I have been wanting to do an Arvon writing course for years. When I had the time I simply did not have the money. When the money was not a problem it was because I was working so hard that I could not imagine giving a week of my hard earned holiday to something that did not involve the rest of my family. But suddenly earlier this year I realised that I could do it. I had the time. I had the money. Ian was going trekking with some friends in Norway. There was not even the faint residual guilt of going away and leaving him looking after everything. We would both go away. Nobody would look after anything at all.
I knew I wanted to write non fiction and when I found that a course on creative non fiction was offered in one of the weeks when Ian was going to be away it seemed entirely meant. After years of writing with ease and pleasure, I have been struggling with writing the blog since my father died. Maybe it would give me a kick up the pants. Maybe it would set me going again. I booked it quickly one night before I could change my mind. And then I forgot about it, nearly.
The week before the course started I looked it in the face again. Why had I done this? There was no wi fi, mobile signal, tv or radio. I was squeezing out once a month blog posts with huge difficulty. There was no way I could call myself a writer. It seemed a joke, a self indulgence, a bit of pretention. I wandered around the house kicking myself and muttering. Then I got a grip. Never mind, it was done and paid for. I was going to The Hurst, once the country house of the playwright John Osborne. It is near Clun in that beautiful hidden country which is neither England nor Wales. I would go, of course I would. If I hated it I could always go and sit in a cafe in Clun and drink tea. I could even get in the car and drive home.
We arrive in time for an evening meal. After dinner sixteen of us, fourteen women and two men, are sitting with two tutors around the edges of a large lounge. I am not the oldest. There are a couple of people who look older than me. Not all the participants are from the UK. There is a journalist from Belgium and a quiet, beautiful American girl who has flown in from Dubai. There is a young Muslim girl from the Caucasus, now studying in London. Some are employed and juggling jobs and families. Some are self employed. Some are not working or taking a break with the deliberate intention of writing a book. Some are confident, some diffident. People have many different reasons for coming on the course but most have something that they want to write. I seem to be the only person who is here because I cannot write. The tutors are clever, funny, encouraging, sympathetic.
Upstairs we each have a room with a single bed and a writing desk. It is simple but comfortable, not quite a monastic cell but functional as a private space to write. I go to bed having had one glass of wine too many. It looks like it will be ok.
The following morning is spent with the tutors, Alexander Masters and Andrea Stuart, around a huge table in the study room. The pace is fast and furious, the atmosphere frank, funny and supportive. We are given exercises to do as well discussions to have and each time we take away an exercise for twenty minutes or so and return to share the results, or not, as we choose. It becomes very clear that I have no difficulty at all in writing to order about anything that is thrown at me. That is a bit of a revelation.
I have decided to have my first tutorial at the earliest possible chance, 2.30 on Wednesday afternoon. This means that I have to leave some work to be looked at by 4pm on Tuesday. For much of Tuesday afternoon I wrestle with reducing a piece I wrote about my father, which you will have seen because it was my tribute to him here, to around one thousand words. This is hard and not entirely successful.
When that is finished I sit at the laptop and write another piece for my other tutorial in a glorious freeing rush. It seems that I know what I want to write about: aging, mortality, the experience of being sixty one, not to be morbid, not to be deaf and blind to growing older but to look it in the face in all its complicated glory, to look it in the face and be glad to be alive. When I read it again before delivering it to the shelf of work for review my piece makes me smile.
How was it then, the whole experience? Clearly it gave me my kick up the pants. It was phenomenally hard work, intense, exhausting, exhilarating. I lost a day to feeling dreadful with IBS, not what I meant by a glorious freeing rush. The tutors were brilliant: challenging and supportive in perfect balance. The other people on the course were as mixed and interesting a group as you could imagine and included some whose writing made me want to weep or shout with joy. The single best thing about the week was that everyone from tutors to all the other participants treated you seriously as a writer. There was none of that pussy footing which you engage in so as not to seem to be a poser. "Of course I am not really a writer, I only do this or that or nothing at all." There was no apologising or explaining or belittling oneself or anyone else. So we talked about writing. We asked each other about what we were doing and how it was going. We took it for granted that we were writers and that learning more about that craft was why we were there.
Being in that environment and without the distractions of home made it easy to write. After all, there was nothing else to do. There was nothing to procrastinate with, no one to look after, no list of jobs in the house and garden calling insistently. There was just a morning workshop and an afternoon in your room writing away and an evening listening or talking. It was a shock to come home and I was glad that I had a couple of days entirely by myself to adjust again. It has taken me some time to decide what to do with the experience. Do I want to write a book and try to find an agent and do something very different from writing a blog? I like my blog. Finding my voice on my blog again was the reason I went on the course in the first place. So after a couple of weeks of mulling and knitting and walking and not thinking about it in any sort of active way I have come to the conclusion that I will try to write a sustained piece of writing. It might not work and I hereby give myself full permission to give up if it doesn't. But I would like it somehow to be part of the blog as well so once a month I will post an extract from what I am writing and I would be immensely grateful if you could let me know what you think about it and if you would like to read more. The rest of the time I will blog as I usually do about life, food, books, gardens, family and whatever comes to mind. At least that is the plan.
And if you have ever wondered about doing a writing course, look at Arvon. It was a great experience. It might turn you upside down and shake you around but it is worth every bit of your time and money. I have just about recovered now.