Late last year I travelled to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre located at Annaghmakerrig, a place in Ireland that is hard to spell but easier to pronounce, which is a residential workplace for artists to find peace and quiet to concentrate on their work with the stimulation of living alongside artists from other disciplines.
Tyrone Guthrie’s former house accommodates 10 artists and a further five artists stay in the self-catering farmyard cottages out the back. Providing excellent resources is what the Tyrone Guthrie Centre does very well. There are nine studios for visual artists, a music room, a print room and a dance studio. Artists stay anywhere from six weeks to one week, shorter residencies being used mostly by the Irish artists to get specific aspects of their practice realized, while the international artists stay for longer, partly to have enough time to get over the jetlag before beginning work.
So overwhelmed with the great opportunity I had been offered and also the incredible distance I had come (Australia is really very far away from the rest of the world) I spent the time initially being ineffectual and unable to find the breadboard.
Everyone told me to relax in pretty accents and I took their advice and let myself sleep in gratuitously and write badly for a while. I went on walks. I tried to circumnavigate the lake but some cows made me nervous and I walked back the way I had come. I checked to see if the lake was still there on a daily basis and marvelled at the changing canvas that is Annaghmekerrig. I hung around the dining room after dinner and drank heavy Australian wine and listened to poets and painters and playwrights. This approach worked because by the third week the architecture was in place and the story was writing itself. I lived like a wastrel and stayed up late and slept in late and wrote in the afternoon and in the early hours of the morning.
At 7 o’clock everyone staying at the house meets for dinner. The artists staying in the cottages come to dinner once a week. Dinner is a punctuation point after long and distracted workdays. I was usually at the house after dinner because making contact with international artists in the fields of painting, printmaking, music composition, playwriting, poetry and other novelists was a great way to end the day. And some days I could really do with the company. The visual artists tended to go to bed early and rise early, bang out a quick warm up sketch and get to work, stopping for lunch at the traditional time. The writers tended to go to bed late and turn up to lunch and call it breakfast. The composers were somewhere in between. Names were hard to keep track of and mishearing was rife. Maybe it was my accent but one guy thought my name was Collette. In four weeks, the turnover was brisk, stimulating, but fast. Fortunately people left notes on the fridge with contact details so at least you could be sure of the correct pronunciation of their name after they had gone.
My back seized up in the last week even though the bed was perhaps the most comfortable mattress I have ever encountered. I dreamt a lot when I was at Annaghmekerrig, nightmares even. I was told that everyone sleeps badly while staying at the great house. I think it’s something about the intensity of the immersion you have in your new work with the time and space you are afforded. Or else the place is haunted.
I never did work out how to light my fire. The Irish all seem to have magic fire making abilities. I’m sure I saw an Irishwoman light a fire with a single match. Another just seemed to wave her hands and the fire was ablaze. Apparently they call all do this because, “it’s such a comfort to have a fire,” and I agree but in Australia we spend all our time putting them out. In the end I had to use a blow heater.
During this residency I began my next book, Songs from the Singing Ship. As other writers have noted, you set a goal to achieve. My aim was to write 30, 000 words but I came back with 14, 000 words, but I did establish the bones of the thing as well. This seems to be the rule of thumb for residencies, you’ll achieve half of what you thought you would achieve. I strongly identified with Lucy Nelson’s experience of the same thing when she went to Sri Lanka; you get half as much done as you thought you would.
This residency was perfectly timed and the ideal place to begin a complicated new book. This is a great residency to begin projects. The key is the opportunity you have to immerse yourself in your new world. The distractions are few and the aspect gorgeous. There is enough social contact without it becoming overwhelming and staying in the cottage was perfect for my particular creative process. If I’d stayed at the house I would have just lurked around the kitchen and put on weight looking for the distraction of the next meal and a conversation. In the cottage I could keep reasonably disciplined and control my diet somewhat although I still came back to the southern hemisphere a touch heavier, actually, much heavier.
I got some great advice about websites, agents, various approaches to writing, promotion and the scene in Ireland and England. I made some great contacts for the future and some real connections with other writers and artists and their work.
I want to encourage fellow writers to look into this residency. In my opinion this residency is best for beginning new works or editing late drafts. This was a most creative and useful time. I was able to let go of the old book and properly embrace the new one. Ireland is a gorgeous place, and it was amazing to connect with other writers working in a great literary tradition.
The website is here: http://tyroneguthrie.ie/home
Nicole Smith is the author of Sideshow, which won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize and is published by Xoum Publishing. Sideshow is currently longlisted for the Dobbie Award.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.