2020 Winner of the Moniack Mhor Writing Retreat Prize

Charlotte Wightwick

Baby goats, cavorting
Ghost stories
More laughter (really, a lot)
Curry and cranachan
Hobbit House
Log fires
Heather, lichen, red-and-white spotted mushrooms
Timid deer, spotted fleetingly between tree trunks in a pine-scented forest
Birds of prey, soaring on thermals high above the mountains and valleys, supremely indifferent to anything except for the scurrying of small, and to us, invisible creatures.

*sings* These are a few of my favourite things… or at least they are the things that first come to mind when I think of my week at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre. I was there this August, having won a week’s stay for my Caledonia Novel Award 2020 Highly Commended novel, The Anatomist’s Wife.

Some of you will say, “but surely the writing should be the first thing that comes to mind?” Well, yes.  My week was a pure retreat: no tutors or lectures, just time in which to write. I was back working on another draft of The Anatomist’s Wife, responding to feedback I’d received during the course of the year. And I got a great deal done.

My fellow writers were all at different stages, not only of their writing careers but also with their projects. Some were well-established authors with multiple books to their name; others newly-published debut authors, others again searching for that elusive ‘break’. Some of us were heads down, writing first drafts. Others were deep in edits from agents or editors. Others again were re-plotting a novel that just wasn’t working, or developing initial ideas into stories.  All of us were there for the same thing, however: to give some dedicated, quality time to the craft of writing.

Stephen King, in his much-loved book On Writing, talks about a “fairy-tale perfect” writer’s colony, where writers write all day in a beautiful and peaceful environment and spend the evenings drinking wine, toasting marshmallows and critiquing each other’s work in a spirit of comradely encouragement. I was reminded of this “enchanted writing environment” when I arrived at Moniack Mhor, with its stunning highland setting, friendly staff, good food and cosy atmosphere.

Of course, Mr King goes on to say that he is sceptical, at least in part, of the benefits of such environments. I agree with many of his points: as writers, we need to be able to write not only when the conditions are perfect, but also when the busy minutiae of life press on us; and conversely, the pressure created by having endless time to write can itself be counterproductive. I also agree that bad peer critiques (even with marshmallows and wine thrown in) are considerably worse than none at all. But I can’t agree with everything he says:

“One serious problem with writers’ workshops is that I hafta becomes the rule. You didn’t come, after all, to wander lonely as a cloud, experiencing the beauty of the woods or the grandeur of the mountains. You’re supposed to be writing, dammit.”

My week at Moniack Mhor was entirely the reverse of this. With the exception of one writer – who drew the curtains in his room to shut out the distraction of a beautiful view and emerged only occasionally and briefly (and good luck to him, if that’s what works for him) – the rest of us all seemed to have the same idea: that our time in retreat was not solely, or even mostly, to bash out as many words as we could, but rather to nourish our writing.

And nourishment is not found only, or solely, at the keyboard. I don’t use the word ‘inspiration’ – it has too many connotations, most of them unhelpful. The antics of the kids in the paddock next to us, leaping and bleating, did not have me writing an entertaining scene about baby goats. Nor did our session of teenage-style ghost stories around the fire one evening (sadly, no marshmallows) make me realise that my true calling is to write Tales Of The Night (whooo). Both made me laugh, though. And after an hour or two of laughter, good food and yes, even “the beauty of the woods” and “the grandeur of the mountains”, I came to my keyboard with a feeling of profound contentment and enthusiasm: both relaxed and exhilarated. It was an atmosphere I found to be incredibly productive.

Did I discover, as Stephen King puts it, “The Magic Secrets of Writing”? No, but then as he makes clear, and I have learned (as we all do, the hard way): there aren’t any. Did I make good progress on my novel, meet some wonderful people and return home refreshed and invigorated, ready to write some more?  In summary, did I have a grand time? Absolutely. To finish by quoting On Writing once more: “and grand times are something I’m always in favour of”.

Charlotte Wightwick, October 2021.

With grateful thanks to Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre.

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