Writing, for me, is usually a solitary activity. I’m not one of those authors who can tap out a few chapters in a café, or complete a novel on the 10.15 to Milton Keynes. I need silence, isolation, peace; I write at home, in a small room at the top of the house where I can shut my door on the world.
So when Kathryn Williams asked me to join a retreat she was planning for writers and songwriters in Durham, I was both excited and apprehensive. How would I go about writing with someone else? What would we write – songs or prose? And what would we do if we disagreed about how to write it?
A novelist, you see, is a control freak – or at least, this one is. We play God; we decide what happens to our characters and plots. Yes, we are answerable to our agents, editors and readers, and we take their feedback seriously, even (especially), when we disagree with it. But the ultimate creative decision always lies with us. So I was intrigued to see what might happen when I found myself shut in a room with another artist. Would fur fly? Would we both emerge with black eyes and broken bones?
I am glad to report that not a single bone was broken in the course of the retreat. In a rambling old house in Durham called Inishfree, a group of people – myself; poet and author Salena Godden; novelist and short-story writer Kirsty Logan; singer-songwriters James Yorkston, Tom McRae, Polly Paulusma, and, of course, Kath – came together, ready to make ourselves vulnerable; to strip away the layers of ego and artifice in the hope that we might come up with something interesting, and strange, and possibly even beautiful.
We weren’t all complete strangers. Kath and I have been working together for a while on an album of songs linked to my second novel, Greatest Hits. And Kath regularly runs songwriting retreats in which most of the other musicians had, I believe, participated. But this particular group of people, this cross-pollination of music and sound, was entirely new and untested.
Aware of this, perhaps, we were a little shy at first. Wine was drunk; biscuits were eaten. We each talked about what we do, and why we do it. I read from Greatest Hits, Kirsty from a collection of short stories. Salena performed an excerpt from her poem Shades.
Kath and Salena had the idea that we could all join in with the performance, singing a chorus to punctuate and underline Salena’s words. Soon, the living-room was flooded with guitars and voices. It seemed to me then that something special was happening: the words and the music and the dynamic of the group were combining, fusing, creating something that was greater than the sum of its parts. I think we all knew, then, that it was going to be all right.
Over the next two days, we moved through a sequence of smaller collaborations. In groups of two or three – one author paired with one or two songwriters – we discussed scraps of ideas, images, thoughts; we held them up to the light, examined them, and wove them into song.
I was struck, at once, by how much easier it was to tune into another artist, to align with their way of seeing, than I’d imagined it would be. And also by the differences in the process of writing novels and songs. A novel is like a slow, painful, long-distance run, full of twists and turns and gasps for breath; a song, by contrast, is more like a fast, heady sprint. And lyric-writing is more exposing than long-form prose: there’s no room for that muddy paragraph or rusty turn of phrase. A lyric is a moment, an image, the distillation of a feeling. It leaves no space for anything extraneous or false.
Music is a demanding master, too. I’ve written songs before – I was in a band as a teenager, and I’ve collaborated with my husband, a songwriter, a couple of times. But never has a song woken me at 3AM, demanding to be heard. That night, I lay in the dark, trying and failing to ignore the sounds in my head; then, conceding defeat, I frantically googled “how to record on an iPhone”, downloaded an app, and sang quietly (and, I suspected, tunelessly) into my phone.
The next morning, full of fear and embarrassment, I played the file to Tom McRae, and he confirmed, against all my expectations, that this could actually be the stem of a decent song. “You’re a songwriter now,” someone joked later – and it did feel, in my sleep-deprived state, that some sort of transformation had occurred.
By the last day of the retreat, we had, between us, a cache of 15 songs – some poignant, some funny; some foregrounding poems or prose, others blending melody and spoken-word – and decided to perform nine of them at our Durham Book Festival event.
We were all a little nervous, I think – or at least, I was. We now had to break the intimacy that had sprung up between us and prepare to share it, to transmit a little of the magic we had found together in a house called Inishfree.
I think – I hope – that this magic came across in our performance. I certainly felt it. I was so impressed by how everyone had been prepared to abandon their usual ways of working. We writers had eased ourselves into the immediacy and emotional candour of music (I, terrifyingly, actually ended up singing a solo on stage). The songwriters had opened themselves up to the rhythm and detail of poetry and prose. We had been truly honest with each other, and the work we had made, I think, rewarded us by reflecting that honesty back to us, and to the audience.
Up there on stage with the others, it seemed strange to me that I had always been so convinced of the necessity of isolation to my writing process. I have always envied actors, dancers, musicians – artists who get to share in the moment of creation, rather than having no witness but themselves. And now that I am back home, alone with my computer and the empty page, I miss my fellow retreaters very much. The house is so silent. My ideas seem so small, so tentative, without other people in the room with whom to share them.
I know, too, that I am not the same writer I was when I left home for Durham. I have melodies in my head, and lyrics on my tongue, and a fresh sense of excitement about what it means to write and create. And, I hope, I have six new friends and collaborators to alleviate the loneliness of that process. We have called ourselves the Inishfree Collective, and I suspect there may be more adventures for us just around the corner.
Laura Barnett’s first novel, The Versions of Us, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Her website is at www.laura-barnett.co.uk.