century writers don’t have the luxury of having their own sanctuary where they can escape the interruptions of modern life. Retreating from the distraction of daily chores is crucial – to paraphrase the author Joy Held, people with clean houses do not have finished books – which is where residential writing retreats come in. Some give writers the space to do their own thing, others offer a more structured experience with workshops and tutorials, but all of these retreats allow participants to take a brief break from their responsibilities and devote themselves completely to what they love doing best.
Castletownbere, Co Cork
The library at Anam Cara says it all – eight shelves are needed to house all the books that writers have worked on while staying at the west Cork retreat. Several are even dedicated to the woman who modestly calls herself a “literary midwife”, Sue Booth-Forbes.
Writers who retreat to Anam Cara will find themselves first nourished physically, with three hearty meals cooked from scratch every day. “My father was a poet and my mother took care of him. He wouldn’t have been the poet he was if he didn’t have her,” says Booth-Forbes, who was born and raised in Utah.
Then there is the place itself, with its views of the Coulagh Bay and the Beara peninsula. The house sits on five acres of land with walking paths that lead down heather-covered hillsides, through a hazel grove, past a duck pond, and then skirt along a river bank past a cascading river-island waterfall. In all there are more than 30 nooks and crannies – from hammocks to meditation huts – dotted around the grounds, where people can sit and think.
“The Beara is such an inspirational place where people can come to really focus, in the quiet, on their own work and for the first time in a long time, to hear their own voice,” Sue says. “It’s amazing the impact of giving yourself time and space in a quiet place, just telling yourself that you are retreating.”
At Anam Cara, working hours are sacrosanct, and conversations during those times are to be kept out of earshot of others. In the evenings the writers and artists gather together for dinner and sometimes share their work, but other times it’s just a chance to unwind and enjoy each others’ company.
“Last night we all ended up in the hot tub out on the deck and the stars came out and it was just fabulous. We sat out there in the bubbling warm water and talked,” says Booth-Forbes.
However, according to writers who have stayed at Anam Cara, the magic ingredient is Booth-Forbes herself. As an experienced writer and editor, she can provide support if people have hit a block or would like some constructive feedback on their work. Chef, food writer and poet Gerry Galvin worked on his first novel, Killer à la Carte(a thriller about a London food critic who is also a serial killer) at Anam Cara and describes her as “a great mentor in a most low key way”, being both kind and rigorous. “What Sue gave me was a very clear picture of possibilities, and a sense that just because I hadn’t come to serious writing until my 60s that that was no barrier,” he says.
Irish crime writer Alex Barclay has spent time at the centre for each of the 13 books she’s written (and she has dedicated a book to Booth-Forbes), and describes it as an alternative universe where you can shut out the rest of the world. “Anam Cara is a beautiful, inspiring retreat with breathtaking views across the sea. But, really, Anam Cara is Sue,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing your first book or your 20th, whether you’re published or unpublished, even if all you’ve got is a pencil, a sketchpad and a plan, you will be welcome, and you will be supported.”
COUNTRY HOUSE WRITERS’ WEEKEND
Askeaton, Co Limerick
The writers’ getaway hosted by Yasmin and Donagh O’Grady at their ancestral home of Inchirourke, in the medieval Limerick village of Askeaton, has an unexpected dimension. As you drive deeper into their estate, passing through the woods, pausing to let a posse of turkeys cross your path, and finally crossing the threshold of their 150-year-old house, there’s a sense of retreating not only into a different world, but into a different time.
Inchirourke is a treasure trove of trappings from a bygone era. An enormous crocodile head lurks by a door. Beside a window, a lioness skin is draped upon a chest. On the stairs are glass cases of stuffed birds and collections of unusual eggs, and the walls are hung with displays of ancient riding crops and family portraits dating back as far as the 18th century. “The house is the extra team member,” says one participant who was on the writers’ weekend in September.
The retreat tutor, best-selling novelist Denyse Woods, who is also artistic director of the West Cork Literary Festival, made great use of the atmospheric surroundings. For one of the many creative-writing exercises employed over the weekend, she set the 10 participants the task of writing a brief story about some aspect of the house, which sparked tales featuring everything from the dinner gong to the enormous tree needed to fill the great hall at Christmas time.
