What child doesn’t like the idea of living on a tropical island, palms swaying in the breeze and pale sand to run your toes through? Cue music… Add to that a dash of mystery and hidden treasure, and you have all the makings of a classic children’s book.*
Or failing that, a week away to recharge the batteries, where all of the above still hold. (Okay, the Isles of Scilly have a sub-tropical microclimate, but let’s not quibble.)
The IoS lie just 28 miles west of the British mainland and some say they are the remains of the lost land of Lyonnesse. Five islands are inhabited (I know, that sounds adventurous just on its own) and the main island St Mary’s can be reached by helicopter, ferry or plane. We once took the two and a half hour ferry crossing and it was rougher than a cat’s tongue coated in industrial sandpaper. I flew back by helicopter alone, praising the god of aviation.
The plane is our preferred mode of transport and takes off from a grassy airfield on a cliff. We fly at around 1000 feet and the journey takes a mere 15 minutes. From St Mary’s it’s a short boat trip to St Agnes, having taken my trusty ginger capsules beforehand! Okay, that’s enough of a plug for the tourist industry.
The main attraction of St Agnes is the lack of distraction. Unplugged from email, a reliable mobile phone signal and familiar routines, a transformation quickly takes place. I find myself actually writing with a pen again – usually up to 12,000 words in the week we stay there. And I read more – the cottage is stacked with books. Had it not been for St Agnes I would never have encountered Raymond Carver or Elmore Leonard, never dipped into Margaret Atwood or tried yet another Anne Tyler book and still found it didn’t speak to me. And every book I ingest changes my writing in subtle ways, if only temporarily. I take on other voices and sometimes they stick around to join the throng.
* I mentioned mystery and treasure, and I try to keep my promises. The mystery I pondered most – apart from how to pay the bills when we get back – was how all these writers found their voice and their niche. There they rest upon the shelves, jostling for arm room – the genre specific and the literary; and all of them have made the novelist’s journey from ‘nagging away at your brain’ midnight idea to the finished page-flicking product. Best of all perhaps is that they all approached it differently. other writers can only draw strength from that. As Brian Keaney has reminded me, there is no magic formula. You write your best work and then you try to place it somewhere. The End. Or at least, The End when you choose to give up and leave the arena.
The mystery then becomes less about how to achieve something and more about why one takes the path they have. So I spent time looking at where I’ve put my creative energy and the projects that have either yielded little fruit or none at all. Surrounded by the sea and the constantly shifting breeze, I find my thoughts mould to the unceasing rhythms.
Sometimes it’s good to let things go and move on, to stand on the shore and wave goodbye to those paper rafts we launched with such fierce ambition. For me that has meant relinquishing a humour column in a Canadian magazine because economic reality is more important than the cachet of a line on my CV. Even though the tide will eventually submerge them, it’s good to know where we draw our lines in the sand!
And for the writers that I know, the greatest mystery is always ‘what next?’. As a friend of mine in California used to say, “Life is a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved.” Which, the internet informs me, is probably a quote from Danish philosopher Soren Kierkgaard.
* I also promised treasure. There were two kinds of treasure on the trip, each tangible in its way. The first was a story – the kind that arrive as a pleasant surprise, fully formed and racing through your mind as you grasp at the rushing mist. A folk tale of sorts, about the plight of mermaids and the children they leave behind. The second treasure was the discovery of a box, while out walking. A tin box – the sort a child might keep their special things in (see the delightful film Amelie) – and containing a letter of some kind and some pearls. The tin in a plastic bag that also contained a plastic angel, hidden underneath a rock. I found it by a combination of serendipity and clumsiness. I didn’t read the letter and put it all back where I found it.
There’s probably a story in all that somewhere, but it’s not one for me at the moment. I’m too busy working out the next chapter of my own adventure as a writer.