Wednesday, June 24, 2015


You arrive in a room in a foreign country, the one that is next on your list.
You saw an ad, made an application, got some funding and hey presto,
here you are, a writer on a writer's residency in Istanbul.

You sit in your room in a foreign country, you get out all your notebooks, your electronic writing pad and make a start. You have an idea already, you made some notes on the plane. You sit in your room in a foreign country and all is going well.

You sit in a room in the foreign country of Turkey (it's obviously not foreign to them), the sunlight shines in through the quaint wedding tulle curtains and you listen to the sounds of the neighbourhood: cars revving, men yelling, children shouting, music blaring...

but you don't mind, you are a writer on a residency in a room in a foreign country and you soak it all in.

You've done this before, you make a habit of landing in rooms in foreign countries like Morocco, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, India, in foreign towns like Sefrou, Essouira, Ubud, Jakarta, Jogja, Hoi An, Rangoon, Pondicherry (you are sure to have forgotten a few). 

You relish the fantasy of time to write; just you and the desk, no distractions, except for afternoon sortees into the local culture to bring home some crackers and laughing cow cheese.

You sit in a room in a foreign country and you realise you are addicted to this room landing, this culture hopping, and that it's probably because of all the years you didn't travel when the kids were little and the complications of life that followed, but now you are making up for it, and you want to arrive in all the rooms in all the foreign countries of the world, before the seas start to rise, before the  jet fuel runs out, before the calamities of the world make it safer to stay at home, or until you feel too old to do it anymore.

You sit in a room in a foreign country and you are in a rush, because not only do you want to see the sights of this new town, you also want to write.  So you make a plan: 

6am yoga, 6.30 am meditate, 7 - 9 am write, 9am light breakfast, 9.15 am write until 1pm.  (No internet or SMS except in emergency) 1 - 1.30 pm lunch, 1.30 - 4.30 pm sightseeing, 5 pm back to the desk, edits, rewrites, 7 pm light snack, 7.30 to 10 pm related reading, 10.30 sleep.

You announce your intentions on Facebook, get a few likes, a few admiring comments; it's good for the ego, good for the spirit, good to have a cheering squad, every writer needs one.

 You sit in a room in a foreign country called Turkey, in a city called Istanbul and your chair is wobbly and too low for your desk, your back is beginning to ache but it doesn't bother you because you are on a roll. You go at it like a madwoman, typing everything you wrote on the plane and adding more, wortking late into the night. It's a new novel or maybe a collection of linked stories, your Turkish story will be Chapter One.

You sit in a room on a writer’s residency in a town called Istanbul and you are very pleased with your progress, all is going well,

You wake up in your room in a foreign country and decide everything you have written is crap. 

Overnight all your doubts and demons have come out to play.Your fancy plan with your fancy writers goals and fancy writers routine all goes to shit.

The room you loved with its views onto the nineteenth century cobbled street, with its charming nineteenth century apartment buildings with their fleur-de-lis motifs on the lintels, suddenly feels like a prison. The noise on the street is not charming either. A man outside a cafe is yelling into his phone, a group of men are in the middle of the street having an argument, a truck is stuck in a small lane trying to back out, men are shouting directions and banging on its metal sides, a loud doof-doof beat starts up in a cafe down the way.  

You leave your room in the district of Beyoğlu in the city of Istanbul in the country of Turkey and you walk the streets trying to keep your cool, trying not be upset, trying to pretend you are not an outsider,  not a blow in, not one of those writers' in residence who arrive in foreign countries all over the world to sit in a room and write their great works.

But you can't pretend as you walk the streets of this too-cool-to-be-true district of Beyoğlu with its vintage stores and antique shops and groovy hole-in-the wall cafés and restos where boho chic creatives are having important meetings about important projects.  You want to let them know you are a creative too, that you would be very interested to hear all their ideas and do you mind if I sit nearby? But you don't have the hutzpah and you walk on by and with the of scent of loneliness on your tail. You grab a few groceries, a few litres of bottled water (a weeks supply at least) and crawl back to your room. 

