I have emerged from my self-imposed writing zone having slaughtered various darlings. I entombed myself within an attic space, surrounded by farmlands in Walterstone, deepest Herefordshire. It was pretty much exactly on the border between England and Wales: I was physically in England but all I could see out of the window was Wales. This mountain, ‘Ysgyryd Fawr’ (known as The Skirrid in English) kept me company, perfectly framed in the top section of the window:
I didn’t know at the time but have since learned that ‘Ysgyryd’ means ‘shattered’ while ‘Fawr’ means ‘great’. The Great Shattered. It is an easterly outlier of the Black Mountains and legend has it that the two peaks of the mountain broke apart at the moment of the crucifixion. Therefore, of course, the place has also been known as Holy Mountain and Sacred Hill. I wonder now what manner of things have happened in that cleft. And I understand something of the divine presence of the place. It is an enigmatic god-hill that follows you at every turn.
I didn’t visit the Great Shattered, much as I would have liked to. I had made my way to Walterstone via public transport (a train and a taxi) and once I was out there, I had no means of transport other than my own two feet. Those feet mostly stayed inside the attic where they were used to anchor the rest of the body as it hammered through some writing, but I did use the feet for daily wanders around the local area. I followed barely used footpaths and got lost among woodlands and commons. I found sheep skulls and moody cows, a friendly horse who I didn’t wholly trust and various empty farm buildings with their rusting hulks of machinery (such scenery has long intrigued me. I wrote a horror story about it once called Pigskin).
I found an unmarked community woodland called Rockyfoll which I duly entered at my own risk. There was a mysterious ‘art gallery’ marked on my OS map and when I reached it, I found ‘The Garden of the Wind’; a sculpture garden where the specialty seems to be giant sculptures of letters and words. Sadly, it was closed, but I enjoyed the happy coincidence of it. The very reason I had entered this zone was for the sculpting of words.
And that was what I spent most of my time doing. I set down a strict regime: up early, a morning walk between 7-8am, then a series of two-hour blocks of writing with short breaks in between. I would stop at 9pm at which point I would watch a film before going to bed (Films watched: The Omega Man (1971), The Time of the Wolf (2003), Floating Weeds (1959), WarGames (1983), Solaris (2002)). For the most part, I stuck pretty rigidly to the schedule and I turned off all manner of internet connections to ensure I wasn’t interrupted or distracted. The only interruptions were the gorgeous shifts of sunlight across the face of Ysgyryd Fawr, the startling fluffy rush of sheep being herded past the window, the incursion of confused wasps and bemused daddy-long-legs, the high hooting of some local owl.
Time moved strangely in my zone. At once it was slow and langorous, but it also felt quickened and slippery - I would be nearing the end of the writing day bemused at how similar it felt to the time when I'd started. I was rooted to the same spot as the sun arced overhead to paint the patchwork fields and then hide from them again. The bedroom of the attic had no windows so when the evening's entertainment was concluded and I clicked off my laptop I was plunged into a darkness the depths of which I'd not seen in a long time. For the second night, I charged up my glow-in-the-dark Legend of Zelda t-shirt (Majora's Mask: the skull kid silhouetted within a looming moon), just to have some company. But being in such darkness helped slip me into deep dreams, helped reset the mind for the next day's word-forays.
I was overly-ambitious about how much writing I was going to get done, but once I’d fallen into the rhythm of the regime, I got a better sense of how much I could achieve. On average, I hammered out 2K per two hours, sometimes more, sometimes less. It was a reasonable pace and it resulted in a fresh version of the opening 16K of the novel. Ultimately, I had cracked through the brick wall that draft two had created and had emerged, blinking, into draft three.
Things seem neater in here, and clearer. More hopeful, I think. On the Friday, I nodded a goodbye to Ysgryrd and hurried away. Real life quickly slotted back into place. There were emails to catch up on, friends and family to see. But, as with all good zones, it has left its residual mark. Hopefully, it is the mark of momentum.
I tacked on a further weekend away in the Brecon Beacons with my wife and best friends after my retreat had finished. It was the perfect mental refresher. We swam in a glacial lake (complete with its own Lady of the Lake legend) and scurried behind enormous waterfalls. Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, I had a tiny little 100-word story published on The Drabble. It is a creepy little tale that tries to capture something of the unease that comes from escaping to the countryside and staying in creaky old cottages. It’s called The Guest Book and you can read it here.
Sonically, when I needed a bit a musical boost while in my isolation, I reached for the Word Problems of Harmonic 313: