Where Creativity Hides

In the middle of 2013’s dog days of summer, I had writer’s block. I craved sunshine and found sitting still in front of a computer intolerable, so that year, I let summer be what it would be—a throwback to my guileless childhood days of aimlessly wandering through cool mornings of fluttering breezes followed by hot, lazy afternoons of creeping through forests of time, all the while exploring nothing but my whimsical interest of the moment. That summer, I wandered Amsterdam’s streets. I sat in Vondelpark’s grass. I biked along canals. Mostly, I watched people.

But then the afternoons started to turn cool and the evenings even cooler, and I began to smell the low tones of autumn in the air. I realized that responsibilities wouldn’t stay at bay forever, but still the writer’s block persisted. I sat at the computer with nothing to say and began to feel the darkness sneaking up on me around the edges.

Knowing better than to let myself languish where gloom could find me, I decided a change of scenery might shake loose my creativity and re-establish a necessary and tried-and-true writing routine.

First, I searched for a beachside cottage in The Netherlands, but none of them looked just right—too many tourists here, too much space there. I wondered about a cabin in the mountains, and I found one in Poland’s Carpathians, but then I thought about facing the wilderness by myself, and I knew the long shadows would find me there.

Then, I alighted on La Muse, a carefully curated space for writers and artists in a small French village called Labastide-Esparbairenque in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. The remote mountain sanctuary, I would soon learn, endured amidst many of my great loves—vineyards, dry mountain air, shady effervescent streams cut deep into forested landscapes, hundred-mile vistas, storied crumbly architecture, plenty of sunshine, and little else.

Established nearly 15 years ago by Kerry Eielson and John Fanning, two writers from New York City, La Muse is a place suspended in time not just because visiting the medieval, rough-hewn, French farmhouse turned writers’ retreat feels like stepping into a quieter, simpler era, but also because La Muse is a place purposely designed to provide long stretches of peaceful, uninterrupted time to writers and artists serious about honing their crafts.

After a simple application process, John and Kerry must have decided, even with writer’s block, I was worthy of, or at least in need of, La Muse, so a few weeks later I packed my bags, sharpened my proverbial pencils, and boarded a plane for Toulouse.

I arrived in the sleepy village of Labastide-Esparbairenque on a sunny, Friday afternoon, laptop in hand and ready to work. John had collected me and two other writers from the Carcassone train station and then shuttled us to the grocery store and bakery before driving us up a winding, tree-lined road to his hillside retreat—a sprawling 12th-century structure of stacked slate-and-schist masonry held together by broad ancient timbers and topped by earthy crimson-clay tiles.

Almost immediately, I heard the town’s bell tower chime as if it had been counting out the days in 30-minute increments for centuries, and I realized it probably had been. The simple village embodied uncomplicated living—no restaurants, cafés, or shops on its serene lanes. Most residents, even those above the age of 90, tended gardens and got the remainder of what they needed from the weekly bread van and épicerie truck.

When John showed me to my room, that sense of intuition that I’ve increasingly come to trust let me know that I’d made it to the right place. Perhaps it was the comfortable chair by the window with the blanket thrown over the arm, or the bubble-speckled ancient glass through which I saw only trees, or the airy, light smell of time-tested space, but I immediately felt this place would be important to me.

My week started with the goal of keeping to a rigid schedule trusting that if I showed up and did the work, creativity would find me. I slept from 10 o’clock in the evening to 7 o’clock in the morning. I started every other morning with a slow, but diligent climb over a slate-strewn sandy path up, up, and further up into the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains. By 10 o’clock in the morning, I’d bathed, eaten breakfast, and spent 15 minutes in quiet reflection before beginning to write. I would break for lunch at noon and take a short walk up to the village’s natural spring, known as “the source,” to fill a bottle with fresh-from-the-earth water, which I drank immediately. I would be back to writing by 2 o’clock.

By 7 o’clock, the tempting smells of frying Toulouse sausage or baking quiche would start to drift up through the floorboards into my room. Drawn to the common kitchen, I would sip regional wine while I cooked with other writers from around the world. They would talk of historical fiction and Welsh poetry, and I would talk of a memoir about teaching in Tanzania.

Day by day, creativity did find me, and two pages turned into ten, and ten pages turned into twenty.

Maybe your problem isn’t writer’s block, but a generally weariness or a need to be more mindful about the way you live. Maybe, like me, you sometimes need to break away from the everyday normal and experience something different. There’s nothing like travel to achieve this. Even if you can’t journey as far afield as La Muse, consider finding a different place of respite. No matter where you go, if you’re intentional about it, I have a hunch creativity will find you.

© 2019 Juliet Culter. All rights reserved.