Writers are scattered, solitary creatures by nature, holing up all over the country (and beyond) to do their job of wrangling words in small, cramped sheds and offices, sitting in lonely state at cafe tables, or huddling against the radiators in hushed libraries. Don't feel sorry for us. We like it like that. But sometimes, just sometimes, the urge for the company of our own kind comes upon us, and that is where the Scattered Authors' Society (0r the Other SAS) comes in. On occasional 'treat days' a few of us might gather for a convivial lunch in diverse parts of the country; sometimes we communicate on a web forum, spraying urgent questions (such as the memorable 'how do I get the fox poo smell off my dog) and more obviously literary chat into the aether; and once a year as many of us as can get there gather for four whole days in an ancient manor house tucked away in a hidden part of Oxfordshire and go 'on retreat' together.
I say 'on retreat', but this is perhaps misleading. Obviously my fellow members would have to kill me with a slow series of pencil stabs if I divulged too much of what really goes on, but I can say that there is a quiz (literary and brain-taxing questions on children's books), plus several useful workshops (as well as that all important solitary writing time if inspiration strikes). It is about one of those workshops that I am going to write now, because it was brilliant, and it is a fun way of accessing creativity if you are stuck on a book (or indeed in your life). The workshop was devised by the wonderful Katherine Roberts, whose book I Am The Great Horse (winner of the Branford Boase Award), I am currently reading with great pleasure.
You will need:
A quiet room with a large table.
A (preferably wide) selection of old colour magazines.
Large sheets of sugar paper (different colours if you like).
A glue stick.
Katherine is quite strict about the timings of this--so I will be too. For the first 2 minutes, you ponder the question you want to ask. Personally, I needed to know more about the lead character in the new novel I have just started. Then, for exactly the next seven minutes, you put everything out of your head except for the magazines, out of which you tear those things (words, pictures, numbers--whatever) which catch your roving eye. Tear, as opposed to cut. This is important. Don't think about it, don't be cerebral, just tear away and put your chosen images into a pile. When the time is up, you must then spend 20 minutes arranging the images on your large sheet of paper (mine was dark pink, as it happened, just because it 'felt' right) and glueing them on. Just do it--don't obsess about what goes where. This is accessing the instinctive part of your brain, remember, not the 'rational' bit which says 'oh, but that looks so MESSY/WRONG/NOT AS GOOD AS MY NEIGHBOUR'S'. Or whatever.
It's good to do this in a group (though it's fine to do it on your own too), since in a group you get feedback and other people may see things you hadn't noticed about your creation, and ask you questions which you hadn't thought of. For me, doing this exercise sparked all sorts of things in my brain--I knew a lot of surprising things about my new character almost immediately, and was at once enthused to write them down and ask more. My fellow authors saw a strand that I hadn't connected with--and I even got my character's name. What struck me most though, was the fact that from the SAME pile of magazines, 20 odd people got really amazingly diverse pictures and answers--though obviously our questions were different. With some of those whose writing I knew, I am sure I could have picked out their 'works of art' correctly--the writing 'signature' perhaps carries over into other media. It was altogether an excellent hour, which I wouldn't have missed at any price and a wonderful four days which took me out of myself at a time of great sadness (see previous post). I shall definitely be present again next year (if I haven't been buried in a barrel for letting out too many SAS secrets).
I'm off to the wilds of Italy now for a couple of weeks--so the next post will probably be about pasta. Watch out for it!