Counting Pheasants

Following the success of our Landscape Writing series, Emma Beynon and I are currently booking a beautiful venue in Pembroke for our first weekend writing residential. Held in October, this retreat will give up to six participants a chance to write, read, walk, and explore the countryside with other writers. Full details will be posted shortly!

In anticipation of hosting my first writing residential,  I thought I’d share a piece I wrote for Cardiff University* about the creative writing retreat I attended as a student. The experience invigorated me, enriched my work, and gave me a much needed chance to escape the rigours of daily life. I only hope those who come along to my retreat later in the year will have an equally positive experience.

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“Arriving at Gregynog Hall felt like being dropped in an oil painting. I had only ever seen Tudor-style homes framed in American museums. Both the newness of the experience and the old-world ‘British-ness’ of the place excited me. The landscape was captivating – isolated and bold. From my room, I could hear the sheep bleating and see the frost spreading across the manicured lawn. It was certainly December there. Far in front of the house colourful bee hives sat still and dormant, waiting for spring. I knew that for the next three days, time would change. All of us – my classmates, my lecturers, the other guests – had come to slow down, be creative, and escape the loudness and pace of city life.

On the car journey up to mid-Wales we talked about our work. Lecturers and students sat together, swapping book suggestions and poetic tips. Somewhere after Crickhowell we shared stories about the countryside, University mishaps, Coen Brothers’ films, and the rain. We speculated about the type of cakes we could try at Gregynog and the meals – three courses a day (with two tea breaks) was a luxury for any student. Someone mimed what it would be like to pull a Christmas cracker – I had never heard of such a thing. We knew this trip would be good but when we arrived it was, of course, better.

As soon as the car doors opened, people scattered. Everyone found their individual rooms, explored the long corridors, stared out the windows. I discovered an old bookcase with fraying horticultural guides, a wooden toilet, and a painting of an unhappy man in a collar. I marvelled at the creaking baths and wondered how long it would take me to get ready the next morning. I considered the cold and thanked myself for remembering wellies.

Before our first workshop I took a walk on my own, down a path that ran alongside a large pasture. Two horses grazed in the distance and I saw my first real-life pheasant. He (or she, I do not have enough knowledge yet to correctly identify the sex of a pheasant) was beautiful, with golden and rust-coloured feathers. I could see a house across the field and wondered what it must be like to wake up with such a view. An older man walking a spaniel told me there was a duck pond nearby too. It was all so quiet.

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When I returned back to the house I learned that everyone else had set out on their own adventures as well. Some had discovered a fallen tree behind the gardens, others read in their rooms with the windows open, a few more had found a flock of sheep on the path to the nearest village. Someone else led me, by the hand, to the library they had discovered at the back of the house. I could hear a piano playing there and climbed up the ladder nearest the window to look for poetry. It was liberating to know that we could see so much of this place – as a group or by ourselves – in the short amount of time we had. I knew we would all leave with our own stories to tell.

Although I took advantage of the opportunity to be alone every day, our workshops created a sense of togetherness that lasted far beyond our time at Gregynog. On our first day, after everyone had finished their initial adventuring, Richard discussed Kafka and the role of metamorphosis in literature. We talked about our lives, transformations, and misunderstandings. We were asked to explore the house, to find a room or a space and write about what laid behind its doors. All of the rooms I tried were locked but this opened up other opportunities as I considered the doors that influenced my life back in the States.

For me, this was the perfect precursor to Clare Potter’s workshop on memoir. She asked the group to consider how other people see us, question how we spend our time, and how we can make our experiences meaningful to others. We were told to begin with questions – exploratory versus factual, reflective versus remembered. Memoir, she said, is all about questioning. We considered places too and discussed gardens. I remembered a feud my Dad had with our neighbours when I was a child. It started out as comical but ended in tragedy – our chicken coup raided by their Siberian husky. I would never have remembered this, and made poetry from it, without Clare’s session.

Tim Rhy’s workshop took a different approach. With humour and quirky examples, he asked us to consider the fictional characters who might have inhabited Gregynog. With its antiquated artwork and historical atmosphere it was easy to imagine what kinds of people could have taken refuge there. We worked in pairs, my partner and I quickly transforming into a self-absorbed caretaker and an eccentric old lady. After our dialogue, Tim asked us to consider the darker side of Gregynog and prompted us to write a “creepy” story. Horror is not my forte but the house and the grounds, especially in the dark, take on an eerie quality that was well worth capturing.

In just three days I had produced pages of poetry. Although the workshops brought a structure and inspiration to the experience, I really remember the readings. The first night the lecturers read their work which reaffirmed their expertise and offered insight into their personal history. I loved hearing their stories set in exotic places along with the rambling thoughts of a rugby poet. The second night we read our pieces – all first drafts and new experiments. Afterwards we all drank wine in the cellar, discussed politics, played Jenga, and talked long into the night. In the morning we ate breakfast in our pajamas.

Before leaving on our final day I took a walk along a muddy path that stretched down in front of the house. It was calm. I counted pheasants and thought how lucky I was to be in such an inspiring place.”

 

*First published in the Cardiff University English Literature Newsletter, Issue 3, March 2014

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