Some Thoughts On Retreating a blog by Sarah Butler (Writers in Residence 2015)
I write this approaching the end of my two week residency at Gladstone's Library. It is labelled a residency, but I have treated it perhaps more as a retreat. My dictionary tells me that retreat comes from the Latin retrahere meaning ‘pull back’, which is exactly what I have done. I have not connected my laptop or my phone to the internet. I have not checked my emails. I have not taken photos and thought up pithy things to say on Twitter. I have not updated Facebook, nor sunk into any of the black holes that online research always seems to lead me into. I have done no shopping, no cooking, no tidying up after myself. I have pulled back. Nothing to do but write and read.
How long a day is, it turns out, when you empty it of its usual clutter. How much can be done. The narrator of Siri Hustvedt's fabulous novel, What I Loved (one of the six – yes, six! – books I have read in the last fortnight), looks at a clock at one point in the narrative and thinks how strange it is that time is measured out on a circle, so orderly and neat. The thought chimed with me because my time during my residency here has been of a different quality than my time during the two weeks leading up to it, and no doubt the two weeks that will suceed it. I have walked and run in the muddy park across the road from the library more or less every day I have been here, thinking about slow time and fast time; about the difference between the hard work I have been doing here – which is tiring but not stressful, and the hard work I do at home, which encompasses projects and administration and daily domestic everyday stuff as well as writing and can sometimes feel like a self-created whirl of activity I don't know how to escape from.
There is no etymological link, but I can't help noticing that retreat holds the word treat inside of it. My life here has been blissfully straight forward. I have written. I have read. I have run and walked. I have eaten maybe more scones and chocolate sponge puddings than any doctor might advise. I have had conversations and in the process of doing so I have made some new friends. That is it.
I can feel, as I reach the end of my time here, my mind starting to wander away from my novel and towards my unread inbox, and the appointments which clutter up next week's page in my diary. There is perhaps part of me that is looking forward to stepping back into the clutter and clamour of my 'real world'. But there is another part of me that longs to hang onto what I have here: peace and focus and simplicity.
I have been trying to think of ways to take a bit of Gladstone's Library back home with me. I have grand plans for having two days every week where I turn my phone off, disconnect the internet, have my partner cook dinner, and just simply turn up at my computer and write. I have a suspicion that this will only last for a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months. But I will still try, because I know that even if I only manage to find a few mini-retreats, Gladstone style in my life, that will be a lot better than not finding any. They might be shorter, less oak-panelled and less pudding-filled than the experience I have been gifted here, but they will be precious all the same.