Arvon hosts week-long residential creative writing courses in four beautiful writing houses, set in inspirational countryside. Join them to write fiction, poetry, short fiction and plays or try one of their specialist courses, like food writing or writing for radio. All courses are listed on the site here.
Two writers who attended courses this month have written the following guest blogs for LWC.
Penny Shutt – blog post about attending an Arvon Starting to Write Course at Lumb Bank, Yorkshire February 2011
‘So what kinda stuff you write then?’ asked the taxi driver, obviously knowing when I asked for Lumb Bank that I was one of those eccentric writery types that he carted to and from Hebden Bridge station to this old mill house in the Yorkshire dales on a weekly basis.
‘Err…just angsty teenage poetry really,’ I joked as we wound up steep hills and down through narrow stone wall-lined streets.
‘You gotta believe in yourself man!’ he said.
‘If you think what you write is haggis, ent nobody else gunna think your writing is anything but haggis.’
‘That’s so true,’ I laughed. What brilliant wisdom.
His friendly banter calmed my nerves as he guided the taxi down the steep driveway to the warmly lit house four hours after the time we were meant to arrive for dinner; a slight problem involving flights landing in Liverpool instead of Manchester.
I was greeted by the guys on the course who had stayed up late on the wine after dinner and the introduction by the two published authors who were to be our teachers. Being guys they couldn’t remember which of the 15 rooms I had been allocated. We did a knock-and-run job to find out which of the attic rooms were unoccupied before finding a door leading to a tiny staircase. At the top was my quaint little attic room complete with wooden writing desk and coombed ceilings with a window looking out over the kind of garden you could envision Pride and Prejudice being filmed in. The whole feel of the place was very Rochester. Lumb Bank was Ted Hughes’ old home, and the walls were lined with his framed hand-written poetry. Immediate inspiration.
Squeezing onto a bench at the giant oak dining table in time for our first tutorial, some of us hauled out new leather-bound notebooks, some – giant whirring plasma TV-sized laptops and others mere compact netbooks. I pulled out the scruffy NHS lined continuation sheets I’d grabbed from work on my way out and we launched straight into writing exercises that got our imaginations whirring even more loudly. I was introduced to the lively bunch of people I was to spend the week with. The atmosphere fizzled like the opening night of Big Brother: we seemed to be from all walks of life, of all ages and needing various degrees of coercing into piping up during class to share the inner workings of our minds.
We started by writing about characters from old photographs we were given, to later realise that someone down the other end of the table had come up with an eerily similar imaginative world about a character that had clearly been invented from the same photograph. The two writers, Claire Wigfall and Chris Wakling, who wrote in such disparate styles yet who complemented each other well in their teaching methods, took turns talking us through the basics of character, plot, dialogue, descriptive writing and how to write beginnings which create suspense and endings that satisfy. Each tutorial was backed up by a colourful exercise that often ended in them almost having to wrestle pens out of hands to stop us writing in order to move onto the next subject.
Lunch was then a hearty winter-warmer provided by the Arvon staff, leaving us the afternoon to write until our hearts were content; go for long hilly runs; climb down through the frosty forest into Hebden Bridge; or to walk up to the little village of Heptonstall where across a cobbled lane from the beautiful church lies the small, understated grave of Sylvia Plath.
We met again at seven each evening after a different team of us each night from ‘Team Hunk’ to ‘Team Can’t Cook Won’t Cook’ faced the challenge of putting together another hearty dinner for 18 with the recipes and ingredients provided. The whole affair had a very primary-seven-home-economics-class feel to it with our matching aprons, laminated recipes and all the freshly dug vegetables and herbs sitting waiting in a big cardboard tray for us to start chopping.
On the Wednesday night we gathered after dinner on the oversized rugs and sofas, slipper-clad feet dangling just off the edge, in the barn next door to listen to readings from the author Maggie Gee, who spoke of the dilemmas of baring all in one’s memoirs and of the joyful part writing has played throughout her life.