The hall also served as the perfect setting for author Kevin Barry’s reading on the first night, while the workshops took place around a table in a wonderful, light-filled studio, complete with comfy sofa, a little wood-burning stove and a writing desk by the window. In the diningroom every evening, the writers helped themselves to sublime dishes (they use home-produced beef and lamb) from the sideboard under the watchful eye of Donagh’s grandmother and great-grandmother, looking down from a painting above.
The charming chatelaine of Inchirourke – or “a farmer’s wife”, as she describes herself – Yasmin O’Grady has a background in television and a huge interest in literature and so when she and Donagh decided that their home should help to earn its own keep, the idea of a house party-style writers’ retreat seemed perfect. Maintaining a large old house is such a challenge that you can start to view it as a burden, O’Grady says, but welcoming writers into their home has enabled the O’Gradys to see it with fresh eyes and appreciate it anew.
A great coup was getting literary agent Faith O’Grady to give an afternoon session on how to get published. While some people on the retreat were only starting with their writing projects, others had completed novels and Faith was able to give them insider tips on how best to approach agents and publishers. While she spoke of how competitive the marketplace is, she was also encouraging. “It can be difficult for new writers to find a home but if it’s a really good story, with intriguing characters and a distinctive voice, I believe they will succeed eventually,” she says.
As everyone says their farewells over a wonderful, old-style afternoon tea before heading back to real life, many of the writers are already making plans to return. One woman admitted that on her way down to the retreat, she had been so unnerved by the thought of attempting creative writing that she had very nearly turned her car around and driven home. “But I loved every minute of it. I’m sorry I didn’t start 20 years earlier.”
O’Grady will be hosting writers’ weekends on
April 20th-22nd and May 18th-20th, 2012
TYRONE GUTHRIE CENTRE
Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan
If the kitchen table in the Big House at Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan could talk, it would surely have some great stories to tell. Over the past 30 years, countless Irish writers have gathered around it to eat, drink, talk and sing in the candlelight. Everyone from Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney to Anne Enright and Sebastian Barry have at some point pulled up a chair and broken bread there.
When William Tyrone Guthrie bequeathed his ancestral home to the Irish people as an artists’ retreat, he laid down one rule: that the evening meal should be shared by the residents. And so, at 7 pm each evening, after a long day of intense work, everyone comes together at the kitchen table. What this simple ritual means is that a young emerging novelist can find themselves elbow to elbow with an internationally acclaimed writer. Although intimidating, it is also a huge confidence boost, as both will be treated with equal respect.
“Annaghmakerrig endorses and galvanises those who practise the creative arts,” says Robbie McDonald, director of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, which opened its doors in 1981. “It’s one of the few places in the country where you can sit around a table among your peers and everyone is in the same dilemma – trying to keep family and relationships and maybe a part-time job going, and at the same time get a few hours done.”
Hidden away in a remote corner of Co Monaghan, Annaghmakerrig has been described as a parallel universe, a place of heightened creativity. Time and again, writers have found inspiration in the lakeside country house, with its winding corridors, its cubby holes and curiosities, its Victorian feel. Those who tire of tackling the blank page indoors can seek inspiration while gazing out over the silent lake or wandering the forests of pine and fir that shroud Annaghmakerrig from the outside world.
Idyllic as it may sound, the work ethic is “very pronounced,” McDonald says. As it is a retreat for professional artists, writers must have had work published in order to be accepted by the selection committee. “We don’t correct your copybook,” he says. “Most people when they get here are delighted to have a week away from work and domestic responsibilities.”
A book published to celebrate 25 years of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre contains a selection of extracts from projects conceived, begun, progressed or completed in the house, and reveals just how staggeringly creative people have been while staying there. There are extracts from John Banville’s The Newton Letter, Colm Tóibín’s first novel The South, Colum McCann’s Dancer and many, many more. Although this fascinating volume runs to 250 pages, one of its editors, Evelyn Conlon, notes in the foreword that because of the embarrassment of riches to choose from, the selection is “only a corner of the mirror, a truncated glimpse of the thousands of ventures that learned to stand on their shaky feet in the rooms of this house”.