A story that took flight

The following comes with a proviso, or a few.

Firstly, there are going to be spoilers in this so if you haven’t seen The Aeronauts as yet, please come back once you have – I really would love to hear what you think of the film or indeed other films that have inspired you and your writing.

Secondly, I am an inconsistent reviewer. This is mostly because of time (there’s always a more pressing deadline for me to write), or mindset (why-would-anyone-want-to-read-what-I-have-to-say-itis).

Thirdly, I’m not a film critic. I generally leave that up to my brothers who would have much more intelligent (or at least long-winded) things to say no doubt.

But with all that in mind, I realised that it wouldn’t work as a very long twitter thread (often how I share my thoughts about various things that have inspired or fired me up) so instead, the thoughts are going to get put down here.

Neither of us rushed out of our seats, instead we let the credits roll before starting to discuss the experience of the story we’d just been a part of. We came out of the cinema into freezing fog that felt so otherworldly and yet so close to what we had just watched that it gave the right atmosphere to keep up our conversation all the way home. We often talk about the films we see on the way home, but this felt different somehow.

Having recently plotted out my novel, to try and find my way through the story I wanted to tell vs what came out in a few drafts many moons ago, the awareness of the typical story structure was very present in my mind. The joys of being a writer and a critical reader. It tends to mean that I can see where a film or a TV drama is going too, which can spoil the experience somewhat when you’re looking for some kind of escape. The Aeronauts didn’t leave me feeling like that.

Instead I felt taken by the hand, invited into the basket of the balloon to explore with them. I loved how it started in the middle, stepped back for what felt like the briefest of moments to explain how they got there, before continuing. This isn’t a new thing, or something I haven’t seen or read before, but it worked so beautifully.

I loved that it wasn’t a love story. That there were human drivers for the characters, but that wasn’t the end goal. There wasn’t a magic wand for the grief both main characters felt – her for her husband, him for his father, both for not being heard or understood by those around them. Everything was waiting for them when they landed again, but in the time that they rose to the extraordinary height and back down again it was just them.

I didn’t know how it was going to end, and that was a thing of beauty in itself. There were no huge pointers, no over explanation, no over-the-top twist. It unfolded, yet it was no where near as straightforward or plain as that sounds. I breathed a sigh of relief when they landed, I let go of my wife’s hand which was pretty much crushed out of fear for their not getting to earth again, but I didn’t foresee it. It could have gone either way right up until they both were standing (just).

The balance between the two characters was extraordinary. That they were able to save one another (although, let’s face it, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) did a lot of the hard work). That the writers, the film makers/ directors/ producers, the actors, gave enough space for the words they did say and those they didn’t. In a novel or a short story, that space is often more present than in films especially mainstream feature-length, yet it was so important. It felt like we were watching an two-hander play, the intimacy was so immediate – most likely because of the confinements of the balloon itself.

Most of all, that feeling has lasted. Long enough for me to stay up and immediately write this. Long enough that I know I’ll wake up tomorrow thinking about this story. Long enough to think some more research about aeronauts is required because I want to know more. Long enough to understand how I want to write a story as good as the one that we were just part of.

A place to retreat to

This is not a review I want to write. You’re going to find out my secret and then I’ll have to share. I’m terrible at sharing.

To be totally honest with you, with myself, I share ‘me’ too much. So much so that it leaves very little time for ‘me’. Urgh. Just writing that sentence makes me cringe.

However, it’s true. I needed an escape. Not a complete run for the hills (my wife needed to escape too) but to be away. I saw someone recommend Catherine McNamara’s writing retreats in Italy. Cat and I met long ago at The Word Factory, and she’s often said we should go out there.

The thing was, she runs writing retreats. I wanted to go away to write, but I also wanted to go away to think, to read, to have enough head space for possibilities. Also, my wife doesn’t write (she tells people that. Actually she’s a damn good poet but she keeps it on the quiet). So would it be fair?

She went along with my plan, when Cat said of course she could do a retreat for the two of us. Because that’s what Cat can do – make it fit for you. The writer who stayed a week or so before us had spent her week mostly holed up in a choice of inside and outside spaces working. But Cat gave her the space to unplug too, to discuss work and life and the universe over beautiful meals and excellent drinks. I imagine anyway, because that’s we did, a lot.

We also got guided tours of two cities that are now firmly in our hearts. I read almost three books (probably the same I managed in the first half of the the year) and took the time to discuss them at length. I thought a lot, but not the worrying thoughts that plague the day-to-day about work and family and life on the whole. I thought about my writing, what was working and wasn’t. I even talked about it, which I hadn’t felt able to for a while because my focus has been on the work that can pay now, rather than hopefully later. I thought and talked about that work too, and how it’s going to play out in the second half of my first year as a freelancer.

We slept in, we stayed up late, we got up early, we crashed out. Whatever worked on that day. The only ‘order’ was ours to decide.

I run retreats, much shorter, one day retreats for Writers’ HQ writers. I know the power of saying – “don’t worry, whatever you do today is yours to do. You don’t have to do the washing up, and you don’t have to think about what’s going on at home, you just need to be in the room writing.” I watch writers leave with big grins and new ideas. I forgot what that feels like myself. Until Cat gave us that, or maybe just the space for it. New ideas, hope, and relaxed grins.

I’m going back, next time, as a writer writing rather than a writer in need of a break. I’m going back to sit in the sun-warm outbuilding to write more of the next draft of my novel where Cat wrote her first. I’m going back to continue to reform ideas when the head space is lacking. I’m going back to be in great company and to be looked after in the way I hope I look after my writers (if only for a day and not a week!). I’m going back because I promised Voss (the pup) I’d kick the ball some more.

I didn’t want to share, because I know that Cat’s weeks get booked up. There’s some availability left in late August/September I believe, and if you fancy being part of a taught group then Cat will be running a tutored retreat with Tom Vowler in September (which I’m gutted to miss). She’s taking bookings for 2020 too if you like to plan ahead.

You can find all the info about the retreat on Cat’s website, as well as more about her award-winning writing. Just leave me a week, eh?