Tuesday, 2 August 2016

An Arvon Foundation Writing Course

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.

39 comments:

  1. I think I might have had the easier time walking between huts in the Norwegian mountains with an 18kg rucksack and suffering the occasional bout of the squits. I wish you well with the project.

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    1. Hmmm, not sure about the easier time! Physically I don't fancy yours!

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  2. Marvelous. So pleased to read that you enjoyed your time. It is very special. I did Arvon at Totleigh Barton, absolutely brilliant and I made some great international friends.

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    1. It was a great experience. I don't want to become someone who goes on courses instead of writing but in a year or two I might well do another one. One of the tutors who had gone on to write a prize winning biography of Josephine had been on three over the course of writing the book!

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  3. Looking forward to reading what ever you write, although I did smile to myself about your comment at being 61 and what was ahead. At 77 I find it interesting, but also feel that I do understand, you are still very close to the losses you have had, my biggest loss was first my mother, but she go to 98 and lived a good life, but my younger sister at 69 was a huge shock, sudden and unexpected. I still talk to both of them, stupid perhaps but also comforting. Sorry, I am no writer and this has gone on too long.

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    1. I am sure your perspective is different from mine as you are further along the way Penny! I suspect the losses in our family have intensified my awareness that there is much less time to come than has gone and it needs to be used wisely and vividly!

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  4. What an affirming time your week away has been. I rarely, if ever, comment here, but I do enjoy reading your writing and look forward to more of it.

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    1. Thank you for commenting Lorrie. I do appreciate it. It was a very affirming week, in a somewhat overwhelming way!

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  5. Thank you for posting about this experience, Elizabeth. As I ready to retire (in 21 months, but I am NOT doing a countdown!) I wonder what I will do to mark it for myself. It here were something similar here I would certainly consider it. I like that your course sounds not to have been at all self-conscious, or too precious. I like the idea that there was some hard work - and that there was wine. I also like the idea of Clun, which I remember from my stay with Jane.
    I am glad to know that you will continue to post here and that this will be a bit of a laboratory for your sustained piece.

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    1. It was a really good balance Pondside. I am not sure whether you will feel you can get away but you could be an international visitor! I am sure you would love it. There must also be similar courses on your side of the Atlantic!

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  6. The course seems to have been a very positive experience for you. It was obviously a very good idea to go and has given you a new lease of life as far as writing is concerned. Maybe in other ways too.

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    1. I wonder if there had been so much unsaid about my father's last months that it sort of got in the way of writing other things Rowan. Certainly I do feel as if the course has unblocked a stream!

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  7. I've lost my way lately too. Maybe a course in something is what I need. Certainly less self-indulgent, stressful, physically taxing and costly than buying an 18th century cottage, doing it up and selling it. Between September 2013 and November 2014 my parents died and my children went to university. I discovered Blogland in November 2014 as I searched for ways to keep my mind and hands busy and really enjoyed my year of blogging. Nowadays I'm a very occasional blogger although I still write with pen and paper. My newly-graduated son is coming home soon to live with us again while he works out what he wants to do. I see this as a fresh start for us (his last years at home were dominated by my mother's illness as she was cared for at home by my father and me) and he is such a creative person that I know I will find his company stimulating. Meanwhile my husband and I continue to search for our new full-time, permanent home where we can put down fresh roots. After our big mistake with the cottage I feel unsettled and semi-transplanted here ... Thank you Elizabeth for your eloquent and honest thoughts.

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    1. it is interesting how unsettling such periods are Sarah. I do hope that the fact that the renovation is done and your son is coming home will help things to settle down around you. I would certainly recommend an arvon course if you wanted to explore your writing.

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  8. I used to enjoy a creative writing course I did locally years ago and so wonder if Arvon might be something I could try. At least my computer still permits me to write on it even if I can't upload new photos! Does it need booking far in advance? I'll be very happy to see your extracts here. I'm a long term admirer of your writing.

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    1. thank you for your kindness Lucille. I am so glad you like what you read. I think the courses do get booked up as the numbers are limited. do have a look at the programme for next year. there are some fantastic offerings.

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  9. This sounds a most wonderful experience, Elizabeth. Do hope you make progress on the book.
    Yes, we do want to record our very rich and sometimes troubling lives. I do agree with you when you say "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." This is something I struggle with every day - 'complicated' glory sounds about right. Complicated it certainly is! Warmest greetings.

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    1. thank you for commenting Elizabeth. you understand. I thought you would.

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  10. "I was squeezing out once a month blog posts with huge difficulty. There was no way I could call myself a writer."

    I've pulled out that quote because when I read your posts I'm amazed at your effortless looking writing and think "There's no way I can call myself a writer".

    It shows we have no idea what goes into the process of what we read. Perhaps we're too hard on ourselves?

    Looking forward to seeing what comes next from you :)

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    1. Congratulations first of all on your courage.

      I have been in that situation, the one where every blog post is an effort, for over a year now. Like you, not because I don’t like blogging but because my sometimes harrowing home life takes all my creativity. I have come to the conclusion that I am not a writer, surely I would write, whatever else may be happening?

      As you know it would have been easy for me to get myself down the road and do a memoir course which is what I really want to do. But I procrastinated endlessly, until circumstances intervened anyway. It’s too late now.

