Le Writing Life

In which I go to rural France for a week-long writer’s retreat, and join a Proustian book club in London.

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I’m almost at the end of a week-long writing retreat at Circle of Missé, a writers’ colony and cooking school run by my friends Wayne and Aaron from their farmhouse in Missé, a sleepy little village in the Loire Valley, an hour or so south of Tours. It’s my fourth time here, and to me it’s become a second home (though Échalote, their moody, over-indulged spaniel, might disagree) and a creative powerhouse where I happily churn out work.

The farmhouse is late 19th century, in the grounds of a ruined abbey, and redecorated by Aaron and Wayne in what I like to call French Country Ghetto-Fabulous. (There’s a feather boa hanging rakishly from the curtain rail in the living room that looks like an old Shirley Bassey cast-off). My room, decorated in shades of soft green, faces north and looks out over wheat fields. It’s a perfect writer’s room – I wake up to sunrise every morning, and then it’s cool and quiet during the hot afternoons. The lawn and vegetable gardens were looking lush and overgrown, and we had most of our meals outside under the arbor in the front garden.

The house is set up to be as sociable or as reclusive as you need to be – breakfast pastries and coffee are laid out in the morning, and lunch is served in an adorable wooden lidded box, so you can eat in your room if you wish. In the evenings, we come together for dinner, and we talk about the day’s work, what books we’re reading, and reference the outside world, even though it feels a long way away.

The food, prepared by Aaron and the wonderful Alison and their disciples from the cookery course, is delicious and in constant supply. Most of the ingredients are grown in the garden and locally sourced, and as we’re in the middle of the Loire, the wine flows freely. The combination of glorious food, great company and stimulating conversation puts me in mind of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, describing a wonderful meal she attended at Cambridge: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Perhaps she should have added, “one cannot write well if one has not dined well”.

For me, it’s the perfect atmosphere in which to write. As much as I love writing, I find it lonely work, and I get a contact high from seeing and talking to people and getting feedback on my work. A writing retreat (which, in Missé terms, is French for “a week’s holiday in a small luxury hotel”) is the perfect combination of separate togetherness – peace and quiet during the day, and company when you need it.

For a country boy, it’s lovely to be out in the fields again. The summer weather was mostly hot and sunny, with occasional storms and humidity (with some bitchin’ thunder and lightning displays) that felt very Gone With the Wind. I took a walk each morning and evening through the wheat fields, and found what became my “Sense and Sensibility” view. I loved the cleanness of the lines between earth and sky, and the striking simplicity of the colour palette: the yellow of the wheat fields, the cornflower blue of the sky and the deep browns of the earth.

This week, I worked on short stories for what I hope will be a collection I can tout to agents and publishers. I finished good first drafts of two new stories, and did substantial rewrites of two existing stories that I started last winter. It was great to stretch my imagination and work on two new projects, writing in a mostly uninterrupted stream of thought, and with sufficient time to do some more careful editing later in the week. As I’ve found on past retreats, an extended period of time in which to write helps build confidence. By the end of the week, I was taking risks – cutting flabby sections of text, experimenting with different endings – that you can only do after a sustained period of work.

I love it so much here that it begs begs the question as to why I don’t live in rural France with a boyfriend and a spaniel. Until that happy day comes, I’ve decided to work on building a network of writers and readers in London, to try and sustain the momentum of all my good work here this week.

By happy coincidence, my Facebook feed throws up an advert for a book club in London dedicated to reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I make contact with the organiser, Michael, who seems smart and funny. He’s also a writer, and a gay boy, and claims to have read In Search of Lost Time before – which seems appropriate if he’s going to be facilitating. The timing feels delicious – a project I’ve been wanting to start for years finally becomes more doable due to my reducing my hours, and then a group of like-minded hipsters manifests to discuss it with me. Things are looking up.

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