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Notes from an author: Nell Stevens

Challenging her fear of empty places, Nell Stevens took up a three-month writing fellowship on a small and remote outlying Falkland Island

Notes from an author: Nell Stevens
Nell Stevens. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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When I scoured Google maps for remoteness, flimsy-looking Bleaker stood out as the purest representation of what I was looking for. I was drawn to its precarious, peripheral position on the edge of the world, and to its name, the promise of not just bleakness, but a bleakness more profound than anywhere else. Bleaker: it was a challenge.

And on Bleaker Island, I found what I feared, and what I thought I needed. It was empty. It was quiet and wide, and gaping and wild. The guest house I rented — the home of the farm manager and his wife, a few farm buildings — was on the narrow middle of the island, and on either side was nothing at all. To the south: low, boggy land strewn with the bleached bones of penguins and sheep. To the north: craggy gulches, the rocky tip of the island and a white-sand beach where driftwood washed up and a penguin colony huddled together against the wind. There were no trees. There were no roads. I’d shrunk my world to fit within the edges of the island. This was my home, and my office; this was where I would write. 

I wrote 2,500 words of my novel each day, sitting in the glass-walled sunroom at the front of the guest house, looking out at a whale skeleton that lay along the shoreline. When I’d completed my word quota, the days stretched out menacingly, with nothing to fill them. To avoid the emotional unravelling, I spent my afternoons walking, trying to learn the land by heart: its divots and lumps and streams, the rocks where, sometimes, fur seals sunned themselves, the pond where black-necked swans sliced through reflections of the low, grey sky. Time slid by and the word count at the bottom of the document I saved as novel.doc grew. I was relieved, and somewhat surprised, to note that I hadn’t unravelled. I was learning how to live with emptiness. 

It was only towards the end of my time on Bleaker Island that a new question formed in my mind to replace the one that had brought me there. Instead of ‘How can I write?’ I began to ask myself, ‘What if the thing I’ve written is no good?’ because — and it was shocking and painful to admit it — the thing I had written was indeed no good. In my island wilderness, I’d produced thousands and thousands of words, but, taken together, they amounted to a flat, frantic story that left even its own author unmoved. It turned out that what I’d learned on Bleaker Island was not the answer to my immediate writing concerns, but something broader and messier and more vague. 

I had experienced a gradual and cumulative loosening of my ideas: of what I should write, of how I should write, how I should be. There’s value, I learned, in doing what scares you, but it’s still unlikely to be the solution to your problems. There’s value, too, in writing every day, but not all words are the right ones. I abandoned the novel I had travelled to Bleaker Island to write. I got up from my makeshift desk in the sunroom and set out across the island. 

The ground was wet and swampy after an overnight storm; crossing it required jumping between clumps of grass that poked through the water. I leapt across as though playing a demented game of hopscotch. There was something freeing in the motion of jumping, and in having relinquished the bad novel, and in the knowledge that nobody in the world could see me in that moment as I sprung and twirled and hopped across the sodden island. I’d go home tougher and a little less afraid, and I’d write something new, something better. 

I’m a city dweller again now. I live in a flat in London with a window in front of my desk that looks out at the street. I like seeing the world around me as I write: teenagers dragging their feet on the way to school, delivery couriers searching for the right address, dog walkers. I like feeling part of things. But sometimes I think of the island, and of the wide white beach, and of the sting of the wind driving in off the sea, and the memory is bright and wild and exhilarating and sharp. It makes me bolder to know I was there, to remember how I danced across the marshes, to carry those weeks of emptiness with me through the rest of my life. 

Bleaker House, by Nell Stevens is published by Pan Macmillan. RRP: £8.99. nellstevens.com

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)