Writer in Residence Jessie Burton reflects on her time at the Library

Writer in Residence Jessie Burton reflects on her time at the Library

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As I get older, the thing I seem to be searching for more than ever is balance. It’s not much of a fun idea, it doesn’t sound alluring. It suggests stability, sitting in the middle, neither plunging to the lows nor soaring with the highs. The romantic idea formed around writing and writers is that you have to be bonkers to do it really well, that vicious self-loathing or monstrous egoism will push you on to greatness. But give me balance, any day. It’s hard to find, but it’s what I want. I realise now, some months later, that my writing residency at Gladstone’s set me on the path towards it.

I took up my residency in February 2015. I didn’t know it, but I was exhausted, and when I got there, in the peace and tranquility and kind comfort of strangers, the reality of the past year I’d experienced sunk in. My first novel had been voted Waterstones’ Book of the Year, it had sold in the hundreds of thousands, and well…I didn’t really know what to do with myself. All I’d known during the years building up to securing an agent and a publishing deal was what I hadn’t wanted. Namely: grey temp jobs, purposelessness, and a nagging sense of a life lived elsewhere.

I wrote a book and I hoped someone would like it. As disingenuous as this might sound to you, it’s true. I had no grand plan, and now things were rushing at 100mph, foreign press trips, movie rights, festivals and magazine shoots, a sense that I had something people wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted, let alone knowing how to give these people something of myself that they wanted.

Gladstone’s, when I first saw it, appeared at the end of the drive like a cross between an Oxford college and a Blyton boarding school. Turrets, a graveyard next door, esoteric books in the library, sticky toffee pudding EVERY DAY and the glee of never having to cook for myself. It was a warm place. The people who worked there were kind and wise, and their gentleness belied a deep wit and unobtrusive worldliness. My fellow writers were friendly and funny, and we still write letters to each other. I went for walks, I sat on benches, I looked at ruins, a Withnalian woman watching ducks fly to Moscow. I went back to the Library to look at the ruins of my own work-in-progress, and tried to make them better, before ending up reading someone else’s novel on a sofa so voluptuous that it swallowed me up.

The Gladstone’s writing residency is what you make of it, and there’s no pressure to do one thing over another. It’s yours. If I could give you one piece of advice if you are lucky enough to get one, it’s this: Take it easy. If you are there for inspiration, it is a perfect place to let the ideas come. If you are there for more practical application, it is also ideal to work in peace and get the words on the page. For me, it was the beginning of a journey (that word…) I’m still on, both professionally and personally. Thanks to my time at Gladstone’s, I began to understand the strange experience I’d gone through, and to remember the desire that lay at the heart of what I wanted in my life: to write.

Jessie Burton