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'The place where you'd rather "be"': Jayne Austin blogs about the recent Highl

First Time

At the ScotsWrite Conference in Glasgow this year, when asked if I was a writer, I’d replied by saying that I was an ‘aspiring writer’. “I hate the term ‘aspiring writer’ as much as I hate the ‘Scrivener’ software,” was the retort. “If you write you’re a Writer and if you’re published you’re an Author!” Feeling suitably checked and wondering if I’d made a ‘rookie’ mistake, my mind immediately countered with, well I do write but my Occupation’s not a Writer and my insecurities raged on.

So why do I write, given I’m late to it? After thirty years in the commercial world and having reached a significant birthday, I acknowledged that if I didn’t do something creative my head would explode like the Himalayan Balsam plant; writing seemed less messy.

The second investment in time for myself as a ‘writer’, would be a week’s retreat at *Moniack Mhor, with a mentoring session by Helen Sedgwick, a published Author with two novels to her name. As I’d loaded up my car, about to head to a destination less than half an hour from home, I had wondered how I could justify this trip to myself. It wasn’t just the time and expense, but the hills I already knew well, having lived amongst them for twenty years. Would I really find inspiration, amidst horizontal rain and bracing winds known to blow off make-up? Armed with bottles of Dutch courage, I’d set off to find out…

I would suggest that a measure of vocation might be required for a stay at Moniack Mhor. The main bedrooms are small, bathrooms are shared, and the evening meals are organised by a Rota. There’s no TV, the WIFI is temperamental, and the nearest shops are miles away. If you have insecurities about your culinary skills, and I share your concern, there’s no need to worry because the recipes were easily prepared under the guiding hand of Mark, the Centre Host. If you can get past these minor, or major points depending on your view, then you’re in for an enjoyable stay, at a superb location, with plenty of time to focus and write guilt-free from distractions.

I have good memories from this week, notably when Helen told me she’d finished her third novel, as we chatted over a mug of ‘builder’s brew’, on our last morning together. Eating my breakfast in the poetry library and wondering if Carol Ann had sat in this very same spot; would she have known she was destined to redefine literary history, I’d wondered? Peeling cooking apples with Tina, who’d photographed Ian Rankin and Prince Charles, to name-drop two. Celebrating Frances birthday and being inspired by her poem, passionate about Prosecco. Sitting together by the log fire and wondering if Sam, Merry and Pippin might be dropping by for second breakfasts. Had country wenches once served flagons of mead in this hostelry, now to be replaced by glasses of Pinot Grigio? United through a love of words, I’d met a brilliant group of people, where wit, anecdote and humour, prose surreal and serious, poems from the heart; were shared by individuals contagious in their enthusiasm and encouragement.

As I’d walked back to the cottage after our last night together, stopping to gaze up at the moon, crystal clear against a velvet sky, my breath chilled against the night air; I’d concluded that yes, Moniack had been a good-choice and my ‘first-time’ nerves were due to over-thinking it. As the Americans often say: ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. If what you’re looking for is an antidote to the outside world, an escape from the domestic routine, where heels and make-up are not required, then Moniack is definitely for you. It’s a down to earth place, with a warm Scottish welcome, the place where you’d rather ‘be’…

*Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre.

Jayne Austin is Secretary of The Highland Lit.

Helen Sedgwick’s latest novel is: ‘The Growing Season’.


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