This will be a post in two halves. I'm tutoring an Arvon course next week (last week, by the time you read this): "Writing for Teenagers", at The Hurst, deep in the Clun Valley in Shropshire, with Celia Rees as co-tutor and Gillian Cross as our guest. My blog post will be due just two days after I return home, in a state of exhaustion and excitement if previous courses are anything to go by, so I'm getting some thoughts down now.
First, a bit about the Arvon Foundation, for anyone unfamiliar with the organisation. They own four centres: Lumb Bank (once owned by Ted Hughes) near Hebden Bridge; The Hurst (the last home of John Osborne) near Craven Arms; Totleigh Barton in North Devon; and Moniack Mhor near Inverness. Courses run throughout the year, each lasting from Monday until Saturday, with a maximum of sixteen students. The format is generally similar: workshops, discussions, one-to-one tutorials, a guest reader, and group readings; course subjects include screenwriting, starting to write, fine-tuning the novel, writing for children, poetry, cookery, travel and non-fiction. (To find out more, visit http://www.arvonfoundation.org/)
More than twenty years ago, before I was published, I attended an Arvon course at Totleigh Barton, tutored by Dulan Barber and Michelle Magorian, with Aidan Chambers (who has since become such an influence on my work) as guest. It was a smaller than usual course - just eight of us - and the first time I'd worked so closely with "real" writers. Jan Mark once said of helping would-be writers: "the point isn't that I can do it. It's that I do do it." She was absolutely right. One of the main benefits of spending a week with published writers is, I think, to chat with people who live in the world of books and publishing, and who not only know how things work but are also familiar with the hours spent alone at a keyboard or writing desk. Certainly I came away from that course with the determination to persevere, and with some hope - thanks to Dulan's and Michelle's encouragement - that I might succeed in being published.
I've since returned to Totleigh Barton as course tutor, and have also worked at The Hurst and Lumb Bank. The groups are always so varied, with participants bringing a wide range of experience and knowledge. Most students have work in progress to bring with them, sometimes complete novels, but that's not at all obligatory; some are looking for a starting point. All of them, though, have made quite a commitment, giving both time and money to come and work with others in a quite intensive setting; for many, it's perhaps the first time they've given themselves "permission" to concentrate on their writing, which otherwise gets pushed aside or regarded as unimportant.
Invariably, I've found the students supportive of each other, willing to listen, appreciate and give constructive criticism. The measure of a good course, I think, is when the tutors feel redundant by the end, as the students are doing so much work-swapping among themselves.
Can writing be taught? A question often asked. I do come across people who clearly haven't got whatever it is that makes a writer - they're in a small minority, though, on the self-selecting Arvon course. A few students have undoubted brilliance and promise. Between those extremes, there are a great many who have the determination and the willingness to listen, read and refine which will very likely lead to a publishing contract. Writing courses can certainly help with crafting and technique, and - very importantly - help to build confidence and boldness.
So - off to do my planning now! I'm looking forward to a stimulating and engrossing week. More when I get back.
Sunday 4th November: As ever, it's taking me a day or two to unwind (especially as I returned with a streaming cold, and very little voice). But I think I can safely say that the week went well, thanks to the group - the first all-female Arvon I've tutored. What a great bunch! Funny, friendly, enthusiastic, with a wide range of writing experience - a few were already published, and two have recently been shortlisted for national competitions for new writers. There were two very talented 18-year-olds, who didn't seem at all daunted by the idea of spending a week with people who were mostly two or three times their age. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Celia and joining in each other's workshops, and our Wednesday night guest, Gillian Cross, was a huge hit. She told us about writing her recent novel WHERE I BELONG, set partly in Somalia, and about the research that took her from a position of knowing nothing to acquiring enough confidence to write the book. Gillian's openness and love of writing and learning endeared her to everyone, and one member of the group was quite overwhelmed by meeting the author of THE DEMON HEADMASTER, which she'd loved as a child.
The one-to-one tutorials can be quite demanding, requiring the tutor, by the end of the week, to have sixteen stories or novels milling about in her head, but I also find it rewarding to put myself in the position of editor and to look for the vital suggestion that could transform a piece of work. Sometimes it can be quite a simple thing that needs pointing out - for instance, there's viewpoint-hopping which is quite unintentional on the part of the writer. Or maybe the whole first chapter can be cut out. As many writers know, it can be easier to do this with someone else's work than with your own.
It was inspiring to experience the alchemy that happens when you bring together a group of generous and energetic people, a love of books, a special place like the Hurst (its woodland setting is perhaps seen at its best in the mists and low sunlight of autumn) and the time and space to think about stories and ideas.
I need to recover now, but I hope I'll have the chance to tutor for Arvon again.