Musings on Moniack Mhor.

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At the beginning of the year I stumbled over a link for week long writing retreats at a place called Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands — I had never heard of the centre before and hadn’t ever really considered doing a writing retreat. However, after poking around their website for a few minutes I was in love with their space, their location, and the idea of spending a week in their company. When our sabbatical trip became a reality and I knew we’d be located in Scotland for nine months, it didn’t take me long to log back into Moniack Mhor to book a place as an early 40th birthday treat to myself.

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Room with a view…

I was thrilled with the idea of a week of doing nothing except thinking/working on what I hope will one day be a novel. I was giddy at the idea of not having to decide what anyone else was going to eat at every meal, and that I wasn’t going to have to do phonics homework or handle tears over not getting to watch cartoons, or dish out time-outs. All I had to do was eat, sleep, and write. I got the train up from Tweedbank to Inverness last Monday and thought I had a pretty clear idea what the week would be about. I thought I would breeze through 5000+ new words on the book and that I would have to contend with imposed solitude. However, the week played out in a totally different way.

IMG_0644I opted to attend a tutored writing retreat partly cause the timing of the course was good, but mainly cause I liked the idea of getting time to talk with published authors about their work, the industry and my own work. But, I was also invested in doing a retreat versus a workshop as I was interested to see if I could spend a whole week with just me & my imagined world, and come out the other side wanting to make writing a career. So why was it different to what I was picturing? In part because I hadn’t really read the course info and so didn’t realize there was such a great social aspect worked into the week, with communal cooking, group dinners, and readings each night — but mainly because of the wonderful group of people that the course brought together. I thought I would have so much solitude that I would go a bit bonkers, but instead I found a kind, fun, considerate, and welcoming community.

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The last nights refreshments!

Each one of the people that turned up at the course, though at different points in our writing experience and individual projects, was serious about writing but not serious about life or about ourselves. Each dinner time we had easy and fun conversation along the long communal table. Each evening we had wine and whisky beside the log fire while listening to readings, chatting about the trials and tribulations of writing, or laughing together and sharing stories about life. Since I’m a “coffee shop” writer and like background noise when I work, I opted to sit at the dinning table during the day and got a lovely balance of interaction with people, and peace to think.

The tutors selected for our course were Paul Murray and Amanda Smyth. I hadn’t read either of their work before arriving at Moniack Mhor, but now find myself with them both firmly on my TBR pile. Although my one-on-one conversations with both of them were very different, they were both generous, thoughtful, and resourceful in their suggestions and advice. Of course, I would have loved to pitch up to my tutor sessions and for them to declare that my work is the best writing they’ve ever read (honestly who doesn’t dream of such ego validation!?!), but instead they both beelined for weaknesses in my novel, and writing, and expertly probed those weaknesses. Which just highlighted to me how good they both are at what they do.

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Note to self: don’t step in a bog while wearing Converse!

Of course, having my raw points exposed did smart a little, but I got over myself fast and found my head full as I tried to absorb their thoughts and find answers to the questions they posed. It actually got rather noisy in my head and that is why my word count for the week was rather pitiful, but I’m okay with that. A week ago, before I got the train to the Highlands, I thought I had a path toward the end of my novel, but now that path has vanished. But all is okay because I have faith that when I find my path again the novel is going to be all the better for it (and I’ll be a better writer).

So, I guess the ultimate question after doing something for the first time to know if it was a success or not, is “would I do it again?” In the case of Moniack Mhor, the answer is a resounding, yes! I would absolutely go on a tutored retreat again, but I am also itching to try a straight writing retreat to test out if the peace of the Scottish Highlands gels well with my writing. Fingers crossed I don’t have to wait another seven years until our next sabbatical to return to the beautiful, wonderful Moniack Mhor.

Paul Murray’s books can be found here, and Amanda Smyth’s here. They are both lovely and I await future books from them with glee.

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