Beyond words
Marrakech, Morocco


Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing always struck me as both interesting and like he dashed them off after realising he’d missed the deadline. ‘Never carry dialogue with anything other than “said”, Elmore opines, didactically. Another of his rules is never start a chapter with a description of the weather, so I won’t begin with the welcome heat that blasts me after my short flight from a London so grim it had started to resemble Blade Runner. We’ll skim too past the traffic ‘system’ that would make a German vomit in their hat. Forty-five minutes to get out of the car park. Immobile, bumper to bumper. Men leaning on their horns, cursing phlegmily. Welcome to Marrakech, baby.

This is the trip I’ve been waiting for. The ultimate writing retreat. I will think deep thoughts by a sparkling pool. I will fill notebooks with ideas to a soundtrack of lark song and the call to prayer. Come the cocktail hour, I will set up at the bar to talk of Nabokov and plot devices with people almost as wildly interesting as myself.

It’s been a long time coming. See, we like to keep things to a certain lavish standard here at OutThere, and a lot of what’s on offer literarily just doesn’t quite cut it. Sure, you can pay a few quid for a week at a cottage where another unpublished author will tell you to ditch your adjectives. But it’s hardly the stuff writerly dreams are made of.

Enter Silk Road Slippers Masterclasses. Not only is the location spectacular, but the teaching, led by a team of three impeccably credentialled women all at least partly based in London, is also.

Alexandra Pringle has played the publishing game on hard mode and completed every level. She has edited bestsellers, Booker and Nobel prize winners, served as editor-in-chief at the mighty Bloomsbury Publishing and co-founded Virago Press. Hair in pixie crop, always in chunky sunglasses, she has the reassuring cut-glass diction of Julie Andrews, who would surely play her in the film. 

Then there’s Alex Von Tunzelmann. Her latest book Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History was a book of the year in The Economist and The New Statesman, and she wrote the screenplay for 2017’s Churchill. She hosts a topical daily podcast with culture journalist Miranda Sawyer and has a sideline in juicy royal gossip. She also has the highest scoring Scrabble name. Finally, Faiza S Khan is a former consulting editor at Bloomsbury, now freelance. She is small and ebullient with curly black hair and an accent that makes King Charles sound like a Millwall fan. All three bring to the table, alongside creative coaching, deep practical insights into the workings of the publishing world, another aspect that sets Silk Road Slippers Masterclasses apart from other writing retreats.

Each masterclass features a guest ‘star writer’, and on mine this is Booker prize-winning international bestseller Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane and Love Marriage, who will be visiting us for an in-depth workshop and to give a reading (at time of writing, confirmed star writers for future masterclasses include Maggie O’Farrell, Esther Freud and Alan Hollinghurst).

The setting is Jnane Tamsna, a traditional Moroccan villa turned luxury boutique hotel with five swimming pools, cool reading rooms and a sprawling, immaculate garden. You couldn’t ask for a better location for a writing retreat. Which, it transpires, this isn’t. “It’s not a retreat,” says Alexandra. “Think of it as a bootcamp. You’ll all be knackered. This is going to be bloody hard work.” A ‘bootcamp’ then, but instead of grinding out push-ups and pounding green drinks we’re refining our characters and developing our authorial voice.

Our first night we sit around a long, candlelit dining table as the garden perfumes the cool night air. Alexandra suggests we each in turn give our names and share our favourite character from literature. I first want to say Miss Havisham, who has lived in my head rent-free in her tattered wedding dress for the last 30 years. Instead, I say Pechorin, from the Russian classic A Hero of Our Time. Pechorin is a cowardly piece of shit who coasts through life on charm, screwing over women and generally being a bastard. Why I thought that would be better I don’t know.

Who attends a gathering like this? The guests are mainly female, as are most literary agents and new fiction authors – and indeed most readers. Fourteen attendees. Middle-aged, well-spoken, and well-dressed. The kids are grown up and the husband has finally learned to feed and clothe himself. They’re doing something, at last, entirely for themselves. They’re working on memoirs and historical fiction and murder mysteries. There are GPs and PRs. MFAs and PhDs. There’s a Disney executive working on a piece of magical fiction and a non-binary Chicagoan working on a multi-character state-of-the-nation tome set in Trump’s America.

The Chicagoan, Branston, is currently a writer-in-residence at Jnane Tamsna, living here for a few months before a planned move to London. Residencies are offered to artists here, another way Jnane Tamsna weaves art and creativity into its DNA.

Then there’s me. I’ve written two novels and three screenplays, none of which anyone’s heard of, which should tell you a bit about my success. My latest novel has been getting dusty on a hard drive for a year, maybe this trip will blow the cobwebs off. 

There’s a famous, probably made-up story about James Joyce. The other great Irish writer Flann O’Brien found Joyce at home, prostrate over his desk, weeping after a day’s writing. ‘What’s wrong, James?’ says O’Brien. 

‘Seven!’ Joyce wails. ‘Seven!’

‘Seven pages, James? That’s fantastic.’

‘No’, said James. ‘Seven words!’

Whether you call it ‘writer’s block’ or plain old procrastination, it affects all of us. One solution is ‘morning pages’. Popularised by Julia Cameron’s highly influential self-help book The Artist’s Way, morning pages are a foundational part of the Silk Road Slippers programme. The team give us a prompt. Something simple like ‘childhood memory’, or maybe a picture postcard. Then we just write, without stopping, thinking or self-criticising for 15 minutes straight. The key is not to look back. If you absolutely can’t think of something, just write the same word over and over till something else kicks loose. It’s designed to blast through the peculiar urge all writers get to simply not write. And our morning pages are private. All other writing during the masterclass is shared and open to critique. 

