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  • Writer's pictureJean Shields Fleming

A Writing Residency in Scotland

Finding time to write is something almost every writer I know struggles with – myself included. So I’m incredibly grateful to have been part of a recent writers’ residency. Convened by the Museum of Loss and Renewal, eleven writers met on the Orkney Islands in Scotland for a transformative week. Our focus: to consider place in all its dimensions. Time, space, inner, outer, present, past – we came at it from myriad perspectives. And, while we arrived as strangers, very quickly, this diverse group of women bonded as we explored the island’s archaeological wonders – neolithic standing stones, cairns, the remains of Viking settlements – and sharing meals, grief and so much laughter. So, so much laughter.

Academics, illustrators, poets, biographers, graphic novelists, performers, visual artists – we came from different disciplines, with many perspectives. The residency was held at Linkshouse, a retreat space run by the Pier Art Centre in Stromness. Linkeshouse is a handsome Victorian home perched at the edge of the Bay of Birsay. It has been rehabbed in elegant but comfortable simplicity, with exquisite artwork and a small but delicious library. The incomparable Rena cooked for us, and we ate extremely well.

I went with an ambitious goal: to finish the novel I’ve been working on. Tentatively titled The Italian Concerto, the novel was pretty far along, but I wasn’t sure if I get it done. Afterall, the agenda for the week was pretty packed, and I’m a wanderer at heart. Put me down in a new place and I will want to have a look around. However, an accident gave me the space I needed. In an overenthusiastic effort to go swimming in the sea I pulled my left hamstring. The water was cold but not impossible, seals bobbing out past the breakers, and it looked so inviting that I had to try. A slick rock, unsure footing – and down I went. The pain told immediately that I’d done some damage. After lots of swearing and hobbling back to the house (and climbing through a barbed wire fence), I hunkered down in the library and wrote. While I missed out on some of the exploration of the island, I made up for it in writing time. And I completed the draft!

Now I'd like to make an excerpt of the novel available to you. In it, you'll meet three remarkable women. Their struggle will decide the fate of 570 and a half acres of undeveloped land.

To write a novel is to commit to a set questions for the long haul. In this story, questions are about who really controls the fate of the land we live on? Can we own the earth? And what lengths will people go to get what they want?

My writing technique is highly organic. When I begin a novel, I know the situation, a few key plot points, and maybe a character or two. I also usually have a vague sense of where it will end. But I don’t know how it will get there. I am not an outliner. That simply doesn’t work for me. I enjoy the adventure of discovery and could never keep to an outline even if I made one. So until I have the first draft complete, I don’t really know the whole story – and inevitably I get surprised along the way.

I’m in awe of the writers/artists with whom I was privileged to share this residency. We shared our work daily, mostly in spontaneous sessions. Not workshopping it as I have done at other residencies. Rather, we simply appreciated it. And each other. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that much – nor have I been so quickly moved by words.

If you’re a writer trying to squeeze your work into the margins of your life – as so many do – I highly recommend looking for a residency. It doesn't have to be a long get-away, either. The one I attended was just a week long. But even that planted seeds that I know will nourish my work long into the future.

Here are some great resources for learning more:

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