I arrived by taxi down the single file road that lead to the Arvon, Lumb Bank writers residence. It was beautiful and remote and I felt so lucky; I never thought that I would be able to go on an Arvon course, but thanks to the amazing people at Hive I was there, and I was determined to make the most of it. The staff who greeted me were friendly and welcoming as they showed me to my room. It was compact but comfortable; crisp white bed linens, two plump cushions and a comfy blue blanket on a single bed, a space heater and of course, a desk. The view from the door of my room was breathtaking; the Lumb Bank gardens against the backdrop of a wall of trees. It felt as if that view had gone unchanged for centuries, as if Ted Hughes had once looked out of that door and seen the very same plush stillness.
Eager to get started, I unpacked quickly and I made my way to the library. The two people who had arrived before me, who I would come to know were Elizabeth and Hadi, were sat quietly discussing life and books. Elizabeth was a journalist from London, Hadi a filmmaker from Singapore. I started to wonder if I was in over my head, thinking a stay-at-home mum from Barnsley surely has no place sharing work with ones so creatively employed.
Slowly the rest of us filed in, and before long we all found ourselves elbow to elbow in the living room, all trying in vain to remember the sixteen names of our family for the next week. The staff gave us housekeeping info- what we should do in case of a fire, where to leave books we had lent from the library, how to sign up for cooking duty and tutorials, and exciting information on the week to come. It was amazing to hear how far some people had traveled; Hadi was still the winner in terms of miles and hours flown, but he had some strong contenders- Jenna from Los Angeles, Shelia from New York and Victoria from Uzbekistan chief among them.
We ate our first meal together; quiche and sides lovingly prepared by the center staff. I found myself seated next to one of the tutors, Diane, the New York Times Bestselling author of Thirteenth Tale. I was quite starstruck, and I joked to her that it felt like I was seated next to JK Rowling.
We met the tutors; Russ Litten and Diane Setterfield, properly later that evening as we entered the Barn for the first time. A creative space of sofas and soft lighting that would be the setting for our evening talks and readings, and where we would share our own work later in the week.
Diane asked us about the novels that most inspired our writing. My ‘to read’ list tripled that night, as the notebook on my lap filled with the books that had so peaked my peers enthusiasm. Russ asked us what our favourite word was, as a way to remember us all, and mine was ‘hyperbole’.
That night I was inspired, and I wrote a few hundred words before bed.
Tuesday began with a walk; Lindsay, a solicitor from London, and I stomping through the moss and rocks of the magical surrounding woodlands. We were lost, having thought the sign that read ‘public footpath’ but seemed to point straight up in the air must have surely been an error. But we enjoyed it, and made our way back before the start of the first workshop.
Russ and Diane are very talented and accomplished teachers; clear and informative, both founts of knowledge and experience. I felt privileged to be there, and very excited. We learned about the six elements of story, and about what fuels a narrative. We found out what kind of reader we are; what books we avoid, what we were prepared to forgive in novels, and how this information could make us better writers. We chose words at random from the dictionary and used them to create a headline, and used that headline to create a story.
This was our first glimpse into each other’s talents, and I wondered how Rebecca, a teacher from London, had managed to come up with a narrative so vivid and complete in such a small amount of time. Diane told us that we should think of our first drafts as clay, and all subsequent drafts as the shaping and the kilning and the gloss.
With that advice in mind; that afternoon I sat with Lindsay in the barn, on opposite sofas with our laptops in our laps. Inspired by the setting of our morning walk, I rattled out three thousand words of clay I hoped could become a fairy story. The rain fell outside the windows as we typed, and I commented that it was a sound people download apps for.
That evening, we filed into The Barn for the literary VIP experience that was hearing the tutors read from their own works. Russ, a writer and musician from Hull, read first from his novel Kingdom- a book about a ghost in a prison. Diane read next, from her latest novel Once Upon a River- a book about a girl who defies death. We were captivated, spellbound.
Afterwards, they generously shared their knowledge with us in a Q and A.
The Wednesday lectures were about character; their function in a novel, and what it was about characters that compelled readers. Diane shared something she herself had done for her main character in Once Upon a River; writing a hundred questions about said character, and explained how this exercise would lead us to information we would never have had about them otherwise. Victoria (who we had learned on the first day was Diane’s biggest fan) and I, spoke excitedly about how special it was to get a glimpse at Diane’s own notes.