Writing is unique as a creative pursuit. We are as compelled to avoid it as we are to pursue it. Or as my idol (and Faiza’s, as it turns out) Dorothy Parker once said, ‘I hate writing. I love having written.’ It’s not just ‘the tyranny of the blank page’, it’s the fact that while a piece exists in your head, it’s perfect. But the act of pouring it on the page dilutes it. And in doing so confirms every writer’s worst fear – that they are a talentless fraud. 

So every morning we gather by the pool as the wood fire crackles, drink sweet mint tea and write our pages. The mornings are cool in Marrakesh. You learn to layer up, then gradually disrobe as you write. Often Thaïs and her affectionate dog Smoky will attend. Thaïs is the daughter of Meryanne Loum-Martin and Gary Martin, Jnane Tamsna’s owners. She is young and chic, a musician, with a languid manner you’d expect of someone who lives here year-round. Gary dips in and out of our group too, talking proudly of the xerisphere (need no irrigation) gardens he has cultivated here and his family’s vision for the place as a luxurious creative hub.

Morning pages are followed by a couple of hours of discussion. Topics include character, creating a sense of place and most of all, developing a personal voice. These are the things that make novels sing. These are the things that get literary agents excited. The watchword is specificity. Tattoo it on your forehead. Specificity of place, character, motivation. Alexandra, Alex and Faiza hammer this into us. 

Discussion over, a task is set. A prompt is given along with an intimidatingly short time limit. This time you read your work to the group. The second the last word leaves your lips, Faiza, Alexandra and Alex are locked and loaded with feedback. They are fast, direct and specific. You realise that while good books are subjective, good writing is less so. There are right and wrong ways to do this.

Monica Ali arrives on our third day. She is friendly and unpretentious. She has an extremely likeable habit of turning your questions back on you. When you ask if she writes outlines or how she develops characters she’ll give you an answer and then ask, “What about you, how do you do it?” And she’s genuinely interested. 

She is funny but also informative. Concise yet conversational. Like good writing. My notes are a scrawl of pithy exhortations. Beware the weak protagonist. Never miss an opportunity to characterise through action. Avoid montage on the page.

That evening in the bar – the ultimate writer’s bar, candles, walls of books, low cosy sofas, lavish drinks menu, cocktails made with herbs from the garden – Monica reads from her second book Love Marriage. The novelist Jane Green arrives, a glamorous riot of grey hair and earrings, and listens, rapt, with the rest of us. Monica’s effortless, unfussy prose distils characters into a couple of lines of dialogue. A world you want to inhabit, constructed in a few paragraphs. 

We get a break from writing one afternoon. Lunch on a rooftop in town. One delicious dish after another brought without warning or request until plates are piled tectonically, threatening to crash to the floor. A walk in the medina. Narrow alleys, high walls to keep things cool. Vivid stacks of minerals. Pyramids of spices standing sentry at shop doors. Men crouching in low plastic chairs playing cards or joking with neighbouring vendors. Grubby cats padding between plastic chair legs. A toddler straddles a parked motorbike, legs spatchcocked, blowing raspberries, lost in unfathomable reveries. We walk single file, jumping from shadow to shadow like frogs on lily pads. 

I get the cab back with Patti. She lives here and is attending the course with a man about 30 years her junior who I assume is her lover. We wait at the taxi stand at a raging intersection. I guess we’re about to be ripped off. But world-wise, carefree Patti gives stern directions, finger raised, and we are brought home for a reasonable fee. 

Back at Jnane Tamsna the garden is bathed in low afternoon light. Sparrows’ song fills the citrus-scented air. The four-day workshop is nearly at an end. We’ve all become friends, drinking lavender cocktails at the bar with Smoky offering us his belly for pats. We digest the day over drinks. Pulling apart the critiques. Talking of next steps. 

We are all the kids who stayed up past bedtime reading an extra chapter, and who were never without a paperback stuffed in their coat pocket in those pre-smartphone days. It’s a great pleasure to be able to talk about a favourite author and discover everyone else has read them too. It leads to fast-forward bonding and is deeply inspiring.

My final review is with Alexandra. She’s read the first 1,000 words of my novel and her advice is as surgical as ever. I took part in a well-regarded novel writing course last year that ran for three months. The hour with Alexandra is more helpful. As I write this, I am 30,000 words into a rewrite, with a clear sense of what I need to achieve.

I am further along with my book than many of the others. Liz, a veteran political journalist for The Washington Post, arrived with barely an idea. Just a character sketch of an Evelyn Waugh-ish reporter she would plunge into situations during the masterclass’ writing exercises. So, anyone can do it. If you’re one of those people who read the extra chapter at bedtime and kept a paperback in your coat pocket, you’d be at home here. If you’ve ever had the compulsion to write, even if (especially if) it was paired with the urge to avoid writing, come to Jnane Tamsna. Do the morning pages. Have deep thoughts by the pool. Rub Smoky’s belly and listen to the call to prayer.

Then… cut out the adverbs, define the characters and develop that authorial voice, he admonished, emphatically. |

Photography by Salaheddine el Bouaaichi and courtesy of Silk Road Slippers