On Wednesday 14 November 2012, I was the midweek guest tutor at Arvon, Lumb Bank. This booking was made over a year earlier via Twitter, when Girl Reading had been out for a short time and I had done few author appearances. I agreed, even though I’d never heard of them, mainly because I thought it would be good practice and it was in a part of the country I’d never visited before.
It wasn’t until the brochure arrived that I realised what a special undertaking Arvon is. I was struck by the quality and range of writers who teach these courses, and that the programmes are thoughtfully put together to meet different writers’ needs. The course I was invited to speak on was for unpublished writers with a work in progress, people who have at least one near complete manuscript in hand amounting to months or possibly years of work. They’ve progressed beyond the bog standard how-to-write-a-novel shtick, requiring something more thorough and personal to help them bring their work up to a higher standard, and move them closer to publication.
Arvon offers courses in genre, poetry, comedy, drama, radio, biography, pretty much any writing form you’d care to mention. They choose inspiring locations for their centres, for example, Lumb Bank is a former home of Ted Hughes, set in the exquisitely atmospheric Upper Calder Valley. Sylvia Plath is buried in the church yard at Heptonstall, a short walk away, and a destination for many writing pilgrims.
I knew the students would make me work hard, but what surprised me was how attentive, generous, and humorous they were too. They had probing questions (which hopefully I was able to offer some sort of insight into), dedication, and oodles of passion. I tried to tell them that the problems they face are the same for all writers, published and unpublished alike: moments of doubt; moments of isolation; moments where the ending of a book seems far out of reach.
Several students had done more than one Arvon course on their writing journey, and I asked them how they benefited from the experience? Inspiration, they said, and the comfort that they weren’t alone – which is interesting because that’s what I took away with me by meeting them and being their tutor for an evening. I felt that these were my people, that I was with my tribe.
The tutors for the week were Peter Hobbs (‘The Short Day Dying,’ ‘In The Orchard, The Swallows’) and Liz Jensen (‘The Rapture,’ ‘The Uninvited’). As it transpired, I had a cup of tea with Peter on the Wednesday afternoon, and then with Liz on the Thursday morning. Both Peter and Liz have published more books than me, are experienced creative writing tutors, and lovely company. I felt safe sharing with them some of my debut novelist anxieties, and if I were writing up these conversations as fictional dialogue, I would describe how each was building or stoking the fire as we talked. Both gave time and attention to the students above and beyond the call of duty. Liz, who has written 8 books, told me that she attended an Arvon course herself before she was published, and that the encouragement of a tutor she met there gave her confidence to keep going; it’s why she supports Arvon the way she does, because she is a genuine success story from it.
Two karmic learning points then: (1) Unpublished writers can help make their own luck by looking for, and taking, the opportunities that will potentially yield valuable inspiration and support. (2) By remembering where they came from, and who has helped them along the way, writers fortunate enough to be published can return the favour by passing on something significant to the next wave of talent.
On the way to Hebden Bridge railway station, the taxi driver asked me if I would come back again? I don’t know, I said, I’ll have to wait and see if I’m invited. K x