In December 2017, I was lucky enough to go on a writing retreat in the far reaches of West Yorkshire. A place unfamiliar to me that would be my home for the next week. Arvon was like another world. Here’s a little about my experience and why other young writers might consider an Arvon course in the future.
Arvon are known as the leading UK charity for retreat and residential writing courses. And as I’d previously taken part in a city Arvon and got a lot out of it, I knew this course: Fire in the Flint, being more specific to some of my writing interests, while being immersive, was something I wanted to experience.
The retreat, led by Jacob Sam La rose and Amanda Dalton, was unique in that it combined both performance and teaching, (both of which I want to develop in), and so I was thrilled to learn that I was selected for a bursary scheme to get on the course.
I was looking forward to staying in a big beautiful country house and the opportunity to write in a focused environment whilst soaking in the scenery views. This after all, is essentially what Arvon is about. Knowing that the house previously belonged to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath added a relevant history of the place and set the tone for the week.
It was all a bit eerie and dark when I arrived down the narrow lane to Lumb Bank, so I couldn’t really get my bearings. On the first morning, the peeling back of my curtains was greatly anticipated and the view did not disappoint – Lumb Bank was back dropped by a dramatically breathtaking valley.
At the centre, I felt part of a privileged elite who had a passcode to this massive house and was made welcome by all the friendly staff. I was surprised by how well stocked the kitchen was! They even had almond butter! I had my first taste of Molasses (by recommendation of one of my peers). And let’s just say it’s an acquired taste (one I don’t possess).
The house is remote with no TVs (even in the bedrooms), which shocked me a little at first. But knowing that the spirit of Arvon is to get away from distractions, I took a vow to boycott social media. I found this easier than expected and even when I slipped up and found myself scrolling down a timeline, it was distinctly less satisfying than at home.
I expected a group of younger writers, but I found myself to be one of the youngest there. It was comforting to see the familiar face of Sarah, a member of The Writing Squad, who I knew from a previous writing residency. Our status as writers varied widely – some already had careers in writing and directing, others were studying creative writing at university. We even had two women from a radio station in Manchester. What we all had in common, aside from a passion for writing, is being from the North of England.
We were privileged to have tutors whose focus are in different forms of writing. Each’s work is extensive and inspirational. Both Jacob and Amanda actively listened and accommodated our various needs. They offered us the option in workshops to focus more on either poetry or script-writing. I valued the opportunity to explore both. They also gave us the choice of having workshops assigned to facilitation, or writing.
There was a lot packed into the week, between workshops in the mornings, tutorials and performances in the evenings, the course was intense. But whilst there was structure, we still had the freedom to do what we wanted and many of us went for walks into the woodland, or to the nearby shops at Hebden Bridge, a quirky place with only one chain shop in the whole town – Co-op.
I personally found myself waking early to write my morning pages. I committed to them every day, and even though we had an early start for workshops, I sacrificed the extra sleep to write. This is a discipline that I’ve since continued.
Arvon courses are always going to be intense. After all, it is grouping together random people, having us live and work together, granted like-minded individuals, but strangers nevertheless. I personally struggled with social anxiety. It effected my confidence a lot. And I found it difficult to bond with my peers because of these difficulties. There was one occasion where we had to create a workshop exercise in pairs and I struggled to perform well in front of the group. I think the break from my usual routines meant having to deal with myself in a different way. I couldn’t, for example, distract myself and escape using social media. I found this difficult and overwhelming.
I also felt something that I often feel when I go to places that aren’t traditionally working class spaces – like I didn’t belong. And looking around the group, my cultural baggage was further compounded by being one of the only woman of color, from a working class background there.
I know the creative sector has a long way to go to bridge the gap and foster a truly inclusive culture, where voices from diverse backgrounds are more widely published and celebrated, but hats off to Arvon for doing a great job at facilitating writers with mental health issues with sensitivity, and in reaching out to enable a wider group of people – as mentioned before, I received a bursary to attend the course via Hive and without it, I wouldn’t have been able to apply.
#Learning & gratitude
I am grateful for the tutors’ encouragement, the bursary which promotes inclusivity, and the overall journey I went on. Both tutors, were incredibly supportive, approachable and generous with their time (often running over in tutorials where needed). I found it helpful talking about my issues with them and on a positive note, I thought of an interesting theme to explore in my writing, the idea of ‘occupying space’.
I also appreciated all of the brilliant and diverse exercises that I will borrow from for my own workshops in the future. Before this course, I’d mostly experienced being an attendee at workshops, so when Jacob and Amanda would get us to question, as facilitators, how we can take an exercise further, this offered valuable insight, which has better equipped me to lead workshops of my own.
Overall, I feel validated that I’m on the right path. The feedback on my work was heartening, such as Amanda’s thoughts on my novel’s dialogue, also her advice on not falling into modes of procrastination, such as busying myself with editing bits of work I already have and putting off writing new pieces. You can either make a whole table in your first draft, and polish it after, or if you keep stopping to polish the table top – you’ll be left with only a top and not the whole table! This is something I now implement in my writing practice. And also Jacob’s recommendation of the book ‘The War on Art’ and our conversations on how to decode poetry further, through noting the imagery in a poem.
Lastly, I learnt that workshop facilitation is a self-employed profession (for the most part), and I must keep in mind that that means networking to get my services known and to gain more experience.
Although I struggled on some levels, the fact that I continue to pursue these opportunities, speaks of my resilience. I’m only more certain in my ambition to becoming a writer. One whose voice will be celebrated as a proud working class, woman of color.