Bowie, Blake & Beethoven, on a Midwinter Writers’ Retreat

Just keep writing‘, ‘work through the intestines‘ of your writing, ‘commit to your writing and just write‘. One of the recurring themes of this powerful Midwinter Writers’ Retreat in the heart of rural Sussex, hosted expertly by writers Gilly Smith and Jed Novick, has been to not worry about the quality of every word you write as you write it, but to get words onto the page, and go back and edit them later. The concept was not new to me, as a songwriter I know all about the importance of getting the initial ‘splurge’ of a song out into the world, and then spending time revisiting and refining. However, this felt different, and author Tom Connolly‘s tip of writing notes (encouraging as well as critical) to yourself as you write was something I put into practice straight away.

I don’t know how it started but after Tom’s workshop and one to one I went up to my room in this wonderful glass fronted house of dreams and immediately wrote four verses of a song about my father, a song I have wanted to write for years but kept getting stuck. I knew this wasn’t the complete song, and this time instead of simply leaving at that I took Tom’s advice and wrote, as appropriate, ‘strong chorus here‘, and ‘this is where the brilliant middle 8 will go‘ instead of beating myself up about only writing a partial song. Coming back to the song this afternoon (Day 2) I read my own words of encouragement, and smiled. It really helped! It was as if I was helping myself.. instead of blocking myself (my usual habit). I worked ‘through the intestines’ of it all and came out the other side with the whole song.

The other 9 participants on this retreat are all writing novels, or books. Each and every one of them has compelling stories to tell, and the stamina to even tackle the form of a novel. I love reading novels and I hope to read all 9 of the books that these writers produce. For my writing I prefer the concise nature of song, the distilling of a story, experience or even a feeling into 3 or so minutes. Nevertheless I got so much from Tom’s talk on Day 1 that was very relevant to my songwriting, and on Day 2 the crime novelist William Shaw talked about writing in this genre, about character, about plot, about the shape of stories and I was inspired to take this straight up to my room and complete my song, ‘The Quiet Man’. I allowed myself to shape it so it had a beginning and an end, and told a whole story. I wrote a much longer song than I would have felt confident about doing before, and inspired by both Tom and William to allow space in the story for the listener to be able to digest it I punctuated the song with a strong chorus and more guitar playing than I would normally feel comfortable with.

‘Looking for the art in yourself, not for yourself in the art’ can help shape an autobiographical chapter or song in a way that allows the listener/reader to use their own imaginations to fill the gaps, making the experience and the sharing more universal and relevant rather than just personal to the writer. Again, leaving space is important. William said ‘you need to leave space for characters to move around in and surprise you,’ and all the writers here this weekend have talked about characters evolving in unexpected ways… they have a life of their own.  

In a supportive and beautiful group of people we have shared inspiration, tips, sticking points, set backs, stories and snippets from our own lives, and bits of our writing. We have stayed in a beautiful space, been fed the most delicious meals, walked in the woods, sat and done some extraordinary Dreamwriting and throughout we have felt the presence of Bowie, Beethoven and Blake (you had to be here).

Listening to precious pearls of wisdom from two brilliant and successful authors (and lovely men) who were so very generous in their communication was enjoyable, useful and inspiring. Giving myself (with the help of my great friend Gilly Smith) permission to step out of my life, my head and my blocks, and simply retreat and write has been the greatest gift.

It’s over, and I want to do it all again. I’m also writing again and it feels so good.

Thank you Gilly and Jed, thank you Sussex House Party, thank you life.


Midwinter retreat snow





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