      I’ve visited the centre, a friend of mine, now deceased, lived on the farm close by and we used the garden and grounds round about for walks. I met Helen Osborne on many occasions, after John died.

      Oh Elizabeth, I do so wish I had done as you did, simply DOING it and let the doubts drift into thin air.

      I am looking forward to reading extracts from the text you are planning to write.

      Greetings from one non-writer to another.

      PS: I like the way you described the hidden country!

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    2. undoubtedly we are hard on ourselves Michelle but I suppose I think we should be, as long as we are not so hard on ourselves that we freeze into inaction!

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    3. oh friko. I thought of you when I was at the Hurst. in fact I mentioned that I had a friend who lived close by and then wondered if I had the right to describe you as such. I wish you had gone when you wanted to but you must know that you are already a writer. I know very well that sometimes life gets in the way but i hope somehow and sometime you will find the time and energy to write.

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    4. Hmm, my track record with writing courses so far is they freeze me into inaction! Could be the quality of the course/tutors though... it's the thought of a whole week like that which is my main barrier to going on an Arvon course.

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    5. I think Arvon seems to be the gold standard, at least that was the impression we got from talking to the director of the centre, not surprisingly perhaps! They really take tremendous care that the tutors are not simply great writers but great teachers!

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  11. Tell me next time. I'll come with you. Must meet up when kids are back at school (in Wales!) x

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    1. what a great idea to meet up. I'm away the first week in September but yes, love to, either where you are or up here. that would be really good.

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  12. Good evening Elizabeth.

    Earlier today, our mutual friend Elizabeth and I got together for one of our regular farmers market visits, followed by a stop at a nearby cafe for late morning refreshments and lots of catching up with a variety of matters. Elizabeth asked if I had seen your post, and I replied, "Yes," but that I had yet to take time to give a it a good read. I also mentioned that I knew of Arvon from some of my earliest blogging pals, Milla and Jane, and knew it was a great course.

    Gosh, doesn't that memory of way back in our blogging past bring back some memories? I began blogging as a way to relax after a workday that was physically tiring, but didn't really stretch my mind. Through those early evenings at the laptop, I connected with so many interesting folks from near and far,including...you. It's grand that Elizabeth, Ian, you and I have actually had the opportunity to spend an afternoon together.

    Forgive me if I have already mentioned this book to you, but recently, I read Graham Swift's short but full novel, Mothering Sunday. I think it is a book for both readers and writers and would definitely recommend it to you. Its pages demonstrate how one's experiences might be transformed into fiction, without being autobiography. How an observed place, time or relationship might be reformed and incorporated into a character, setting or plot ingredient.

    I am so looking forward to reading anything that you will be sharing with us. You have a fine voice.

    xo

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    1. Thank you for the recommendation Frances. I have read other novels by Graham Swift but haven't come across that one. I like his work very much. He is a master of saying much in very few words!

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  13. Hi Liz, I hope Ian passed on to you my admiration - for your attending the course and for your blogging. My feelings would have been shared by Mr Wordsworth about whom your writing made me think:
    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

    ( He went to a little Cambridge college too!)

    From your words I liked the evocation of the ascetic and thereby cathartic nature of shedding the world and focusing on work; the perspiration of inspiration for creativity.
    Every good wish for your current blog and for your new literary venture. The site - sorry, SPOT - is lovely!
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

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    1. Hi John and thanks for commenting. It's a rather wonderful co-incidence that the poem you quote is one of my favourites and one of the few I know by heart! Yes, the course was interesting and both rewarding and hard work. I shall see how I get on with the writing. If nothing else I am sure to continue to blog!

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  14. The wonderful thing is simply to "do" not just dream and this course has really set you on fire Elizabeth. Looking forward to reading more!

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    1. Both your comment and Friko's regret at not having gone on a course while it was still possible make me very glad I did so. Sometimes you have to stop thinking about things, hold your nose and jump in!

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    2. I do agree Elizabeth. I do this every time I go out on my husband's boat. Way out of my comfort zone, but I do feel so alive even when scared out of my wits if that makes sense. Must catch up with my blog...

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  15. I found this a very interesting account of something I never really even knew existed. So thank you for that. I so identify with that feeling of being wrung out after a difficult death. It's such a deep depletion of one's substance and energy. Hard to remember what is
    really oneself and what is the consequence of such closeness to illness and loss. My very best encouragement to you. You are a naturally beautiful writer.

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  16. I found this a very interesting account of something I never really even knew existed. So thank you for that. I so identify with that feeling of being wrung out after a difficult death. It's such a deep depletion of one's substance and energy. Hard to remember what is
    really oneself and what is the consequence of such closeness to illness and loss. My very best encouragement to you. You are a naturally beautiful writer.

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    1. It is hard to know how long it will take to "recover" from the last year or two, or indeed if one does. I suspect that is the wrong word. We are changed by losing someone we love and what might happen is that we simply emerge into the changed person, changed and the same. Thank you for your encouragement. I admire your writing so it means a lot to me.

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  17. Write on - always food for thought, and something to revel in here.

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    1. Thank you Diana. It means to a lot to me to have a dialogue with people who have been reading for some time as you have!

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  18. Of course you are a writer! An extremely good one. I'm so pleased you've found your mojo again and enjoyed the course. It sounds brilliant and something I'd love to do. I've got all the usual excuses for not doing it, though! Looking forward to reading whatever you write next. Sam x

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