At the start of this month Jacinta and I headed off to Devon to attend the Writers at the Watermill Retreat led by my wonderful friend of 30+ years (gulp), Christine Cooke.
Yes, you read that correctly. I attended the retreat. I went along not as the leader but as a student. Now those of you who are on the ball may realise that I’m running a Writing Me-Treat of my own in Devon next July and those of you really on the ball may realise that Christine’s retreat is also the venue for mine. Yes, I’ll come clean, while part of me could not resist going along for the fun of it, part of me wanted to be a bit of a spy too.
With my first Writing Me-Treat taking place next week in Penang I wanted to remind myself how it felt to be on the receiving end for a change. I wanted to observe how much people tended to eat and drink, how much free-time they seemed to need, how tired I became and how inspired. And, frankly, I wanted to be mindful of how much I enjoyed myself.
At four o’ clock on the first day eight attendees, Christine and her co-leader the marvellously named Anne Rainbow, gathered round Higher North Mill’s woodburner to eat sticky ginger cake and drink tea. We’d all installed ourselves in our respective cottages (Christine and her partner run the very wondrous Watermill Cottages holiday cottage business where our retreat was held). Jacinta and I were in Barleycorn, Sheila was in Quack, Viv and Clare in Crownwheel, Anne in Mill and Su and Liz in Rose. We’d all paused awhile atop the stone bridge that fords the giggling gurgling Gara River and already started to go all poetic. In short we were ready. I was looking forward to this…
But then something very strange happened…
“Please can you all introduce yourselves,” Christine began.
Oh good, I love this, the moment I can share I am an expat who’s lived abroad nigh on 30 years and that I am already a real, professional, paid-for-it writer. I crossed my legs and leaned back on the chintz sofa.
“All I want is your name, where you come from and what you like to write with…”
And so, I became just ‘Jo, from England, living in Holland, who writes with my soul’. I tried. I tried so hard to inject just a little bit of who I was into that simple, somewhat pollarded line. And I did not like it one bit.
As the afternoon progressed I could feel myself collapsing into myself, like a week-old Halloween pumpkin that sinks and shrivels. Hard as I tried I could not uncross my arms, apart from when we had a writing exercise. In short, I began to disappear.
The weekend progressed and we all enjoyed a marvellous dinner of duck cassoulet from their own ducks accompanied by a celeriac gratin, then crumble with apples from their orchard. Sure, I talked and joined in but I daren’t disclose anything of my true writing life. and that made me feel really weird. Certainly not myself. I felt like I was back at school, not in the front row with the swots or the back row with the fun ones, but down the side, side-lined, which was my usual spot at Stamford High. Over the course of what was a wonderful weekend of words and walks and mindfulness, of log fires and treasures found down in a valley where poets and dancers had walked, loved, played with boats and Pooh sticks and been inspired, I felt progressively more uncomfortable.
Christine noticed. Jacinta noticed. I was acutely aware of my discomfort. By stripping myself of my labels I felt raw, as if someone had peeled off a layer of my skin. I lay awake in the light of the full moon and the dawn pondering why I was finding it so very very hard.
Then, I had it.
At school, I really had felt side-lined. Never picked for the team, the choir nor the speaking parts in the plays. I hated feeling invisible. The days that I was happiest were the days when it was my turn to read the lesson in assembly or had drama class. The days I was allowed to shine. If I could not shine then I did not want to play. I’d wanted to be a writer when I grew up but had been told writing was ‘not a real career’ and so I did not feel ‘allowed’ to be the person I’d hoped to be.
By the time I went to live abroad, 30 years ago next month, I had written a couple of books and had carved myself the label I had dreamed of – ‘writer’. I never wanted to find myself describing myself as ‘just a’ something. And once I donned the label of ‘writer’ it has been as a ‘writer’ that I have lived my life. But it was not until this writing weekend that I realized how much I cling to my label like a liferaft. Without it I felt invisible, like at school.
And yet, with Christine, whom I’ve known for more than three decades I no longer feel the need to wear my label, nor with Jacinta, who’s been a friend for almost two. With people who know me anyway, the label does not matter. Slowly, painfully, as the weekend came to a close I found my metaphor…
My label is like a lifebelt with which I stop myself drowning in a sea of anonymity. I use it to swim to shore, but once I am ashore and with ‘my people’ I no longer need my leftbelt.
And I’d tried so hard to ‘be’ rather than only to ‘do’, not to be defined only by my actions. Seems I still have a long way to go.
On the final day of what had been a wonderful long weekend crammed with wild words, wild local food and wonderful women I asked Christine’s permission to ask the following question at the wrap-up session:
“I have to admit that I have felt very uncomfortable this weekend not feeling able to ask any of you anything about yourselves. Please, now, could you just tell me a little about who you are?”
And so I learned that in our midst had been a woman who had set up a commune in France, a photographer, a lawyer, someone who had spent 40 years in South Africa, someone who had changed her name and identity and someone who was often on the road with Cliff Richard (my childhood hero)! And then I came alive. I could relax. I could be myself. I had points of reference from which I could start conversations. I had fun and realised everything about the weekend had been perfect – the only problem had been my own attitude.
Jacinta and I stayed on an extra night and the next morning joined Christine and John at Venus Beach Café on Blackpool Sands for brunch. I confessed to how painful I had found the anonymity.
“I hated not being allowed to find out about each other,” I said.
“No one told you were not allowed to ask them,” Christine said. “I only asked you not to tell everyone who you were during the introduction, silly.”
Maybe it was all in my mind? Regardless, I learned a huge amount about myself this weekend, down in the glorious Gara Valley. I learned that I am very glad it’s my turn to be the teacher next week in Penang and that my ‘writer’ label has been hardwon and I shall continue to experiment with how it feels to leave it at home now and again – when I am feeling brave