A couple of days after I launched Naked (my pet name for this site), the esteemed blogger, Michelle Moloney King, invited me to guest on her brilliant and incredibly successful blog, http://teachermoloneyking.com/
I was deeply flattered, and somewhat taken aback as I hadn’t even thought about what I would write for my own second post, never mind compose something readable for someone else’s. A few ideas came to mind, but after chatting with Michelle I settled on a post about my week spent at an amazing and inspirational artists and writers retreat – the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in County Monaghan.
So thank you Michelle for your vote of confidence in me and my blog. You have no idea how much your invitation validated my decision to start a blog in the first place, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing about an experience I was so lucky to have had, thanks to another vote of confidence:
SNOWDROPS AND SMILES
My week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig
Last summer, for reasons best know to themselves, the kind people at North Down Borough Council awarded me a bursary to attend the world renowned Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan for a one week writers residency. The Centre at Annagmakerrig is the former family estate of the celebrated theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, which he bequeathed to the Irish State on his death bed for use as an international, multi-discipline, artistic retreat. I knew of it, of course. I’d heard about its magic. I’d dreamt that maybe someday I might go there, perhaps. But I only applied for the bursary to shut up a friend and previous recipient who’d been badgering me about it for months. She is a talented visual artist and when she returned from her own residency she called me up and told me I absolutely, definitely had to apply for the bursary myself. She had met so many brilliantly fabulous writers, she said, from all over the world, and I would love it. Just love it. Yep, I replied, sounds amazing. Really. And it did, but way beyond my lowly reach. Me, sharing space with brilliantly fabulous writers from all over the world? As if…
I took my week at Annaghmakerrig in February and it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. My writing had stalled. Again. The story was swimming around my head, constantly. Actually, it seemed to be drowning: splashing and flailing and gasping for breath. If only I could get it out of my head and onto the page, drag it from the depths of my consciousness onto a computer, it might just survive.
As my week approached I thought, this will fix it, fix me, reaffirm my belief in myself as a writer. And then of course, the big black cloud of doubt set in. Writer? Who do you think you’re kidding? You shouldn’t even be going to such a cultural Mecca in the first place. It’s for proper writers, published writers, people who have credentials, not pretenders who can’t even manage to, well, write. A sense of panic began to engulf me. What if the place is packed with high brow intellectuals who speak in tongues I can’t understand, and analyse books I haven’t read, and gush about artists I’ve never even heard of? I knew I was stepping out of my comfort zone, but what if I was completely out of my depth and spent the week, just like my book, struggling to stay afloat?
The journey down to Annaghmakerrig was difficult. My legs shook, my stomach churned, sweat dripped down my back. They’re going to turn me away, I thought, they’re going to say, sorry, but there’s been some mistake, we only let proper writers in. Or if, by some miracle, I do make it through the doors, I won’t be able to talk to anyone. Nobody. Not a word. Because if I do, if I open my mouth and say something, anything, they’re going to know. They’ll see through me in a second and they’ll all gang together and turf me out laughing and jeering and pointing their fingers. One or two might even spit. And there I’ll be, lying in a heap outside the door, sniffing and snivelling and sobbing that I’ll never, ever, ever dare to call myself a writer again. I promise.
When I arrived, the beauty of the landscape escaped me at first; such was the level of my anxiety. The security gate presented my first hurdle. I’d been given my own personal gate code and as I drew Daisy, my little yellow car, level with the intercom and typed in the number with a trembling finger, I waited for an automated voice to snarl: ‘sorry, but you are not authorised to pass this gate. Please turn around and go back to wherever the hell you came from,’ or words to that effect. Deep down, part of me was probably hoping that I would be denied entry as then I wouldn’t have to face the excruciating humiliation which was bound to follow.
But the gate opened. I did think about turning around anyway, but Daisy had other ideas. She isn’t used to such long journeys. No flaming way, I could feel her say, I’m not doing that drive again without a rest. Now get me up this drive, park me in a nice spot with a nice view and bugger off.
So up the drive we went. We passed a cluster of grey stone cottages arranged around the courtyard; perhaps I should have stayed in one of those, I thought, at least then I could hide for the week, wouldn’t have to speak to another soul. I’d nip up and down to the convenience store in the village when it was dark and stock up on Pringles and toffee crisps. Maybe the odd egg sandwich. I could survive on that for a week, no problem. Then suddenly, there it was, the Big House, in all its enormous glory, glaring at me. And though I was swallowing down little mouthfuls of sick by this time, something else happened, something odd. I felt a little quiver of excitement. Maybe this will be okay, I thought. Maybe I can bluff it. As I parked Daisy in a bright little spot at the corner of the car park which was speckled with pale, timid, snowdrops, I suddenly noticed the lake. It was astonishing. Silver and vast and framed by a forest of drumlins. I hope I get that view, I thought, and applauded my positivity.
