Forty five minutes outside of Edinburgh, tucked in a hidden pocket of Midlothian, sits a 15th century castle where I spent my June at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers. Not even the bus drivers knew of the castle. Kept a secret, deep in a Scottish glen, the ruins, renovated in Victorian-era, were tipped on a crag overlooking the River Esk, and here I continued my ongoing education of reading and writing for a summer month.
But the story doesn’t start here.
If we were to go all the way back, it would have opened two years ago when at a faculty gathering poet and friend Raina León prodded me to apply. Get thee to a writing residency was her imperative, and she clued me in on this gem of a fellowship with a low profile at Hawthornden Castle. Thank you, Raina.
This fellowship is sponsored and run by the great patronage of Drue Heinz of the Heinz company. Publisher of The Paris Review, she established the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the Drue Heinz Lectures in Pennsylvania. Deepest gratitude goes to Ms. Heinz and her staff.
There is no magic I know of that got me to Scotland for a month of committed writing. Persistence and focus is what I brought to the table. Applications to these residencies are something like gearing up for grad school. Long and involved forms that demand you know who you are, letters of recc to prove you are who you say you are, and a writing sample that speaks to enough people on the committees that matter. I’ve been applying to residencies off and on since grad school, which means I’ve lived in hope for over six years. Let me say again, persistence and focus.
The plane trip from San Francisco to Edinburgh was another test of patience: ten hours trying to sleep upright, a three hour layover in Charles de Gaulle, where splurging on Lauderée French macaroons was worth every euro, and a final two hours that seemed like forever before touching down in Scotland.
The sun still had a good hour to set when I finally arrived around 10pm, which I would later learn was the badgering hour. Jet-lagged and frazzled, I met two of the writers who I would live with for the next four weeks, one of whom was an East Coaster turned Bay Area based. She happened to know many of my colleagues and writer friends back in California and thankfully made me feel that much closer to home despite being a continent and ocean away.
Born to John Drummond, the first laird at Hawthornden Castle, William Drummond (1585-1649) turned laird of the castle himself at 24 when his father died. A poet and historian, William Drummond read well and widely, tackling the History of Scotland during the Reigns of the Five Jameses as one of his many literary works. Over 400 years later, in his study, a room where he was known to pace between tackling quill to paper, I stared out the window that overlooked the gravel driveway, pulled my hair out rearranging scenes and crossing out swathes of paragraphs, and dragged myself to bed, willing myself to sleep at midnight even as the last sun rays still poked their way through the west-facing window.
On the first full day since my arrival, still adjusting to UK time, I woke at 5:30am to metallic squabbling and screeching of what I thought to be baby dinosaurs nesting right outside my western window. One bird would start up and then her siblings, would follow in discordant chorus. Almost every morning, afternoon, and early evening was graced with their shrill choir, and not only did I viscerally experience the scientific fact of how birds are cousin to pterodactyls and triceratops, but I understood how quickly and deeply I’d been thrust into nature. The castle was immersed in all things wondrous.
Evenings made the badgering hour when the lawn in front of the castle became a buffet table for a family of five hungry badgers. Stags, doe, and their fawns were frequently spotted on the road that led to the castle. Peregrines learned to fly just across the river, and we watched them from the castle garden at lunch time as they tested their wings. Spiders insisted rather persistently to claim the sinks and bathtubs as their resting spots. They were known to creep up cozy into our beds on more than one occasion.
I never knew I could be so jealous of poets.
These daily and nightly encounters with all things feathered, eight-legged, doe-eyed, antlered, and winged charged the poets, and they wrote with a sense of immediacy that doesn’t really jibe with long form fiction. One evening, a bat flew into the drawing room, circling over our heads for a good seven minutes. We tried to guide it out the window, but s/he seemed to enjoy our company more. Eventually, tiring of us, s/he took to an open casement and was gone. The next day, all three poets reported writing poems of our vespertine encounter. I hadn’t ever felt so keenly envious of poesie writers up until then. What I would have given to slip out of time for a day or two, to step away from my projekt and write in attendance to the here and now with such urgency? Fictions writers, particularly those noveling are stuck in another time zone and geography that rarely meshes with the present moment. We are caught in a loop of our own making.
We were there to write.
And we did. Everyday, at least six days a week, from eight in the morning to at least five in the evening. Oh, there were mid-day strolls along the castle grounds listening to the songbird soundtrack that ran from sun up to sun down, late afternoon jogs on the Old Railway to Dalkeith, and jaunts to Lasswade’s The Laird & Dog pub, which was the closest and easiest access to Wi-Fi. All sworn to an informal oath of silence while in the castle, Hawthornden’s motto was “Requiescat in Pace,” and from nine in the morning to six in the evening, we maintained relative quiet, so all writers could work in peace and decent ease.
With no internet access, limited mobile service, and a vow to abstain from talking, the task of writing wasn’t necessarily easier but the setting secured focus and commitment to both the projekt at hand and the vital art in which all writing thrives, the act of reading. In a recent Guardian article “publicising a novel – the problems,” (Thursday 25 July 2013) Anakana Scholfield speaks to an issue close to this heart:
…why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?
There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.
Six years into the projekt, reading is the through line that keeps this writer grounded as the shape and meaning of the story collapses, condenses, and often over complicates itself, constantly morphing like land shifting under volatile forces. To write is to read. There’s no way around it. But how to keep up the art? How to maintain the necessary strength and focus for such a vital skill? You’d think that as one grows older, reading would become easier, but it doesn’t. Its just as much of a challenge as it ever was. Technology and the ten million distractions aren’t just to blame. The old adage the more I learn, the less I know seems to confound the reading eye. The mind skitters, won’t settle but jumps with expectations, preconceived notions, rather than sitting with words, images, sentences. Slowing down to savor syllables seems a fleeting wish. The reading mind must be taught and re-taught, and taught again. Its a muscle that can easily atrophy.
Reading at Hawthornden was s-l-o-w. As it should be.
Decades into becoming a “professional” reader, its hard to come to literature with an open mind. The more one reads, the more layered the lenses the reading eye gains and cannot shake away. So we must learn to read through prisms, knowing these prisms can be switched, combined, simplified, or complicated.
Prismatic. Requiring constant practice. The conjoined arts of reading and writing remained the main focus, but not the only activities at Hawthornden. There were encounters with Crusties, treks to the Pentland Peaks, and day trips to Edinburgh. But that’s all to come next…
For another a peek at the Hawthornden experience, check out poet and professor Gregory Leadbetter’s post “After Hawthornden” on his site.