True solitude is not something many of us experience very often these days. I know I don’t: I have children and animals and a house to look after, so my writing has to fit in around the jobs those things create. Life is pretty busy and often quite noisy. Most of the time that is not a problem, and I get a lot of writing done. Recently, though, I have felt myself yearning for some “head space”; some real quiet and some uninterrupted time in which to get down to the business of writing something new. I was beginning to fear that I could not write anything new.

In her book The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron says, “Until we experience the freedom of solitude, we cannot connect authentically.” This sums up exactly how I had been feeling for months. I had been writing, sure, but I had not been writing what I truly wanted to write. One particular story had been bouncing off the walls of my brain for a long time, but I had not been able to give it the space it needed to come to the fore.

Of course, at home I am alone for a few hours every day while everyone is out of the house, but being alone for a few hours is not the same as experiencing solitude, and therefore it is not really freedom. At home my day is broken up with such distractions as going to the local shop where I will probably chat to people; seeing a neighbour on my dog-walk; going to an exercise class with other people I know . . . And then there are the pets: the dog and the cats and the chickens and the tortoise, all of whom take up a chunk of time every day, one way or another.

A writing retreat is an obvious way to find solitude, although even there you are bound to spend time with others, if only at mealtimes. To find true solitude, I needed long stretches of time with no distractions and no excuses.

I was lucky enough to get this last week when I was offered the opportunity to spend a few days in Amsterdam. My husband was working there, and his parents suggested that they hold the fort at home so that I could go and join him. I knew I would have the days to myself, so I decided this was my chance: I would treat the trip as my long-awaited writing retreat. 

In Amsterdam, I had no pets or children with me, knew no one other than my husband (who was out at work all day) and was surrounded by people speaking a language that is not my own. It was wonderful: no deadlines, no time constraints, no housework – and no excuses. I was staying in a flat outside the city centre. The neighbourhood was quiet and rather dull: the perfect environment for a writing retreat!

Every morning, I went for a run around the Vondelpark, and even though the park was full of people, I still felt entirely alone. I was without my dog, I was not going to bump into anyone I knew. I had no one but myself to look after, so I could let my mind run riot, or completely shut down. It was running as meditation, decluttering my mind, ready for the writing day ahead.

Of course I could have gone anywhere to find the hours and hours of solitude I experienced last week, and certainly did not have to go abroad. Yet somehow the fact that I was in a different country (and one where I did not speak the language) meant I felt enclosed in a bubble. With that feeling came a huge release; a freedom I have not felt for years.

I may not get the chance to have that much unbroken writing time again for a long while, but I do feel as though the batteries have been recharged and that I had that “connection” of which Julia Cameron speaks in her book. Here’s hoping I can turn what I wrote last week into something more in the time I have available in my normal, busy, noisy life . . .