Aug 03 2020

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly Stoppit

It's my last day of writing retreat in the beautiful seaside town of Ilfracombe. I rode three trains and a bus in a mask to get some time alone with my book. 

Truth be told, we had a bit of a tiff back in February and we hadn't spoken since. Before that we'd been on a 6 month break, after living in each other's pockets for most of last summer. It's not been the easiest of relationships, but for the last six years, no matter how far away we run, we periodically gravitate back to each other.

Back in the cold, crisp days of February, we met up in cosy cafes far enough away from home that no-one would know us, hoping to rekindle our romance over endless oatmilk lattes. At first we rejoiced in the familiarity of our connection, but quickly I found myself yawning and thinking of other things.

“Sorry, am I boring you?”

“No, not at all.”

“But you're gazing out the window.”

“Oh, there was this guy on roller-skates, pushing a buggy full of toys.”

“Oh a roller skating guy, huh? More interesting than exploring the blocks to play through a myriad of different theories, huh?”

“Um, yeah, sorry, but um yes, I'm finding all the theory a bit boring actually.”

“Well, why don't you go and hang out with roller skate man, I'm sure you'll have loads more fun with him!”

“Ah don't be like that, I am listening, I'm just craving something a bit more human.”

“Well you know what, I'm not a human, I'm a book and this book is closed to you.”

I tried calling, but my book wasn't picking up. I never stopped thinking about it. Then, thanks to Covid 19, I found myself on a break from work and fancied a trip to the seaside. I thought, who better to be my holiday buddy than good old Bookie? Remarkably, it agreed, on the proviso that I would pay for everything, not mention the b word (boring, shhhh) and ply it with all the garish solid sugar rock it can handle (it loves the taste of the words inside).

So, we've been here for a week, my book and me, in a tiny little 2nd floor apartment with a balcony, overlooking the sea, surrounded by salty air and squawking seagulls. We were off to a tricky start, Bookie clearly still had the hump with me. Deciding to give it some space, I laid it out on the high table by the window and retreated to the raised bed on the other side of the room. The atmosphere prickled between us, as we pretended to relax and enjoy our holiday.

Eventually, perhaps to break the tension, Bookie beckoned me over and invited me to read a chapter. With great respect, I lovingly logged it's contents on post-it notes and stuck them on big bits of paper. The book seemed intrigued by this process and welcomed me in for another chapter. And so it went, for two whole days until the whole book's contents spread out like a multi-coloured patchwork blanket all over the floor, Bookie's original pages splayed out on the coffee table and faux-leather arm chairs.

I awoke the next morning, feeling body-heavy and soul-tired. The sea dragged me from my bed and lured me out for a long windy coastal walk. Bookie wasn't up for it, preferring instead to “chill in the flat,” so I left radio 4 on to keep it company and stomped my way out of town until the sky and the sea had space to stretch out and breathe.

In a tiny cove carpeted with grey pebbles and stripes of purple-green seaweed, I found a good flat rock to balance my flask of tea on and secretly slipped another book out of my bag, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones:

The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That's not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realise they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at the time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.”

Aha! I AM NOT MY WORDS! The book is NOT who I am! It's who I was last summer, before the TED talk and the doh-see-doh of speaking and teaching opportunities that sprang up in its wake, before the moments of ecstatic elation and terrible tragedy and the burn out and the recovery and the courses, all the courses, all my wonderful courses that I used to run before the lockdown, before the lockdown, before life changed completely overnight. Each experience has left a dent and I'm a different shape now, stronger and tougher in some parts, softer and squidgier in others.

What do I want to offer to the world now?

I returned to my book with a tender heart:

“I love you, but I am not you anymore.”

“What? I don't understand, what do you mean?”

“I mean life has changed me, I have grown, my needs have changed. What I want to offer to the world has changed.”

“Oh. Right. But what about me? What about my needs? What about what I want to offer the world?”

“Look, I don't want to chuck it all away, you've got some great features.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“I love how seriously you take the theory, it's important stuff.”


“Yeah. But I need a bit more play in the writing and more joy in the tone. I want you to be the embodiment of the message: the healing power of play is possible for everyone.”

“Oh I see what you're saying. Yes, I think you're onto something here. I give you my blessing to breathe fresh energy into my pages.”

So we tumbled around Ilfracombe for a couple more days, infusing the book with fresh sea air, big wide views, bright hardy flowers and freezing cold swims. Bookie is beginning to find a new form and I'm happy to have found a clear focus for the months ahead. Play is the way.

I wrote another blog in 2018 after my last writing retreat; 10 top tips for Creative Process. It really helped me kick start my writing time in Ilfracombe this summer. I hope it's helpful to you too.

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