I went away to not-write. One of the things they don't tell you at Hogwriter's College is that once a large part of your mental and financial self is involved with writing, no writing you do can quite escape a price tag of its likely cost or profit in terms of time, career, craft-training or hard cash. And so the pressure to keeping going with your writerly work can be as relentless as the pressure once was to put it away, and go to office parties or wipe toddlers' noses.
But for the first time in a very long time, I had neither a novel of my own to plan or write or re-write, nor a novel of someone else's to report on. My Open University students had done some lovely pieces, but the tutorial was drawing to a close. There's a short story I want to write even though I suspect it's really a novel, but it's a big, structurally complex beast that can perfectly well wait. I'm not even riding on that great WriteWords institution, the Lifeboar, who was once a Lifeboat: the place where everyone with work out on submission huddles together for warmth, and waits for signals from beyond the horizon.
So I emailed the wonderful Deborah Dooley, a journalist who also runs Retreats for You in her home in the indecently pretty North Devon village of Sheepwash; and I just got there before the snow cut them off again from Exeter. Deborah and Bob know that even writers who have built space and time for writing into their ordinary lives, sometimes need to be somewhere else to find it. There's a lot to be said, too, for having three lovely meals a day appear and disappear without you having to lift more than a knife and fork – or a spoon for the sticky toffee pudding. Then there's the massage she can arrange for your writer's shoulders and back, and the perfect balance of Do Not Disturb in your white-washed room with a fringe of thatch outside the window, and good writerly company downstairs by the Rayburn when you want it. My fellow-guest Michelle covered the walls of her room with yellow post-it notes, planning her YA novel, and worked for two lots of four hours a day, while I put on boots and took my camera, and went out to use my eyes and not my word-mind. I sat by the fire and read, finishing the utterly wonderful Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor, and reading the fascinating (though very arguable-with) Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen. I talked writing (because I can't not), but I didn't do any, because I didn't have to and I was loving it. And I slept. I haven't slept so much for years.
So I didn't really see it coming when a little set of words, which I jotted on a scrap of paper weeks ago, suddenly came to mind again, and I found that I'd sellotaped them into my big notebook. Words: words for substances growing into images that grew into metaphors and thence into ideas. I sat in the window-seat and jotted one of those multi-meaning words down on the next page of the notebook and like frost-crystals more words began to form on its edges. I separated some crystals out, and grew more frost-crystals on each of them. A place name floated up, and then the place it came from, not in Devon but another of those haunted, liminal landscapes where the Celtic past is still present and our Anglo-Saxon lives can so easily bleed back into it. The place name was part of a journey: physical but also figurative. An opening sentence came.
I still don't have a character, let alone a story; I only have words, substances, sensations: a sense of consciousness but without connections. I still don't know what it's about: it's the absolute opposite of my novel-story. If I were a poet it might be a poem, for a good poem is always a journey, but I'm not, and in that form I couldn't do it justice. It isn't a novel, though no doubt some of the crystals will reappear in one, in a different pattern because all ice-crystals are unique. I don't know much about it at all, really, except that some of my best stories started this way, so I hope this one has too: by not-writing.
And while more ice-crystals form on the page and perhaps in the air, I hope that you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year writing or not-writing, and I thank you very much for doing so much to make this blog what it is.