You sit in your room in a foreign country and feel so relieved that you are not out on the street feeling like a self conscious teenager, a stranger in a strange land, a foreigner abroad...

and your room becomes your haven, your little retreat, and when you go to the bathroom, you remember how you have always wanted to live in a house with such exquisite tessellations of tiles, like those you have seen in Laos and Morocco. You love the wedding tulle curtains on the windows and the noise out on the street, somehow now it feels like home.

You sit down at your desk in your room in a foreign country and pick up your pen and think, maybe you can throw out everything you wrote so far and make a fresh start, maybe you can just open up a fresh page and really settle down to write. 

You sit in your writer’s room in a faraway country and so far so good. The new direction is much better than the old one, more immediate, more compelling and more importantly, more you. The sun floods in through the wedding tulle curtains and you feel at peace.

You sit in your room on a writer’s residency in a foreign country called Turkey, in a city called Istanbul in the super cool district of Beyoğlu and REPEAT THIS ROUTINE several times until one morning it occurs to you: how can you write about a city that carries on its dance of life without you? 

So you decide to down pens and head out on the streets of Istanbul to breath in its moody grey skies, its cobbled lanes, with its scrawny stray cats and large stray dogs, its tiny cafés, Burek and kebab, roast chestnuts and corn... 

You climb the steep windy streets leading to the Istiklal crowds, with its ding donging trams, window dripping baklava, bell-ringing-spoon-clattering ice cream sellers, broken accordion gypsy kids, red haired folk singers, fake South American buskers, pepper spray police...

You wind your way downhill to Galata tower, past music shops filled with ouds and tambourines, hand drums and flutes and musos jamming on Anatolian riffs, past orange juice vendors and trinket stalls and you arrive at the Bosphorous blue water, with its dolphins leaping, its fishermen casting, its ferries ferrying...

You cross to the other shore, to glimpse the mighty mosque domes, the skinny minarets, the come-on-my-boat-trip touts, the umbrella hat men, the whining beggars, the grumpy ticket collectors, the smelly-shoe-bag-carrying Blue Mosque hordes, the loud pushy Topkapi Palace lines, the Hagia Sophia chandeliers and giant calligraphy, its zebra marble walls and floors, the damp underground arches of the Basilica Cistern, its giant carp circling an upside down Medusa's head. 

It's a total visual feast and you are so glad you have come, but soon you begin to feel tired, overwhelmed by the centuries of history; the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans; you wonder how to take it all in, what to do with this ancient knowledge. 

You see a sign, Sixteenth Century Hammam,  one a friend had recommended, you can't believe you have just stumbled across it, and you go straight in. 

You lie half naked on a slab of heated stone, and gaze at the tall dome above. Should be a cathedral, could be a church, but no, it's a bathhouse. Light streams in from tiny moon and star windows high in the dome, the room so large you wonder how can it possibly get hot in here, until you learn that the warmth comes from fires burning beneath the circular marble; no wonder you feel so relaxed. A woman comes to lather you up, to scrub you down, to order you about, she throws buckets of water over your tired body, your overthinking mind. When she is finished she says you can stay lying on that warm stone for as long as you like.

You might just take her at her word, maybe you won't go back to your room, maybe you will set up here near the spring that rushes out of the wall. This will be your spot. You won't need paper or pen, or a computer screen, you won't write anything down, you'll just listen— to the gurgling of the past, the echoes of ancient walls, the stories of naked women and their strong handed scrubbers, their voices low and watery. 

Jan Cornall was writer in residence for three weeks in June 2015 at Maumauworks in Istanbul.
Her residency was funded by CAL, The Copyright Agency.
Many thanks to Naz and Sine from Maumau, and to CAL for a great residency!

Jan leads international writer's workshops and retreats. Find out more at

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