The final tutorial had everyone in stitches as we tried to draw the physical ‘shape’ of the action in the story we had begun to create. As we went round the table describing how we’d pitch our story in one sentence, then showing each other our pictures, the true extent of our creativity (or lack thereof) was revealed. On that final night, the spotlight was turned on us and we spent the afternoon huddling in pairs practising reading aloud some of the writing we’d produced for the wine-sodden showcase of our work. I was nervous as I’d never quite stuck my hand up fast enough in class to volunteer to read so the group had’nt heard anything I’d written. I necked a couple of glasses of wine and sunk into the sofa in admiration of the way each piece was so unique to each of the people I had befriended over the week. When it was my turn on the spot, I put on my clearest voice, notching up the decibels and even though I gave a little self-deprecating ‘this is just some rubbish I wrote’ introduction to the pieces, I read them out as though they weren’t haggis. And it felt great.
Hebden Bridge train station promises visitors a hub of creativity and, on the short drive up to Arvon’s Lumb Bank, as I passed cobbled streets brimming with independent bookshops and charming little galleries, I could feel it. Such beautiful scenery helped to dispel the nerves that had been threatening to emerge on the train journey from London.
It is no exaggeration to say that it took courage for me to go on Arvon’s “Starting to write fiction” course but equally no exaggeration to say it is one of the best things I have ever done. While daunting and revealing, for me it was a hugely rewarding and special experience.
The best way I can describe the inexplicable Lumb Bank is as a productive version of Big Brother. On arrival we were shown to our rooms, mine a beamed little attic space full of the hopes and dreams of those who had already taken the course. Tea and cake were waiting downstairs as were the other 14 aspiring writers, legs splayed out across the floor towards the inviting log fire, arrived one by one. I immediately felt at home as the Arvon directors explained the procedure for the week. Given sign up sheets to put us into cooking groups (thankfully for me this came with recipes and ingredients as I am not the best chef), we also got to pop our names down to order bottles of wine or beer. Phew. There is no television or internet so long walks, a library of signed books and free time to write were perfect alternatives.
Soon we were introduced to our tutors, Chris Wakling and Clare Wigfall and told that OBE Maggie Gee would be visiting us mid week for a reading and Q&A session. Every course has two tutors and a guest speaker that pop by to answer industry questions and read extracts from their work to the group.
For me it was the tutors that really made the experience special. Chris Wakling (author of six novels including The Devil’s Mask and What I Did) and short story writer Clare Wigfall (The Loudest Sound and Nothing) were inspirational. While every morning there were new classes between 9.30 and 1, afternoons were reserved for one-on-one tutorials and a chance for what we had been working on to be critiqued and improved.
The lessons themselves were varied but managed to cover everything from how to write beginnings, extensive work on characterization, plots and story arcs to finally working on endings and editing. Alongside narrating the works of great authors to show examples of dialogue or subtext, what I found most productive were the writing exercises.
We were given time limits to write our own work, the fear of reading aloud eliminated by the frequency and speed in which it was casually asked of us. Your fellow writers are all equally as nervous and I absolutely loved listening to everyone’s stories and we bonded through learning each other’s style of prose.
There is no room to be timid and yet the transformation happens organically. My confidence grew so much throughout the week that I was excited about reading what I had been toiling over at the Friday night celebration. At the moment after reading my last word I was a million miles away from the girl who was almost too scared to attend.
With free time to walk, read and write, it is possible to be inspired 24/7 at Lumb Bank. Imagine a cocktail of beautiful scenery, a library of signed books and live-in tutors and it isn’t surprising that these courses are always fully booked.
My experience at Arvon taught me to bring characters to life from photographs, to be inspired by new people and beautiful countryside and the confidence to be proud of something I had written. For one short week this alternate reality turned my dream of becoming a writer into a reality. Now the rest is up to me.