Part 1 – first impressions
I can’t believe it’s been four days since I came back from the Highlands. Seems to have taken me that long to get back up to speed with everyday life.
For anyone who doesn’t know what Arvon is, it’s a charity offering life-changing creative experiences to anyone who writes; from beginners to established published writers, from school age upwards. They run a programme of weekly residential courses, open to the public, and tutored by leading writers in genres from poetry to fiction to script writing, at secluded rural centres. On their five day writing course you find yourself living, working and eating in a secluded historic writing house. To help those on lower incomes there are grants available. I believe they also work with school and communities, often from very disadvantaged areas, to help them develop self-confidence and language skills.
The particular course I attended was a Novel writing tutored retreat at their Moniack Mhor cottage, about fifteen miles from Inverness in Scotland.
For me the journey was pretty mammoth. I took a late train into London, then experienced the joys of the Caledonian Sleeper, arriving into Inverness in the early morning and waiting till later that day to join the shared taxi to Moniack Mhor.
I had intended to awake refreshed in Inverness, dump my bags at the station then explore the city. However, the ‘Sleeper’ train failed to live up to its name (though the service was wonderful). I spent all but perhaps two hours of the journey wide awake. This was due to a combination of factors:
a) My paranoia of someone breaking into my cabin
b) The fear I was about to be trapped with a group of strangers in a remote cottage where my writing inadequacies would be exposed
c) Some snoring man who sounded like he was lying right next to me. My aggravation with him was compounded by the frustration he wasn’t lying next to me; as this would at least have enabled me to give him a firm kick
d) Deciding to have a coke with my whiskey with my evening meal (should have had it neat, doh!).
As we drove into the countryside I got my first glimpse of the stunning mountains and flowering gorse and had high hopes for the week. We arrived to a warm welcome and, after putting our bags in our simple but comfortable rooms, gathered for a welcome reception. It was our first opportunity to meet our fellow housemates and the tutors.
The attendees were from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, the youngest was just turning 24 and the oldest, well lets not dwell on age…I try not to! Some students had an almost completed novel with them, some had a few chapters written, others just a sketchy outline. It became clear everyone wanted something different out of the week. It also quickly became clear that just being around other writers was going to be quite liberating.
The cottage itself is a homely place with the most gorgeous farmhouse kitchen (the kind I’ve always dreamed of). I was surprised to find it packed full of food which we were encouraged to help ourselves to whenever we wanted; fresh bread every day, basket of crisps, tray of chocolates, a fruit bowl, cereals, cold meats, variety of cheeses, a range of teas, coffees and soft drinks. In terms of creating that relaxed feeling I personally think this is quite important (though a little hazardous for my waistline). It’s a small thing, but can make all the difference.
Every evening a group of three or four of us would cook the meal for the whole group. On the first evening the two tutors read for us and were followed by two very brave students who decided to read their work as well. Every evening after that three or four students read out their work. This was entertaining and interesting, as well as being very daunting. The standard of writing was very high. I have to admit the merest thought of my reading anything out nearly gave me a panic attack.
Every day we spent half an hour with one of the tutors and the rest writing – or walking, eating, chatting. It was really up to us to make use of the retreat. I think other course are slightly more structured but, as I came on it to get to grips with my novel, time and peace and quiet were an important component to it working for me.
In my next blog I’ll let you know how I got on….