The Haven in the Highlands: An inspiring week at Moniack Mhor

There’s nothing, and I mean nothing, that I like more than getting on a train with a good book, a hot drink and a big fat piece of cake. I love knowing that the next few glorious hours will be filled with words and warmth and bits of crumb, the train snaking through greens and blues and highs and lows and eventually, but not too quickly, depositing me where I need to be.

So began to my first trip, two weeks ago, to Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, which is nestled in the highlands just near Inverness.

I was lucky enough to win this year’s Emerging Writer Award from the Bridge Awards in association with Moniack Mhor, and as part of my prize, had booked myself onto two tutored writing retreats at the much-loved centre. While the second, a short story course, will be taking place later in the summer, I had frantically emailed the lovely staff at Moniack to get myself booked, at relatively short notice, on the first: A tutored novel writing week with authors Michel Faber and Emily Mackie.

Having never been on a writing retreat before, I was totally unsure of what to expect. However, the Bridge Award had given me the confidence to keep going with a large hunk of disparate bits of writing (I hesitate to call it a novel, because in its current form, it definitely isn’t), and I knew that I would hugely benefit from a week away from all non-writing distractions. I also couldn’t miss the opportunity to receive feedback and advice from two such fantastic writers.

I had vaguely assumed that we, the rookie writers, and they, The Professionals, would be somewhat segregated; that apart from the one-on-one sessions we would have with each author, we would keep more or less to ourselves, perhaps eating together but mostly keeping our heads down.

I was so very wrong.

From the moment the taxi dropped us off at Moniack, the atmosphere was super convivial. Being the wallflower type, I of course locked myself away in my (beautiful) room and waited for all the brouhaha to die- PSYCHE, you know I didn’t. I got right in.

The group was a fascinating one, diverse in age, background and decibels, but equal in friendliness. Some of the week’s attendees were working on personal projects, their first real forays into long-form writing, while others were creative writing tutors, award winners, copywriters, full time wordlovers. I was thrilled to find that the ludicrously talented Vicky MacKenzie, who was the 2015 winner of the Emerging Writer Award, had serendipitously booked herself onto the same course, and made a mental note to pick her brain up to and perhaps beyond the point of politeness (sorry, Vicky!). We were settled in and given dinner and drinks, and spent the first night chatting and sipping wine to break those awkward first strings of tension when no one quite knows what the etiquette is and when at least half the room is somewhat overwhelmed by the presence of people they greatly admire. And break they did.

Mornings at Moniack tend to be quiet, as folks get their fresh heads down into their laptops or notepads, and hack away as best they can at the project in front of them. And yet, creeping into the kitchen to grab your breakfast, you would nod hello at least one or two others and find yourself in illuminating conversation, however briefly, with someone incredibly talented who could offer you a new view on the process of writing, the process of living, or, sometimes, both. And all of this before coffee.

Late mornings and early afternoons were taken up with tutorial sessions. One by one we trailed off to the Hobbit House or the Cottage, clutching our words to our chests, knowing that they would be taken from us, pulled apart, made better, made cleaner, and, startlingly, read back to us by the man who wrote Under the SkinThe Crimson Petal and the White and The Book of Strange New Things. A very unique and enlightening experience, and one that was not at all nerve-wracking (*cough*).

Having both Michel and Emily feedback specifically on our work was immensely useful. As well as suggesting line edits and structural / thematic changes, Michel and Emily dove into the questions of why we were writing; what it was that drove each one of us to put ourselves in the middle of the highlands, far from our comfort zones, with total strangers and not a franchised coffee house in sight, in order to put words on paper. They shared with us why they wrote, how they wrote, and what struggles they had faced in getting to where they were. In short, they made friends of us. They gave us confidence as well as honest criticism, and filled each one of us with the very real belief that we could do this writing thing, and could do it well.

Emily in particular helped me find my feet in terms of tone and theme; as a writer who isn’t afraid to shy from challenging subjects, and whose prose is both lyrical and stark, she was ideally placed to tap into my (childlike) head and see what I was trying to do. She held my hand, so to speak, through a tough change of style, and I came out of it feeling renewed and re-energised. And promptly celebrated with more than a few beers.

Each night, a team of rookie writers cooked. We drank and shared and questioned each other over peeled potatoes and boiling pans. Over dinner, we laughed. Later, we played games (“Who’s the opposite of Mr Hyde?” “Mr. Lowd?”), we wrote, we messed about. On the second night, guest reader Michael F Russell sparked late-night discussions about freedom and dystopias. The first night, however, was an incredible one. Emily read, in gorgeously dramatic fashion, from a work-in-progress novel unlike anything we’d ever heard, and in the flickering light of the fires, Michel read poems from his new collection, Undying, which brutally and bravely chronicles the illness and death of his late wife Eva. I don’t think that’s an experience that any of us will ever want to forget.

By the end of the week, we had all opened ourselves up and climbed out of our little protective shells. We’d read to each other, shared experiences, shared work, shared troubles. By the time the taxis came to pick us up on Saturday morning, we’d already swapped email addresses and numbers, and arranged catch ups and workshops and exchanges of writing, all very much buoyed by the feeling of finding others Just Like Us.

I had thought that my Moniack experience would leave me with a head full of ideas and new skills, and possibly, if I was lucky, a much better sense of what my novel was meant to be. What I didn’t expect, however, was the bellyful of amazing vegan food (thanks for catering so beautifully for us, Moniack staff!), the new friends, the laughs, the fresh perspectives, the new confidence and, most strikingly, the shine you get from the strange, absorbing peace of the place; that something truly special that envelops you when you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.