Bidisha runs writers’ retreats. She reports that the women who attend struggle to carve out the time and psychological space for their work
Full disclosure: I have run a writers’ retreats in London and also in the beautiful French Alps, thanks to wonderful and generous friends who run a gorgeous chalet and care about nurturing the arts. Think Heidi meets Heidegger… or, perhaps, not. Instead, imagine yourself as Maria in The Sound of Music, Pippi Longstocking or the Chalet School Girls wielding pens, laptops and notebooks instead of milking buckets, wood chopping axes and felled Alpine chalet logs.
Many of the people I’ve met find the act of going on a retreat, be it a relatively unstructured personal-guidance stay, or one of the famous Arvon weeks of tutoring, readings and exercises, to be a huge step.
Retreats are not like mini-breaks, luxury holidays or chance last-minute internet bookings. They involve work, self-confrontation, doubt and (hopefully) eventual triumph.
Writers come to them with hope, with trepidation, with insecurity or with great expectation. There is the thrill of immersing oneself in the world of books, words, thoughts, ideas. There is the exposure of talking about and perhaps even performing some of one’s own writing. There is the chance to make new friends. There is the challenge of receiving constructive criticism and changing the way you approach writing. There is the possibility of solving longstanding problems and tackling age-old blocks.
Retreats can and have been life-changing for some of the participants. Many, if not most, have had no prior contact with the world of publishing, media or the arts. Many students book a retreat as a present to themselves upon completing their first story pitch, three chapters or first draft of their work. Others have been spurred into booking a retreat by some event – often a bereavement, sudden unemployment or emotional loss – which has caused them to reconsider everything. They have spent their lives wanting to be writers and finding that others things have got in the way, or they have been too nervous and have made excuses. Something has made them realise that life is too short for excuses and too short to do anything other than reach for the thing that makes them feel happy.
At the most recent retreat, however, I was struck by a number of things. First, the quality of the writing (all fiction) presented to me. The writers who’d assembled were working on a variety of projects from quirky romantic realism, to sweeping historical fantasy, from contemporary family drama to a pricklingly evocative psychological thriller. Some of the projects need perhaps a year to knock them into shape, others require only a couple of months of polishing and buffing, but all will make grand books.
It proved to me, depressingly, that when publishers complain about a dearth of truly exciting work, it’s not because that work is not out there but often because new writers do not know how to crack the industry, are unlucky in their approach, badly advised, ill-timed or may simply have fallen foul of various attempts to get an agent.
Second, all the retreatants were women. Our retreats are open to anyone at all, of any sex, background, age and almost any style of writing. Yet I know from our event and from countless other retreats, courses, workshops and classes I have participated in that women far outweigh men as attendees.
In fiction, especially, this reflects what industry research has demonstrated for decades: that women are the overwhelming majority of consumers of fiction, as well as the vast majority of writers, agents, editors, publishing company directors, PRs and other industry stalwarts.
It’s always a pleasure to work with and for these women, no matter what stage they’re at in their work, and to feel oneself to be part of a community of writers and readers. Something I have noticed, too, is that these women, who are the very backbone and dominant force of the entire industry, read writers of both sexes with fair and equal openness. I learn much more from my students of writing than I could possibly impart to them as a teacher of writing, and often come away with a freshly renewed list of books to read.
It is my third realisation, however, that made me see retreats in a gendered light. So many of the female students I have worked with over the years – especially those who have children and run households of their own, usually in addition to full time outside-of-home careers – talked about the feelings of guilt, fear and selfishness they experience alongside the joy and exhilaration of writing.
Of course, these are emotions which any creative artist feels when making something new. But these women’s comments were specifically related to their feelings about creativity in the context of their practical lives, as well as their trepidation at publicly placing value on it. They felt they were being selfish in working, even for half an hour, on their own writing. We talked among ourselves about the necessity of marking out both time and space for writing – of setting up a study, utilising free time, defending that time and establishing writing as valuable and often painstaking work.
But so many of the writers I’ve met were torn between the concrete duties they knew they had, both outside and within the home (and let us remember that childcare, cooking, cleaning and family finances/admin are all separate and demanding jobs) and the lure of creating novels, memoirs or essays which they saw as being ‘just’ for themselves.
I found myself exhorting these talented new writers to be selfish, to be ruthless, to be proud of their work, whatever it is. I urged them to stop apologising for themselves, beating themselves up about tiny and common errors, making excuses for their own flaws (which they magnified massively in their own eyes). I have found myself, over the years, fighting, not with the brilliant women I have been privileged to teach, but with centuries of conditioning which brings women up to be self-effacing, modest, retiring and generally accommodating.
I have found myself bellowing, only half-joking, “Stop apologising for yourself!” when presented with a writer whose manuscript is full of wit, pace and genius but who is using up her own time and energy telling me about all the flaws she perceives in her own work. I have urged so many women to overcome their reticence, reach out and leap for want they want – the wildest plot, the most dynamic agent, the two full afternoons of clear writing time per week – without needing to beg, hedge, dissemble, worry or berate themselves.
Much of the power of a retreat is psychological rather than literary. It is a space in which people affirm their writerhood to themselves, forge their own identity and prepare themselves mentally to re-enter the world specifically as writers. It is a time in which they focus on only one project. But the time and space of the retreat are purchased at a cost.
The two or three days of writing time have been carved out of lives in which, as is so common, women bear multiple burdens. So many of the women writers I have met say that writing feels to them like a selfish and unfair hobby, a trivial or petty dabbling, a guilty pleasure for which them must apologise, because they are so habituated to their own exploitation and overwork.
They feel genuinely uncomfortable about trying to relax into a state where the only work is being done in their imagination. Although writing can be exhausting and demanding, they feel that it is not ‘real’ labour. I remember a woman whose manuscript left me open-mouthed with admiration. Over the course of a year or so she’d written an incredible adventure story with a likeable, smart, flawed, utterly beguiling hero at its heart. The book was so perfect that it barely needed any revision at all. “I’m just a housewife,” she said to the assembled group on her first night, with heart-breaking self-denigration. “No,” I said, “you’re a writer.”
Picture of house in the woods released into the public domain by the photographer and obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Woodblock print of a woman writing by Suzuki Harunobu with no known copyright restrictions, obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Roman fresco is in the public domain and obtained from Wikimedia Commons.