Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Arvon Writing Course

 A view from the grounds

As regular readers will know, I like going on writing courses. I haven't yet written anything about the Arvon Foundation course I attended 9th–14th November 2015: "Work In Progress: Writing is rewriting", tutored by Nick Barlay and Diran Adebayo at The Hurst. Now I will rectify that error.

I stopped off at the Good Life in Shrewsbury

Lying train people! My train was the
16:50 Carmarthen - note that it still hadn't arrived by 17:07!

After a lengthy journey (anywhere from Aberystwyth by train is a lengthy journey) I met up with some other participants and we got a taxi to The Hurst for welcome talks, getting to know each other, and a big meal.I had a lovely large bedroom, set slightly away from the main building: yes, I had warned them in advance that I would be bringing my guitar.

Morning run

The teaching format for the week was one long session each day, rather than two shorter ones as has been the case at some other courses I attended; but this freed up more time for tutorials, which was necessary when there were lots of attendees and we got two tutorials each, one with each tutor. We sat around a large round table which was great for the main sessions, you could see everyone easily, and all felt able to contribute. The sessions were a mix of discussions, examining examples, and creative exercises. One thing here: my favourite format after a short creative exercise is when everyone gets a chance to read out their work or pass, moving around the table. I prefer that to the system where the group are asked if anyone would like to read out their work (with only time for a few examples), because in that case the most assertive characters get more opportunity to read than the less pushy ones; it also encourages leaping forward to volunteer otherwise you won’t get the chance. On the other hand with such a large group as the Arvon course hosted it isn't possible for everyone to read out every time; I just wonder if there could be a fairer system, such as recording how many times people read out, and making sure everyone has the same number of opportunities.

I wandered lonely as a leaf

I realised I'd never been on a course with male tutors before. I've always been lucky in going on good quality courses with excellent tutors, and that didn't change. Nick and Diran made a good team, whilst also being individual in their approaches. Nick seems fiercely serious at first (but is really friendly!); he normally gave direct advice, in concise points, very clear and considered with incisive perceptions, and a welcome willingness to be open to other interpretations of work. Diran preferred to feel his way around a subject with many examples and enjoyable animated anecdotes, giving close thought to the detail of a work whilst being humble and self-deprecating. Both are very intelligent people, helpful, friendly, knowledgeable. Both also broadened our appreciation via many samples of other writers, different approaches to issues, different styles, which helped make the advice concrete. I'm grateful to both of them. Teaching is hard. Reading, work, preparation, tutorials, support, professionalism, being on duty all week. It was a really good course.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. 
Or grassy banks, one of the two.

By the end of the week I had seen subtle yet noticeable increases in confidence and technique in all participants. The final night’s readings are something that can create trepidation – obviously for any readers nervous about performance or the quality of their work, but also in listeners if faced with hours of readings that require concentration and patience. In this case all of us were surprised that the readings flew by, with interesting stories, varied voices and topics, tones and deliveries ranging from dark (e.g. my contribution) to comic (which had everyone laughing). It really was impressive and I genuinely enjoyed the work of every other participant. It's so good to have a week with such talented writers and tutors.

I'm a little pixie.
Hear me roar.

Socially we were a great group too. Supportive and friendly (some of us set up an online group where we could continue to critique each others work after the course ended). I would be doing guitar practice in my room and someone would turn up: "Hey Karl, sorry to interrupt, but I thought your comments earlier were really helpful, any chance you'd be willing to have a read of this and help me out?" Which I always did, meaning discussion of writing didn't end with the evening meal. Feedback and constructive criticism is something we all benefit from.

The view from my room

I was surprised that despite only two hours sleep on some of the nights (nothing dodgy, just a combination of staying up late in the lounge drinking and talking about books; my head buzzing with thoughts; sleeping in a strange room; wind in the trees; and lacewings landing on my face and waking me up, asking to be let out the front door) I never flaked out, because the people and materials were interesting and inspiring. I generally got up at 7am, and went for a pre-breakfast run to watch the world wake up. Always the best way to start the day, though I only tend to do it when I am away from home!

One downside to my visit was that the centre use poisons on site to kill wildlife, most commonly large traps aimed at poisoning rats. That's a horrible system, since many animals eat the same food, and there's no way to make it available to rats without it also being accessible to mice, voles, hedgehogs, squirrels, frogs, slugs etc. Some of those can, in turn, be eaten (and poison) cats, birds of prey, hedgehogs, foxes etc. (By the way, if you've ever seen poison kill something, you'll know how gruesome it is; other traps are just as cruel, such as glue traps where the animals starve to death, and gnaw off their own limbs to try and escape). It's also pretty ineffective - most rats don't eat the poison; some survive and become immune; and studies have proved that new rats from outside quickly replace dead rats. I prefer prevention to cure. Instead of traps to get rid of the creatures we share the land with, it is better to make sure buildings are secure and well-maintained, and food is not accessible or wasted: then you have no issue. As well as being cruel, traps with dead things in are not hygienic (there were traps in the kitchen too). The fantasist in me would suggest that having poisons on site when highly-strung writers have been critiquing each other, then cook group meals, may not be a good idea (fuel for a horror or crime story there.) The Hurst has a "Sustainability And Conservation" policy, which includes comments like "Arvon is committed to environmental sustainability [...] Our objectives are - to minimise our impact on the natural environment": as such, poisons and traps and killing seem somewhat hypocritical.

Despite that disappointing caveat, I did enjoy the week.

+ Helpful centre staff
+ See both tutors one-on-one
+ Writers introduced new styles
+ Great morning run
+ Large room with a good view in front of the desk
+ Food – lots, with fresh fruit, no problem being a vegan
+ Warm, even in winter

- A rule that you have to sign out when you leave the building (which I ignore on principle)
- Animal traps/poisons

+/- No Internet - good or bad depending on your life. I had no problems with that.
+/- Cooking rota. Some people love the communal aspect of this (I always have fun cooking with my fellow writers; we tend to get a bit sloshed) but some people don't enjoy group cooking.

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