Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

Time and space are two of the most important ingredients that go into the making of a good book. Yet for writers who haven’t become stubborn occupiers of the New York Times bestseller list — in other words, most writers — these are typically in short supply.

It’s not to say work can’t be done in the face of distraction, exhaustion, and obligations. Garth Greenwell, for example, wrote his debut novel in the predawn hours before he taught English to high-schoolers (although he did refine it during his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). It’s clear, though, that the humdrum busyness of the everyday makes writing a lot harder. The creative process is haphazard and frustrating at the best of times, but it is even more difficult when you’re also juggling a paying job, family, and other responsibilities — a juggling act that will inevitably undermine the focus, concentration, and rumination required to make meaningful progress with a manuscript.

And so, if a writer can temporarily get away from the routines and duties of their normal life, most will jump at the chance. Time and space — just for them, and their book. That’s what a writing retreat offers. Often only established writers can apply, although some retreats encourage new voices. There’s usually a rigorous application process in which you’re often expected to outline clearly what you intend to work on while you’re there — you’re here to work, not to loaf on a free holiday.

When Michiel Heyns went on a six-week retreat to Civitella Ranieri, an Italian castle in Umbria, he initially found the luxury of having all day to write “quite inhibiting”. “You don’t even have to feed a dog, and that paralysed me for a while,” he says. Heyns decided he shouldn’t panic — and that he should rather go for long walks to get the creative juices flowing. After a few days, he was writing. The walks in the forest inspired a boar-hunting scene that appears in his seventh novel, A Sportful Malice.

The playwright and novelist Nadia Davids has had residencies at Ledig House in upstate New York and at Hedgebrook in Seattle. “Each time I have been startled by just how deeply generative those experiences have been,” she says. “I’ve done some of my most focused work on retreats, because the space allows a very particular kind of mental rest.”

“Retreats aim to strike a balance between an immersive solitude and a daily gathering; often, writers spend most of the day alone with their work, but come together in the evenings to share a meal,” Davis says. “Both Ledig House and Hedgebrook are set in the most beautiful landscapes, so it’s possible to take long leisurely walks and go for bike rides and sit and think and let one’s brain do the careful labour of working out creative problems — and, hopefully, arriving at solutions to difficult plots.”

I’ve done some of my most focused work on retreats, because the space allows a very particular kind of mental rest

She adds: “There’s something about being surrounded by other people who are working too; something about the camaraderie of knowing we are all trying to do something that is often very difficult and very lonely. Retreats — or at least the ones I’ve been on — are an amazing gift. They’re time out from the pressures of one’s ordinary day, and they offer the opportunity to dive headlong into a writing project, and give it total and unwavering attention. Retreats are often where the good writing happens, or at least where the foundation work occurs.”

Writers can, of course, create their own retreats. Damon Galgut began visiting India almost 20 years ago with the intention to write: he had very little money at the time, and could make it stretch a long way there.

“My life in Cape Town is very interrupted a lot of the time, and by going to India, where I had no phone and knew nobody, it was a way of just retreating for six months from the world and knowing that I could use my time in an entirely selfish way,” he says. Galgut also found being on the other side of the world helpful when writing The Good Doctor and The Impostor — both of which deal with the complex aftermath of South Africa’s transition to democracy. “In theory, you can write anywhere. Maybe real writers write anywhere.... I just happened to find it psychologically easing to look at South Africa from the outside, or from a long way off,” he says.

Most writing retreats are in Europe and North America, and there are precious few opportunities for African writers, although they are often eligible to apply for overseas residencies. It’s my dream to one day change that by creating South Africa’s first dedicated writers’ colony — a place rich with space and silence where this continent’s authors can write, read, and reflect. I just need to pen a couple of bestsellers first.

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