By the time I stood outside the front door with my ridiculously large suitcase (I like jumpers, and it was February) I’d managed to plaster a smile on my face – and it wasn’t entirely false. I was going to greet whoever let me in with enthusiasm, tell them how excited I was to be there, that I was so looking forward to my week, that I’d get ever so much of my book written whilst I was with them and I half believed my hype. After all, despite my terror I did want to be there. I was excited, and I really, really, really wanted to write. Really. The only problem was, I couldn’t find the doorbell. I must be thick, I thought, there’s bound to be a doorbell. But, after several minutes of searching, I finally concluded that it wasn’t there. Obviously it had been removed prior to my arrival as they’d gotten wind of the fact that I was a fraud, a charlatan, a pathetic delusional middle aged woman who believed she could be a writer. I knocked anyway, overcome by a wave of defiance. Okay, you might be right, I muttered, but this is just plain rude. I knocked again. Nothing. I pushed the door, I rattled it, I practically hammered the damn thing down, but still no one came. So, what should I do? Sit down on the step and wait? Someone was bound to come along sometime. Get back into Daisy and go home, whatever her objections? Drive to Dublin and live off my credit card for a week? Just as I felt the tingle of tears tickle the back of my eyes, the door opened and a bright voice said ‘hiya, trying to get in? This door only opens from the inside, the main door’s round the back,’ all in one long breath.
I looked up and a dark haired girl stood on the threshold grinning. Don’t worry, she laughed, everyone does that their first time here. I did, and I came back. There was something familiar about her. I think I know you, I said. Turns out we went to the writers group at Queen’s together several years before, but my relief at finding a comfort blanket quickly vanished when she told me she was leaving. She’d had a brilliant week with lots of cracking people but her time was up. I’m envious, she said, yours is just beginning. Aren’t you lucky?
And it turns out, I was.
Quite simply, I had one of the best weeks I’ve had for a very long time. The room I was allocated was, apparently, the best one in the house. Lady Guthrie’s, no less. Sumptuously spacious, with an enormous bed, an elegant chaise longue, books as old as time and, best of all, the most exquisite writing desk you can imagine with a view across the lake. A writer’s room. Apparently I had been expected after all, and wanted, and welcomed. It’s going to be okay, I breathed, as I opened up my lap top. It’s going to be brilliant. And it was.
I met some incredible people: artists from Canada, Wicklow, just up the road, and just around the corner; musicians from Russia and Scotland; writers from Slovenia and all corners of Ireland. We made quite an eclectic, eccentric bunch but we clicked; we moved around each other, finding our place then slotted together like pieces of stickle brick. The pattern we formed was vibrant, colourful and unique – never to be repeated again. And that, surely, is one of the most wonderful things about the Tyrone Guthrie Centre: over the years it has created a multitude of people patterns, week in week out, each one dazzling, intricate, multi-layered and individual – a rare and priceless work of art.
Throughout the week my confidence bloomed and I grew as a writer. I compared notes with the other writers who came and went, some published, some not, some poets, some novelists, some a combination of both. Each one of us had a different approach to our art and a different story to tell. The relief that we all felt uncertain and anxious now and then, convinced at one time or another that we would be exposed, caught out, revealed as the frauds we truly were, was palpable. But we were also unanimous in our desire for recognition and approval in the world we had chosen to be part of. Above all, we wanted to write more, we wanted to write better, we wanted to accomplish our goals, and, ultimately, we wanted to be read.
And as the week progressed I did write more, reams more than I had written in a very long time. My story came together, sorted itself out, revealed some startling plot twists I hadn’t previously been aware of. In the silence of my room the characters chattered loudly, sometimes to me, sometimes to each other and I would sit at my desk which overlooked the lake joyfully transcribing those conversations on my laptop. Sometimes hours would pass by and I hadn’t even noticed, what luxury.
Each day I walked along the Lakeland path on problem solving missions, seeking ways to settle a particular dilemma. On my first excursion, as I chatted madly to myself, a little dog appeared as if from nowhere. A ragamuffin character, he trotted merrily beside me indulging my insanity. He listened patiently, he nodded his approval and when I asked for his opinion he answered with a bark. Once for yes, twice for no. I never saw my little chum hanging out around the house, but somehow he always joined me on my walks, and thanks to him I finally found the courage to delete a large but clumsy section of the book I had known in my bones must go. It was hard to lose so many words, but my little buddy was correct, and he’ll be there in my acknowledgements when I’m done.
The staff in the Big House were wonderful, from Lavina the fabulous chef come nanny come resident counsellor, to Paddy the ever cheerful always chirpy estate manager. Even Miss Warby, the resident ghost, seemed friendly, kindly holding a door open for me once as I struggled with a tray of tea and Lavina’s yummy lemon cake. (I wasn’t 100% sure of her intentions though, and just in case she decided to bother me during the night, I have to admit, I did sleep with the light on!)
The week was over all too soon and as I said goodbye to my temporary family I felt a tinge of sadness. We would never be us again. But I was excited too, to return to my real family, my real life, and felt more invigorated than I had in years. When I returned to Daisy I noticed that the sprinkling of snowdrops had become a huge white carpet, gleaming and dazzlingly bright. What a difference a week makes, I thought, and I smiled. I smiled the whole way down the driveway. I smiled the whole way home. And there’s a little part of me that’s been smiling ever since.