It was a Dark & Stormy Night, says Debbie Bennett

Scary stories read out loud late at night in a big old barn. Yorkshire, middle-of-nowhere, halfway down the valley at the end of a steep lane. It’s late November and the weather forecast is for high winds and snow tonight. 

Sounds a bit of a cliché, doesn’t it? 

Go to bed after a few glasses of wine. Get woken up by big bangs in the distance somewhere. It’s windy. Get up at 3am for a wee – light switch – nothing. No power. Okaaay…. A few hours later and even the security lighting has failed. Look out of the window and it’s snowing. Even more of a cliché? 

(c) Ariell Cacciola
There's no power, no heat, no light. By the morning, I could at least see, so I wander downstairs, wondering which one of the 14 of us will be the first body to be found in this classic set-up for a murder-mystery! Still no power and no gas here either, so can’t even make coffee and we have to wait for somebody who knows about these things to lay and light a wood fire in the sitting room, so we can at least get warm! 

Outside, the power’s out for several miles – trees across roads and I have to walk to the top of the (very steep) hill and dig the car out of the snow in what feels like Antarctic high winds. Driving home is interesting; I figure I’ll get a bacon sandwich and a coffee in Morrisons in Todmorden, but it’s closed, along with every other shop for miles and none of the traffic lights are working either, making the roads even more dangerous and there’s a curious apocalyptic feel to everything. 

Welcome to my Arvon writing course/retreat! We couldn’t have had a more appropriate (if a tad inconvenient) end to the week if we’d ordered it in specially. 

I’ve never done one of these thingies before. But somehow in the last few years of moving house, pandemics and plain old menopause, I’ve lost myself and my creative mojo, and as I said during the introduction at the start of this week – if I’m not a writer, then what am I? I’ve been writing since I was about 9 years old and it’s how I’ve always identified myself, but lately I’ve been lost and ungrounded and I wanted the chance to refocus on myself and my writing. 

For those who haven’t been on an Arvon course, this was 5 days (Mon afternoon – Saturday morning) in their centre at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire near Hebden Bridge. It’s in a lovely old stone building built into the North Face of the Eiger side of a hill. Parking on site is extremely limited and it’s not an easy walk down (or up!) from the on-road parking at the top of the hill. Accommodation is basic but clean and comfortable – bathrooms are shared and rooms don’t lock when you’re not inside them. The food is delicious – self-service breakfast, lunch provided by staff and each participant is expected to pitch in and help cook one evening meal (food, recipes and advice/help provided). 

(c) Ariell Cacciola
So what’s the programme? I was more interested in being able to take time-out from my normal work/domestic life, so I wasn’t specifically looking for a course or tutors. Having said that, I know my limitations and I knew I needed the structure of a formal ‘course’, rather than just a ‘retreat’ – I wanted some accountability and requirements to at least try to actually produce some new writing. And as it happened there was a course entitled Gothic and the Uncanny which when you consider my background with the British Fantasy Society and all the genre fiction I still write, actually sounded right up my street. 

So mornings are talks, exercises, workshops and discussions from 10am – 1pm. Afternoons are free time to actually write – and/or go walking on the numerous footpaths in the beautiful surrounding countryside. There are also two half-hour 1-1 meetings with the course tutors during the week, for feedback on work submitted in advance. Evenings are readings by the tutors and a guest author and on the Friday, all the delegates get chance to read out something they’ve written or worked on during the week. Plus of course, there are lots of opportunities to meet other writers and drink copious quantities of wine ...

Our tutors for the week were Catriona Ward and Natasha Pulley. Lovely ladies who got on well with everybody. With a group of 12 very different people on a course, I was impressed by the way they could connect with each person on an individual level and create a supportive environment that worked for everybody. 

Workshops were fun and useful. Having 13 other people provide individual written and verbal feedback on a couple of thousand words really shows how a piece of work is read and understood by different people. And having to 'own' your own feedback on other people's work (no anonymous bits of paper!) makes you appreciate how your own feedback might be received in turn. We can all learn from this, plus the other useful sessions on different aspects of genre fiction.

And I wrote! I've been finding it difficult to move on from my two crime/thriller trilogies, but. had some ideas and I'd pre-submitted the opening of something new which was well-received and gave me ideas on where to take it. So I had a couple of very productive afternoons with my laptop on one of the huge and comfortable sofas in the barn, and came away with some good groundwork laid for the future.


Reb MacRath said…
Wow, this sounds like exactly what you needed to raise you from the doldrums and up to the high new ground of something entirely different. Will eagerly await further bulletins on your progress.
Jan Needle said…
The weather was lovely when I went there, but as you said, the company was excellent, ditto the food and drink. And if you got your mojo back, Debbie – well hallelujah!
Peter Leyland said…
Just great to read this Debbie. It sounds like you had the experience you wanted and you've turned it into a wonderful story which I love. I went there twice (ages ago) and i enjoyed the shared cooking which seemed to make everyone connect. A memorable guest was Liz Lochhead and tutor, Caryl Phillips on the second one. Both courses lifted me out of a darkness through the creative engagement with others and this seems to have worked for you. You will be writing and writing and... Happy Christmas!

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