I live surrounded by old trees and undergrowth. A dense ring of green around a big, old red brick house with mismatched windowpanes and gothic turrets. It’s like living in the forest, but on the outskirts of the city. We cultivate our wilderness areas, or least ignore them and leave their secrets intact, and maybe this is why we share our space with so many creatures that are nocturnal - bats, owls, hedgehogs and foxes.
Sometimes I look out of my long window onto the garden at night to watch the foxes. They’re magical creatures. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a tail, vanishing into the darkness. Sometimes a whole body slinks in the shadows, snouts about, saunters across the lawn. Occasionally one will emerge onto lamp-lit grass and perform a back-arched jump, all four paws in the air. Once, drawn by a rustling in the foliage underneath my window, I saw a fox-cub’s head sprout from the leaves, and then the rest of it, skinny body followed by skinny tail, as it sprung and pounced and played in the moonlight before skittering back into the darkness.
I’m drawn to these night-creatures who live in the borderlands between night, and day, between cultivated garden and wilderness – playful, mysterious bin-scavengers, wild and beautiful and feral. They remind me of other margin dwellers – creatures, human or not, who live, in some way, in the borderlands. Sometimes glimpsed, never fully seen. Sitting on the sidelines of society, minding their own business. Falling through the cracks. Misunderstood, overlooked, regarded with suspicion Making a living on what’s been left behind. Waiting in the wings. Travellers, voyagers, watchers, seekers, show people, night people. My people, all of them.
Of course they make their way into my writing. My fiction is mostly fairytales: grimy magic realist transformation stories. A vixen who dots in and out of the of the undergrowth is a recurring motif in the novel I’ve been working on for some time now.
And this is where Wide Open Writing Comes in. The manuscript of what’s now called The Beloved Children had been put to one side. For good reason, I argued (mostly to myself). I’d a commission to complete a book of feminist working class history within a tight deadline. And a contract for a book of short stories. But all stories have other stories concealed inside them, particularly the ones we tell ourselves, and really, I’d put the manuscript to one side because I’d got, metaphorically, lost in the forest. I’d wandered in, entranced by the night creatures and the enchanted world I’d found there, and, just as it happens in all the fairy stories, I’d wandered off the path. And instead of finding a man whose eyebrows met in the middle, I’d got stuck in a swamp. One of my characters, Rose, in particular, had been locked (by me, not an evil fairy godmother but merely an incompetent one) into a storyline that, I was increasingly aware, was wrong for her. She needed… deserved… more… . Her storyline was pivotal. But I didn’t know what she needed to be. And until I’d worked it out, I was going nowhere with this book. So when I packed my bags for Tuscany, my hope for the retreat was that somehow I’d find my way, and discover Rose’s true story.
The WOW magic began to work its spell from the very beginning, with the company of inspiring strangers and the beauty of the countryside opening up imaginative possibilities. And yes, we were surrounded by forest.
There was no messing about. Dulcie’s first workshop – powerful stuff – provided the illumination I’d been seeking. She asked us to envisage a ball of energy inside us and write from that place. And it came. This sardonic, knowing voice, mocking me. It was the old wardrobe mistress Dolores, one of the other characters. I’d written her as a formidable character and here she was, proving me right. ‘You think Rose is just a fluffy little chicken,’ the voice sneered. I wrote it down, everything that she had to say as she put me right. And when I read it aloud to the amazingly supportive WOW circle, they got it straight away.
Each Wide Open Writing day gave me some more words. Not reams, but they were good words. Snippets came: other voices from the book, reminding me who they were and what I needed to do with them. And when I got back home, the words and the insights I’d gleaned in the WOW workshop provided me with the spark to revisit the manuscript, redraft it and rework it into shape. It took me from October to June this year and now The Beloved Children is at the stage where it’s ready to spread its wings.
Other words and ideas came, too – some of them in the times when I left the wonderful group of new friends and set out into the night to explore the countryside around the Fattoria. I didn’t go too far, and there weren’t any foxes, but it felt warm and welcoming and full of unseen, mysterious goings on. And on the last day of our retreat, when we all stood together in a circle, hand to hand, in the tree pose, we realised that we had created our own forest – a forest of ideas and inspiration, a fertile imaginative space full of words and ideas, rooted to the ground, holding each other up, putting out branches, pointing towards the sky.
I’d often use the silent time between Nancy’s gorgeous morning yoga sessions and the first creative writing workshop to note the thoughts and impressions that came from my nocturnal wanderings. One of the scribblings about leaving the path and exploring the darkness has made its way into a three-part poem called hagstones that has been accepted for an anthology of poetry on magic and witchcraft called Maiden Mother Crone. It’s the first of my poems to find their way into print. I have WOW’s very special magic to thank for that.