My week with Arvon
It's not every day you get to say you cooked for Sarah Waters (Fingersmith, The Night Watch, The Little Stranger). I say cook, but to be fair anyone who knows me knows that me and the kitchen are not exactly soul mates. You might think I'm exaggerating, but how many other husbands have seen fit to comment on their new wife's lack of cooking prowess in their wedding speech? Personally, I don't see what's so wrong with Vicks Vaporub mash, but each to their own. The point is, it would be more accurate to say that I chopped onions and prepared breadcrumbs for Sarah Waters. I'm still proud.
The reason I was chopping root veg for such an esteemed audience was because I was with 14 other writers in the beautiful depths of West Yorkshire on one of the Arvon Foundation's celebrated week-long residential writing courses. As well as group classes, one-to-one tutorials and space to get on with some writing, everyone takes it in turn to cook for the rest of the group - it's all part of the bonding process. I happened to sign up for the night our guest reader was coming to town.
The Arvon Foundation was created in 1968 by two poets - John Fairfax and John Moat - in reaction, as Moat explains in his memoir The Founding of Arvon, to the staid, dogmatic way that poetry was being taught at the time. Since then a veritable who's who of the literary world has been invited to teach at one of the many courses that Arvon runs at its four historic centres. So not only was I chopping onions for Sarah Waters, I was doing it in Ted Hughes's kitchen.
Our guides on this voyage of discovery were Maria McCann (The Wilding) and Christopher Wakling (The Devil's Mask). Each morning, they led us through three hours of group class, providing techniques, offering advice and sharing their experiences of developing their craft. The afternoons were free to put in some serious work, go for a walk, or take advantage of a one-to-one tutorial. After dinner, there were readings - from the tutors, from the Wednesday night guest speaker or, on the last night, from us.
Arvon is like no other writing experience I know of. For one thing, there are no televisions, no radios, newspapers or internet access. That aside, it is probably the most welcoming, supportive environment you can find, which was lucky because when I arrived on Monday evening I was in deep in the clutches of my evil twin, the Inner Critic. She'd been kicking off for about 24 hours by this point, making helpful comments such as 'you haven't done enough work' and 'you don't like large groups of strangers' and my personal favourite 'what makes you think you can write historical fiction anyway?' By the time we were all introducing each other I was something of a wreck. Thankfully, two very lovely ladies and fellow writers - Liesel and Mareen - got hold of me and calmed me down. I shall never forget their kindness.
It's not just that you're sitting alongside a group of people who care as much as you do about writing, or the access you have to tutors with enormous amounts of collective experience. It's that Arvon's fundamental belief that writing is transformative and therefore deserves quality time dedicated to it is completely infectious.
I won't lie - if you find meeting new people a challenge, let alone bearing a little bit of your written soul to complete strangers, then it's tough. But - and this is a huge but - it's brilliant and intense and a little bit life-changing. I learned more in a week than I have in an entire semester at university. Don't get me wrong, my MA has also pushed me, but a two-hour class every week just isn't the same as sitting down day after day without any excuses. Even the scenery is inspiring.
I spent a lot of time at Lumb Bank trying to figure out what I was writing. I know my characters (although not as well as I now realise I need to) and I know my setting but I didn't know how to start pulling a random set of 'what if' questions into a proper structure. With Chris and Maria's guidance and the support of my fantastically talented classmates I have started to figure it out. And by the Friday, when it was time to read some of my own work, it felt like I was sharing something I loved with friends.
I also have to make special mention to the lovely Ladies of Lumb. This is the group of women based at Lumb Bank who make it run like clockwork. They arrange the menus, buy the food, answer questions and do a million invisible things to make your stay a welcome one.
Of all the incredible memories I have of my week with Arvon, the one that stands out most is a comment from one of these ladies, who told me that she'd heard from other students that it was really only after you'd left that the full experience hits you.
She was absolutely right. Since I got back, life has inevitably got in the way, but without that week I would still be floundering around trying to figure out how to structure my novel, I wouldn't have the bare bones of a chronology or the first tentative 1,500 words - not my best, but still words - and I'd probably still be reading half a tonne of research books instead of launching myself in there to find out what I really need to know. And of course I wouldn't be able to say I chopped onions for one of my favourite contemporary authors.
Photograph: a walk through the woodlands round Lumb Bank