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My week-long writing retreat at Annaghmakerrig House


By Amanda Cassidy
20th Aug 2022
My week-long writing retreat at Annaghmakerrig House

There’s a chapter in Stephen King’s On Writing about writers’ retreats. It warns authors against the fallacy of the magic feather – the belief  that we can only write well on condition of things like a silent retreat, an oak-panelled desk, the right kind of swivel chair, a mesmerising muse.

His point was valid. Because let’s be honest, the busy clutter of our modern lives isn’t set up for such art.  And dependence on the abstract external; the idea that you need peace and quiet so that something ‘talk to you’ risks reducing the role of the artist to, in King’s words: ‘stenographers taking divine dictation.’

And I’d subscribed to that, my debut novel being written initially on the back of a home-school maths copy during the pandemic, on plane journeys where I’d change the font to the tiniest size, squirmingly self-conscious of the darting eyes of passengers. As if they cared.

I wrote in soft play areas while my children bobbed beneath colourful, suspicious-smelling balls. I completed edits wedged up against the steering wheel of the car by the local GAA pitch. Paragraphs were snatched between putting the children’s pasta on, and draining it – a quick word count while it cooled. Chapters were wedged in before the school run rush or after the last little eyelid drooped shut at night.

For years, I’d straightened out the delicious crinkle of my creative self and wrestled it into the well-defined confines of day to day life. Because I had to, yes, but also because daydreaming imaginary worlds for eight hours straight isn’t conducive to family life. And being a mother and having a healthy, family life was something I wanted too.

Indulging my creative side, my art, in inverted commas, seemed frivolous somehow. But propelled by looming book two edits and school summer holiday…challenges, I decided a week was an acceptable time to bow out. I packed my bags.

But over the course of my writing retreat, I increasingly realised that this need for escape wasn’t something I could deny. Or to box away, or to treat like it was something I didn’t deserve.

And while locking myself away daily to write obsessively isn’t an option that can accompany current family life, I began to realise that it can probably co-exist in some form. It can be carved out in ways that might work for all of us.

Peace

I found my solution at a recent week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan. Seven magical days to write, to mingle creatively with the other residents of all disciplines and cultures, to eat and walk and stare at the stunning lake and let inspiration fill up all my empty spaces.

A residential workplace for local, national, and international artists, Annaghmakerrig Estate was originally home to the Moorhead, Power, and Guthrie families. It was eventually bequeathed to artists and ‘other such people,’ becoming a place that offers peace, solitude, collegiality and workspace.

The Tyrone Guthrie Centre consists of an affectionately named ‘Big House’ which has eleven uniquely-designed bedrooms and a cluster of self-catering stone cottages adjacent. The property, which blongs to the Irish state and maintained by the Office of Public Works, is surrounded by shimmering lakes and fir-lined walkways. There are leather writing desks and huge sash windows, high ceilings, long corridors, book-lined walls, shadowy spaces and the ghost of a housemaid named Ms Worby.

As residents of the Big House, the artists dined together – a mix of visual artists, composers, writers, musicians. Breakfast is around a long farm-house style table where we’d chat about what we hoped to achieve that day. Then we’d disperse to our various studios, for a swim in the lake or back to our desks, many which overlook the ever-changing lake vista.

For hours, I’d gaze out, the surroundings as muse, and channel that peace into my work, in this case book two edits. The signal for lunch at one o’clock was the smell of freshly-baked bread or whatever delicious meal was being prepared. What a joy to have your meals handed to you by the wonderful staff.

“It’s like being mothered,” one of the visual artists commented, but it really is that homely-vibe that I realised I needed while unleashing my murderous plotting. It was refreshing not having to think about ‘real life’ at all. The meals were well considered, tasty and often locally sourced. We dined on salmon fillet and home-made chips, jerk chicken, velvety mash, seasonal veggies and tried to persuade the chef to produce a recipe book. This was followed by panna cottas and exquisite brownies, lemon drizzle cake and coconut ice-cream. There was wine, endless pots of tea and much-needed coffee jolts. After a few days, a routine of sorts emerged.

A run around by the lake in the mornings, past the heron, around some curious sheep and back through various woodland rustling. This was followed by a full days’ writing, inspired further by conversations over our meals with other artists, or a short visits to see their studios or to hear the songs they’d composed.

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Besides meals, there is no imposed structure apart from what the small group of always-rotating residents decide themselves. Participation is voluntary. For our week, a 5pm swim in the lake began to emerge for the bravest among us. After dinner, we’d take a walk, choosing from A, B or C routes (one supposed to be easy, the others increasingly hard) always accompanied by the resident sassy, black cat, Arielle.

One night some of the musicians performed an impromptu concert in the conservatory (it meant cottage residents could attend as the Big House covid restrictions keeps them seperate) After dinner on one of the last nights, the writers in our group read aloud some of what they’d been working on.

We gravitated back towards our the drawing room for chats or our bedrooms to read, or throw open the windows to listen to the rain on the lake, marvelling at the luxury of such unadulterated peace.

On my week’s residency there was a non-fiction writer from Germany, a song-writer from Monaghan, a harpist who travels the world showcasing her music, a poet, a politician, a screenwriter, and visual artists whose creations made me reflect on art and it’s place in my life. In short, it was a holiday slash therapy-session slash art-immersion slash forest bathing adventure.

I came away from the Tyrone Guthrie residency giving myself permission to be part of this community and proud of it too. I also gained a better understanding of the vitality creativity brings and got a huge chunk of writing done.

In our day to day life, it’s easy to get caught up in the humdrum of bills and obligations, of stretching ourselves to fit into the expectations of what we should be doing, neglecting that niggling spark.

But a week at Annamakerrig quietened everything down for me. It was a sanctuary. It held out its extremely non-demanding arms and for the first time in ages, made how my brain sees the world a little more meaningful.

I felt understood, accepted, my work validated, but most importantly, extremely inspired.

 

I paid for my own residency myself as a published author of a crime thriller, but to attend a residency at Tyrone Guthrie you must have a proven track record in your field of creativity, or demonstrate recent artistic achievement in your primary creative field. Bursaries are available too.