Those of you who read my last post will know I’ve been finding the balance of writing and teaching a challenge in the past few weeks. The pace of university life is increasing and I’ve got a short story that’s fallen apart because my main character decided to go AWOL. So it was with a sense of furtive escape that I went away last weekend to Abbey Dore Court in Herefordshire with the Wordsmiths.
It was everything I’d hoped it would be. A houseful of dedicated writers, space to engage the imagination, no mobile signal and an enormous amount of cake. On the journey up my main character did manage a cursory introduction, at least telling me what he does for a living, so in that symbiotic way that happens sometimes, by knowing that small piece of information about him I now feel I have a better idea of who he is as a person. This doesn’t rewrite my story for me, but it is progress at least. For me though, the real success of the weekend was sitting in the vast ballroom style sitting-room doing the writing exercises run by Lucy English and Rachel Bentham. We discussed theme, plot and character, and this kick-started a story that has been bothering the back of my mind for a while. Yes, this means I now have two incomplete stories on my laptop, but I am reassured by the fact that when I’ve finished marking they are ready and waiting for me. Something to look forward to, a bit like a nice piece of carrot cake.
So the weekend was restful, productive and inspiring. These interludes in the modern writing life can be rare, and have the potential to be life changing. The first time I experienced this was on a course with the Arvon Foundation in Devon in 2004. Up to that date I’d been writing at home with no formal tuition, so when I was suddenly surrounded by like-minded people, talking and thinking about writing for three days, my mind was buzzing with conversations. And I didn’t write a jot, I was too busy buzzing. What it did make me realise was that if I was going to move forward, this was exactly what I needed. A community of writers.
A few months later I applied to do the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, fairly confident I wouldn’t get in because I had no undergraduate degree. I remember my interview vividly and the feeling of mortification afterwards because I’d rambled on about writing in the car in Sainsbury’s car park when I needed peace and quiet. It didn’t seem to put them off though and they offered me a place, either in spite of or because of my loon tendencies.
I still feel the impact of the day the letter arrived even now. My emotional reaction wasn’t just that I had the opportunity to attend one of the best postgraduate programmes in the country. It was also a validation. They thought I could write. They thought I was worth the tuition. It’s not an over statement to say I was overjoyed. But then things went strangely out of kilter. The date was 7th July 2005, and at lunchtime bombs were going off in London, people were dying, and my achievement felt small and cheap and guilty. I’ve never been able to express the contradictions I felt that day, but perhaps putting these two events together in the same paragraph will go some way to reflecting the unpredictability and strange wildness of how the world looked in that moment.
Later that year I started my studies. I found what I’d been looking for and was lucky enough to meet fellow students that I’m still in touch with today. The real privilege of course is now being able to teach there as a creative writing lecturer, and going away with the Wordsmiths is a part of that.
All this happened because in 2004 I went on an Arvon course and saw what I needed to do.
So if you ever get the opportunity to go on a writing retreat/weekend/holiday, whatever you want to call it, make sure you take it. And if the opportunity isn’t presented to you, go and seek it out, because you never know who you could meet, what you might write, or where it will lead you.