In the last week of February, for the first time, I tutored on an Arvon Foundation residential week at the beautiful Lumb Bank, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s old house on a steep Yorkshire hillside in Happy Valley land (Becky Cawood’s – and Sylvia Plath’s – graveyard is a 10 minute walk away at the top of the hill in the beautiful cobbled village of Heptonstall).
Arvon is an organisation that has been running for over 50 years, encouraging and inspiring countless writers in that time.
2 tutors and 14 writers. The initial introductions were fascinating, hearing about the lives and aims of this very particular group of writers; and with the intensity of being in this enclosed environment, I must admit there were moments in the first couple of days when I wondered a little what I’d signed up for.
The week was…challenging. It was hard work, barely a free moment and deprived of my creature comforts, of fat coca-cola and costa coffee machines, there were moments when I threatened to sulk. But part of its point is its isolation – I didn’t see a shop or a TV all week. Dinner and lunch were communal, around a magnificent, huge, wooden, dining room. And the Lumb Bank setting is absolutely beautiful.
The course structure has been honed and developed over decades – and it shows. Gradually and steadily, as we all get to know something about each other and, in particular, the sensibility and agenda of each of the writers, what each of them is about, a strong sense of group endeavour, creative striving and mutual support develops – culminating in an inspiring final evening in which the writers each read from and share the work they have written during the week.
The intensity of the week is more than made up for by little moments of creative magic – those discussions that light a story spark; nosing into people’s private selves to unlock their real stories; of a lack of confidence that is challenged with positivity (one writer to another); the support they gave each other; and just the sheer range of human stories I heard – the conflict resolution expert and the people they have encountered, an overheard conversational line that becomes something this writer wants to explore in screen drama, tales of writers seeking out access to the marginalised stories they need to tell; having a peak into so many writer’s souls through their stories both real and invented – the man who lives a life in black; the man who guards his ill-gotten disabled parking space with fierce resolve; the woman who tutors child actors on film sets while living out of her car; the writer with issues in their past challenged to tell the stories they needed to tell. It was this story (and the connection between this fictional story and the personal story felt inspiring) that came across as one of the real creative leaps of the week. We were visited in mid-week by the wonderful (blind) writer Mandy Redvers-Rowe; and it was in conversation with her, a wide-ranging conversation around story and disability, that this writer vowed to make themselves (or someone very like them) the hero of their own story.
This simple idea – becoming the hero of your own story – felt like a touchstone for stories of marginalised characters more widely.
So many of the ideas came to life not in the formal teaching sessions but over drinks and meals together – tales of quiet but undeniable racist hostility in rural England (not though in this particular corner of Yorkshire); of the heartbreak of a grandmother denied access to her granddaughter; a gothic story of family abuse and murder from a queer Cornish perspective; a story of thwarted London creatives against a hostile political backdrop; a story of a 12 year old suffering through the inadequacies of the care system, and so many more.
And every time you moved from building to building, the pure air, the wondrous woodland view presents its magnificence to you. And you were always reminded of the rich history of creativity in this setting – through the wonderful library, the brilliant photographs of past Arvon tutors dotted around the buildings, the hand-written Ted Hughes poems on the walls.
And personally, I felt inspired to be in Happy Valley country – the bleak but stunningly beautiful hills and villages, the evocative local accents (!) and the physical reminders of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant screenwriting.
It was great to have a chance to immerse oneself in questions and conversations around story for a week. Writing is so mysterious and unfathomable. Nothing in it seems finite or set – there are no magic formulae. And yet at the same time, there were a couple of instances of talking story, helping writers to shift the emphasis or focus of their story that seemed to suddenly enable them to unlock and release their stories. For instance, after reading an interesting but densely dialogue-driven 10 page section from one writer, I gave her the exercise of rewriting the entire section with NO dialogue at all. We compromised on one word of dialogue, a single swear word but the result of her rewrite was (to me and I think her) exhilarating. A slow-moving, literal & literary, under-dramatised sequence was transformed into something poetic, compelling and rather magical. The transformation was so instructive to me (and the writer).
I think part of the Arvon attraction is in the feeling that the week’s routine is so well-grooved – honed from decades of writing weeks that have preceded yours, so that the balance of work and relaxation, of writing and tutorials, of social contact and work is so well-planned. And the knowledge of how many wonderful writers and projects have emerged from this process over so many years.
Other things I learnt from the writers or that were consolidated for me –
Write for yourself, write the stories you need to tell. Don’t second-guess yourself with qualifications and hesitations. Write the story that only you can tell.
Wherever possible, write in images and action rather than dialogue.
Share your work with fellow-creatives, discuss the issues you’re having around your story. It’s amazing how a conversation with another writer can unlock problems in a way sitting in front of your computer screen can’t.
Give yourself the time and space to indulge your creativity and imagination.
Persist. Writing is a long game. Pursue your goals doggedly and ride the bumps. If you do this, things will start to happen for you, even if not as quickly as you might hope.
Be outward-looking and interested in other people’s stories as well as your own. If you’re the sort of person who is interested in helping others, they will be more inclined to want to return the favour.
Get out of your comfort zone. This is what an Arvon course does for you; and that shift in perspective, the chance to meet other people doing the same thing can be bonding and creatively enabling.
The next newsletter will be on Friday April 7th.
March 24th 2023