I've been putting off writing this. One reason is because – well, when you can walk, and sit, and dream, in paradise, in the sun... And another is because I find it hard to write anything about the Hebrides, and my annual experience (16 years now) of leading my courses on Iona with the beautiful people who come to share them, that isn't, frankly, rhapsodic, ecstatic; and therefore is new.
Also, the more I do this work up here, work that engages and feeds the soul (however one understands that), as in any good love affair, the deeper the experience becomes, and even I find it hard to be endlessly voluble about a process that happens at a non-verbal level.
I've worked out the chief ingredients that make the retreats up here so utterly magical and where inspiration runs freely, like water.
1 the location (obviously), and its edgeness
2 the long and complicated journey, in its pilgrimage nature
3 the disruption of habit and routine
4 the kind of people who are attracted to this little island (three-and-a-half by one-and-a-half miles) on the edge of the earth, and the nature of the work we do in our week together – so much more than 'just a writing course'
5 the people on the island who make us so welcome: the hotel staff, Davy the boatman who takes us to Staffa, and in fact everyone one meets
6 the experience of being, in some way, scoured, broken open, by the island, the synergy of group and individual depth exploration, immersion in land-sea-air and the other-than-human; and then put back together again, refreshed, restored, transformed, healed, even, as participants often say
7 the early-established warmth and mutual trust; this is a safe and intimate space created, where we find our imaginations fired and a freedom to speak deep truths
8 the fact that I run a kind of bootcamp, where excuses, apologies and procrastinations have no place
9 the food
10 oh and the dedicated time for writing, often in unfamiliar and unexpected ways.
For many people who come here (I mean on such a course), there's a kind of thirst, a bone-deep thirst, a dryness that comes from our accelerated techno-oriented sometimes rather dislocated lives. In a speedy materialistic culture, what's valued is surface, briefly gratifying, acquisition or achievement.
As writers, the thirst is worse if they find themselves, in their daily lives, short on writing time or writing inspiration; and surface writing, surface anything, rarely satisfies. (That's not just true of writers, clearly.)
I'm not sure if the thirst, then, is for writing per se, or if it's a more deep-seated thirst for connectedness – to self, to other, human and non-, to the whole great cosmos – that writing, and depth groupwork, allow one to explore, express and assuage. I am sure that it is assuaged more completely on this island, and more swiftly, than one might imagine possible.
And people write. And write.
Well, what I was intending to write about was the process, experience and requirements of writing, from other writers' perspectives, but already my non-rhapsody is running away with me. So maybe I needed to indulge it just a tiny bit; just one very small glass. Really.
Tomorrow, or Thursday, perhaps, I'll tell you what I want to tell you about writing. If this currently-very-erratic machine doesn't fall off its internal perch, and this currently-blissed-out writer decides to switch it on to see.