I’ve just come back from an intense and very enjoyable week at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s national creative writing centre. Over the years I’ve heard a lot about their courses and retreats; people seem to come back raving about what it’s done for their writing, how the beautiful isolated location and immersive atmosphere has inspired them. Nice work if you can get it, right, but it always seemed out of my reach. This experience, though, was fairly unusual because it was part of a new experiment they’re involved in, so I think it’s worth recounting. I stayed there with six other ‘emerging’ writers and, between us, our ten children aged between 2-9 – so it was hardly free of distractions!
The tutored retreat was part-subsidised by a Creative Scotland project called Radical Care, which as I understand it is trying to establish models that arts organisations and institutions can use to support people with caring responsibilities to fully work in those industries which for too long have been inaccessible in this as in other ways. Without that subsidy and a voucher for the Centre that I won in the Bridge Awards, I couldn’t have gone. A previous retreat earlier this year was for mid-career/established writers.
During the week, our kids were taken to Abriachan Forest School nearby between 10-3, where they made campfires, whittled things, climbed trees and generally went feral. Meanwhile, the parents could write or workshop pieces with experienced tutors (Alan Bissett, Hannah Lavery and Cynthia Rogerson). We were fed, extremely well (“unlimited cake,” said my child, dreamily, though I did have to set some limits) and didn’t have to clean up. Let me emphasise that: three excellent meals a day AND NO DISHES TO WASH UP. For someone with a fair number of caring responsibilities, that is the most tremendous treat.
Nice holiday for me and the kid, then, but of course that wasn’t all there was to it. During the week, I felt supported and enabled to just think and create for a few days, having it accepted that that work, whatever it was – even whether it actually produced anything – was valuable in itself. Is that the truly radical bit of Radical Care? Frankly, it was like having a 1950s stereotype wife: no wonder all those Great White Men of the canon managed to write so much.
I went in thinking that I would be ok with just taking a few days to relax, read and think, but ended up in a productive frenzy writing thousands of words of my new book and a couple of other personal pieces, thinking even more about the edit of my first, workshopping some in-progress short stories and making some good connections. And beyond that, there was the unique experience of being in a small intense bubble, like a village, learning how other people navigate work and childcare, parenting and creativity.
Feminists in the 60s and 70s used to hold consciousness raising groups where women would gather to talk about their experiences. It’s a dated concept but this week reminded me of the value of knowing that your own struggles are not atomised, unique to your family or situation but part of something structural and sometimes they need structural solutions. Even leaving creative work aside, childcare itself is presented as something non-political and personal, at best a women’s issue alone, rather than a fundamental part of any culture.
Think of this: I’m told that no men applied for this residency, though it was advertised as being for anyone with childcare responsibilities and it fell in the October school holidays. Naturally, perhaps, given that early years childcare generally falls to women making it more important for them to have such an opportunity. But we’re still not really examining why that happens over and over, why it’s the default ‘natural’ choice that women will put aside their work to cover the holidays. Again we don’t make our choices purely on our own circumstances but in a context.
(That said I’d love to see a future version of this programme reserved for single parents, of whom around 90% are women; it would be such a transformative experience for them in particular I think)
Self-care has become a devalued concept, associated with scented candles and chocolate (not that I have a problem with either, to be honest). But its origins are political, in the social justice movements of the 1960s. The phrase is associated with Audre Lorde, the poet and activist, who saw it as necessary for black women in particular to survive hostile power structures. Some people have argued that a radical interpretation of self-care is more about community than self, about finding strength collectively. But as women we often feel that doing something for ourselves is selfish, especially if we have children.
“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” goes the infamous Cyril Connolly quote, which is both nonsense and insulting. It’s certainly difficult, but I’ve written more since becoming a parent than I ever did before. And parenthood is absolutely valid as a subject for art in itself. There has recently been an upsurge in fantastic books about motherhood, like Marianne Levy’s Don’t Forget To Scream, Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder, I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Braithwaite, Chita Ramaswamy’s Expecting, Kirsty Logan’s Things We Say In The Dark and loads more that I will be reading once my child has learned to GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT ME SITTING IN THE ROOM FOR HOURS.
As for the kids, they had a wonderful time. My little one mused at one point: “There are good jobs and bad jobs. Some jobs are quite boring, but your job is quite nice because you get to write stories.” Yes. I may not be a professional writer as such but it is work, which kids can find hard to grasp. Another child told me, “My mummy’s hobby is writing. She just writes and writes and writes.” Isn’t that great?
We showed our kids, collectively, that we are not just mothers but writers, that we have creative, inner lives as well as the caring work they see us do. And that other people see that too. I personally feel really proud that I was able to give my child this lovely experience purely through my words.
I’m taking away the reminder of how important it is to prioritise writing and to make time for my own needs as well as others’. I felt supported and valued. It was a luxury that absolutely should be available to everyone. In Britain of 2022, where government is a game of musical chairs while people freeze and the planet burns, I think it’s even more important to experiment with ways of caring for people that nurtures their minds as well as their bodies. I really hope that the lessons from this are developed further in other opportunities and projects across Scotland.
The participants shared our work on the last evening and it was sheer joy to realise how much talent was there, not a weak link – from dark visceral horror to relatable parenting dark humour, vivid and honest poetry to touching prose, powerful soundscape to humorous nostalgia. You will be hearing a lot from these fantastic new writers and I’ll be shouting them out here and elsewhere.
I want to thank everyone involved in this project, at Moniack Mhor and beyond. It is an experience that I’ll be thinking – and writing – about for a long time.