La Muse Retreat (Wk 1) – The Warm-Up

The first week of my writing residency is complete and there’s a change in dynamics as some people leave, so it’s feels like the right time to pause and reflect. Have I met my expectations, have I found any challenges, and how do I feel? What can I do better to get the most from my stay?


My workspace for three weeks (Urania)

I’m a retreat/residency regular and so I know by now that when I have an extended period of time to concentrate on my writing (in this instance, three weeks), the first week is the perfect opportunity to ‘warm up’ before throwing myself deeply into my work. I also make sure I have some goals in mind.

Before arriving, my goals were:

  • Complete Part One of my WIP (adult fiction) which means reducing 40K words to about 30K (the excess to be included in Part Two), then a complete rewrite.
  • Write, then edit, a commissioned 1200 word short story
  • 3) maintain freelance work and planning/creating events booked for April-May.

After getting up at 4am for a very early flight to Carcassonne, I immediately added another:

  • Feel rested.

I always forget this part as I get excited by ideas and opportunities and I love variety and change. But self care something I am much more aware of these days and so I actually began the residency by taking a whole day off. I hiked, I read books, and I found it really difficult not to flip open the laptop – but the next day I was raring to go.

For me, residencies are about two things:

  • Finding your rhythm (this can differ on every residency)
  • Regaining balance (for when you return to your everyday life).

Mountain hikes in glorious sunshine

It’s inevitable that during the day-to-day, business takes over – freelance deadlines, pitching events, preparing events, teaching, chasing invoices, marketing books etc. The writing continues always, but over time, it accidentally slips into the back seat. I see residencies as a way to flip this on its head for a while, so the writing comes first in the day. Yes, I’m still working while I’m here, but my approach is different – the creative stuff comes first.

In terms of structure, I like the set-up at la Muse. There are set quiet hours throughout the day and then from 10pm. It allows for plenty of focused solitude but also some lovely interactions with others – sometimes organised, sometimes by chance. We did share our work one evening before people were leaving, around the fire, wine in hand, but some of the best conversations (and book recommendations) have come from chance meetings whilst cooking or taking a hike.


Books donated from this retreat

The living library has grown somewhat since I was last here in 2015. On each residency, every person brings two books to donate to the library. These are presented to the group over crepes and it’s wonderful. Two incredible books I was introduced to by fellow Musers were the short story collection For Esme With Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger and Ann Patchett’s collection of essays This is The Story of a Happy Marriage. I’ve also been dipping in to random stuff at will. Before arriving, I expected lots of early nights, but I’ve found myself reading until 2am every day. This has been a blissful surprise.

I’ve also spent several hours a day outdoors, hiking in the woods and mountains –today was a 11km hike to view an entirely hand-painted church, its ceiling blue with gold stars. Regular trips to the spring to fill up water bottles is a joyful routine. The scenery here is spectacular and the trails incredibly well marked so it’s fairly easy to find your way back – and the amount of stuff unravelled in my head as I wander is just what I need. It’s making me think about how I can extend my daily walks at home, where the familiar quickly becomes less enticing.


Seeking waterfalls in a sudden blizzard

But what about the work? The initial goals? Well, I have written and redrafted the short story to a point where feedback is needed. It’s almost there, but there’s something I can’t put my finger on that isn’t working, so I’ve sent it to some fellow authors for feedback. I’ve delved into the first four chapters of my manuscript and I’ve read a tonne of LGBTQ+ literature for a teen event. I’m on top of all my interviews, freelance articles, manuscript reports, online workshops etc. And, I feel rested.

But the warm-up is over and it’s time to up the tempo. It’s time to go deep into that novel and prise out the unnecessary. Then make it better. This will be the uphill struggle, the hair-tearing part. But with the warm-up complete, I can’t wait to get my teeth into it.

What can I do better? Work my socks off. Wish me luck!

Happy reading, happy writing all. x

travel Cambodia

#WritingCambodia – First Impressions of Phnom Penh

This is where the man scavenged on the ground for food.

This is where the man scavenged on the ground for food.

My first day in Phnom Penh… 

A street kid with a feather duster trying to clean my shoes in a tuk tuk, a dinner of snails & chicken’s spurs, fantails dancing in the vines, a kitten with a squealing mouse in its mouth trying to also catch a gecko, debris-lined roads, a driver with a trailer filled with pigs racing us, and a man so hungry he was eating dirty crusts of bread off the litter-filled floor, spitting them out if they were too inedible but not bothering to check beforehandAt night, the air fills with the perfume of flowers and an unidentifiable screeching and lunging from overhead in the palms. I find the people are as warm and friendly as everyone says, and sleep is peaceful in this small oasis of a guesthouse.

travel Cambodia

One of the the three ferry crossings – be warned, sit on the side & you get wet. I found out the hard way 🙂


Phnom Penh, Day 2…

Feet swollen with mosquito bites and a 25KM bike tour of the Mekong islands. Death-defying single file ride through the city streets: tuk tuks and trucks take no notice of the traffic direction, especially on roundabouts. To survive, just keep going. There is constant motion and the drivers are used to dodging and weaving. Stop and you screw the whole system. We enjoy ferry crossings, bumpy mud track rides – around farms, past rice fields, in temples, through cattle. We visit a family home silkworm farm (they don’t try to sell you anything) and a local temple. Included: lots of fresh coconut water and a local lunch so plentiful, there was food left behind – anyone who knows me knows that doesn’t happen when I’m around. At night, I find incredible seafood street food, and a young girl abandons her family to join me to eat and speak English. The weird screeching continues overhead and the mosquitos are out in force.



Phnom Penh, Day 3…

ethical travel cambodia

My patient and helpful instructor for coconut carving, Sok Chea

A motorbike ride with a student called Kim Sroung to a crafts workshop where I cut, file, sand and polish a piece of coconut shell into the shape of an elephant (‘dom rey’) under the guiding hand of Sok Chea. Warm greetings from stall owners as I return for more snails, and I eat as much fresh jackfruit as I can stomach. Exploring random streets on foot, stepping in potholes, dodging traffic, confusing the locals with my presence. Later, discovering a menu at the seafood street vendor opens up a world of over fifty dishes!

My final day in Phnom Penh…

An ad hoc invite which turns out to be church (not what I unexpected!), where I get to see some outreach work by a charity, and meet an American girl called Tori who speaks Khmer – she takes me to buy my food for the countryside from the local market, greeting her usual vendors and getting me a pile of food at a great price. At night, a food tour not for the faint hearted – including (optional) grasshoppers, water beetles, snake, grubs (the snake & water beetles were my favourite) – but also rooftop cocktails, tropical fruits and an amazing BBQ.

street food Cambodia

Tastes like fish jerky. Really, really good.

Tomorrow, I head to the countryside to help at Singing Kites. I already love this country but it clear that there is a lot of pain hidden behind the smiles. Imagine being so hungry, you don’t even care whether your food is clean. Already lots to think about.