After another delicious lunch, I had my first tutorial. Russ Litten sharing his comments and critique on the writing samples I had given the tutors on Monday. He was so encouraging and repaired my wavering confidence. His notes and edits were all spot on, and he had written ‘ace!’ next to one of my sentences.
That afternoon I put his edits in place, and wrote a scene in my novel I thought might be good enough to share at the Friday readings.
Libby Page, that night’s guest speaker, arrived before tea as a few of us sat around the living room chatting. She was lovely; generous and modest. After tea we listened to her read from her novel The Lido, and she spoke about her journey to being an author. She gave us valuable advice about publishing, and about not giving up too easily.
The week was going fast. It felt like only hours had passed since I had stepped out of my taxi. The people whose names I had struggled to remember already felt like old friends.
Russ spoke to us about dialogue, that each line a character speaks should either move the story along or tell us something about that character. We transcribed a recording of a bigoted circus ringmaster from my hometown, and worked in groups to record each other and learn about how people speak. We wrote a piece using only dialogue, and I shared mine. I didn’t think it was that great, but people laughed and I was reassured. We spoke about adverbs, and unpacking the emotions in a sentence so that a reader experiences them, rather than watched the character experience them.
I was on cooking crew that day. Me and Hadi teamed with Su and Emily, a delightful mother-daughter duo from London. I made a cinnamon and apple crumble for dessert, as Su elevated the carrots with parsley. Emily mashed a fields worth of potatoes, while Hadi interspersed his efforts with taking photographs and videos to send back home. The food went down well, and I joked with Diane that one day my claim to fame story would be that I had once fed her sausage and mash.
That evening I spent at the kitchen table. Russ Litten and a retinue of my fellow writers sharing wine and stories. It was an amazing evening, I have never felt funnier; Russ and the others laughing encouragingly at my stories of call centre work and family life. The feelings of insecurity I had had in those first days long forgotten.
I could not believe it was the final full day. I had fallen into a routine as one of the early risers; sipping coffee in the morning with Mark, a Scientist from Scotland and Sabiha, a teacher from Leicester.
Friday we spoke about fuel. About that feeling of inspiration and clarity a person gets when they hear their muse. Russ had us try and put a word to that feeling, and find three times when we had felt it. We then fictionalised those examples to make a story. My word was ‘nostalgia’, and I shared a piece about my family discussing a box designed for repelling mice.
Diane had us find the piece we would be sharing that evening, and we broke into groups and timed each other, giving feedback and encouragement. I formed a group with Kat, a teacher from London, Mark, and Elizabeth; who throughout the week had become fast friends with the cat in residence- Ted. We decided what we would say as an introduction to our work, and timed each other to make sure we wouldn’t go over the five minute time limit. I was nervous, having stared at my piece so much that I wasn’t sure if it was any good anymore. I asked Russ to read it later that day, as we sat in the library with Jared, a recruiter from Sheffield, listening to a song Russ’ band had written for the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. I’m glad I did, as it turned out I had a pair of disembodied legs flying around my first paragraph.
As we filed into the barn for the last time, we were nervous. Shaking hands clutching the papers that held our final drafts of the pieces we were going to read. I was fifth, and though I fumbled a few lines, the reception was good, and everyone was supportive. It was an amazing night of amazing work; people we knew all week would be amazing, and dark horses who had been quiet in the classes who now had everyone hanging on their every word. Jenna, who had not shared much in class, had everyone in stitches with the delivery of her piece: a modern take on the roles of childishness.
I packed quickly, wanting as much time as possible to say goodbye. Each compliment had me closer to weeping, and Diane pushed me over the edge with her lovely words. I stood, moist-eyed amidst the suitcases and photo-taking as we all left taxi-full by taxi-full. The elbow-to-elbow meeting of Monday feeling like a distant memory as we promised to stay in touch.
Arvon Lumb Bank was an astounding week. I feel like a writer now, because of it. The confidence I have gained and the things I have learned will stay with me forever. As, I hope, will the friends I have made.
Thank you to Arvon & Hive South Yorkshire for bursary support to make my Arvon dream possible!