I’m about a third of the way through the re-write of my novel. It’s been a bit of a slog, and I was ready for a break. Fantastic timing, then, for my writing group’s summer weekend in Swanage, a seaside town on the Dorset coast.
The sun came blazing out on Saturday morning, sending me down the cliff path for an early-morning bathe. A day that starts with a swim is always off to a good start, and this was one of the best.
The group (The Full English, named for our practice of getting together over a leisurely weekend breakfast) was formed about 18 months ago by friends and acquaintances in the Dulwich area with an interest in creative writing. Initially we discussed our current projects, plans and experiences of writing. A couple of times we met in the evening over a meal, reading pieces we’d chosen to share. But this weekend would be different – we were going to spend time writing together, then sharing the results.
One of our members had generously offered the use of her glorious rose-covered holiday cottage for the weekend. After breakfast, we each gathered objects from the house or garden to spark inspiration, brought them to the garden table and set a timer. Half an hour to produce a story. Objects on the table included a posy of old-fashioned pink roses, a pair of chopsticks in their paper wrapper, a shell, a box of tissues and the starter for sourdough bread, bubbling away in its tupperware box.
I chose to write by hand, to fit the freedom of writing outdoors and for fun. I associate my laptop with ‘serious’ writing, and this was play. After half an hour, we called time and each read out our pieces. Astonishingly, we had five complete stories, as varied in tone as in subject matter. Some were finished stories, rounded arcs with surprisingly polished imagery. Others felt like the start of something, an opening chapter for a novel you wanted to read.
Suitably warmed up, we retreated to nooks around the house and garden to work on our chosen theme. The line we had chosen to inspire us was ‘I thought you were my friend.’ Try saying it in different ways – the simple surprise of mistaken identity, indignation, accusation, resignation. Add a comma – ‘I thought, you were my friend.’ It proved to be a rich theme, sending several of us back to the intensity of schoolgirl friendships.
By the time we broke for lunch, I felt as if I’d been swimming underwater, emerging slightly dizzy from a deep dive into the 1970s Cambridge of my early childhood. I’d dredged up memories that had lain undisturbed for years, like weeds at the bottom of the River Cam. I felt muddy and sleepy over lunch. Time for a brisk walk over the cliffs.
The skies were deeply blue, the sun hot. Up on the cliff tops, the breeze was fresh and the view breathtaking, hundreds of sailing yachts dotting the cornflower sea as we walked across to Old Harry’s Rocks. We talked of our lives, our plans, the unending quest for a way to balance creativity and fun with earning a living. We hatched tentative plots for joint projects, discussed self-publishing and the future of short stories in a digital publishing world.
Another swim to cool off, the delight of wallowing in the gentle swell of the ocean, colder undercurrents mixing with warmer water in the shallows. Then back to the house for – supposedly – more time to work on our writing. Maybe I should draw a veil over how much more writing actually got done, among the tea drinking and cake eating, dog walking and cat napping.
We reassembled for champagne and takeaway fish’n’chips – a combination much to be recommended – then settled in the cosy living room to share our work. Goodness. Betrayal, deception, the perils of emerging sexuality, rage, envy and love. And one strangely recurrent theme – don’t trust a red-head.
Stories need drama. But the quiet nature of the companionship of the five women in the room belied the darkness of the stories we’d created. We all had our dramas – personal stories, family stories, shared over a glass of wine or a cup of tea during our breaks between writing. The lovely thing about the weekend was the way we’d created a safe, supportive space that allowed us to explore the wilder reaches of our imaginations. That really is what writing groups – and friends – are for. We talked late into the night, unwilling to bring an end to what had been a truly golden day. We’re already making plans for next year.
Photos courtesy of Yang-May Ooi.