I didn’t really like my 30th birthday for Reasons, none of which actually had to do with turning 30. Once I realised you don’t burst into flames and life continues pretty much as usual, that was all fine. Still, I was greatly soothed by a wonderful present from Charlotte and Chris, university friends and parents to the Prettiest And Best Baby Of All Time, who coincidentally happens to be my god daughter, Evie.
Charlotte is a writer, and knowing my yearning to actually write and finish a book, gave me a voucher towards an Arvon course, where you basically end up in the middle of nowhere somewhere disgustingly idyllic for a week of writing, eating and learning. Having mooned over various novel ideas for the last year or so, but failed to really get much down beyond sketches, I went off to the twee-est named of them all: Totleigh Barton in Devon, for their Starting To Write a Novel course.
I don’t know what I was expecting. A load of women in their 50s knitting novels out of hemp? A lot of huffy talking about My Art? Whatever it was, I didn’t get it. Instead I ended up in a group of funny, talented people aged between 22 and 60s, who wrote beautifully and gave incredibly useful feedback.
We were all beautifully looked after by the course director Clare (owner of Huxley, the hysterical frisbee-loving black and white dog), administrator Sue (owner of French Frank the French bulldog, and Clay the elderly chocolate lab) and Caroline, an amazing lady who came in to oversee prep while we took our turns at cooking. I’ve never eaten as much gorgeous local butter, cream and cake in my life. Everything was delicious, made even more so by the dreamy garden, and vegetables and rhubarb from the veg patch.
We were similarly blessed with our tutors, Jonathan Lee and Anjali Joseph, who both came dripping in awards and recommendations, but were brilliant for their wit, great suggestions and sympathetic editing (ie: nobody cried, but everybody rewrote). They set us to work each morning writing scenes, character studies or exercises, and quietly removed any panic we might have had about reading our stuff out loud so that even on the first night we were doing so without any strops whatsoever.
We had a tutorial with each writer, in which they gave feedback on work we’d previously submitted. My one with Jonathan was particularly useful – I reeled off the detailed plot of the book I’d been working on, admitted I couldn’t make the characters work for me, then ditched it altogether and resumed working on one where the plot was nowhere near as detailed, but the characters and story flew. I’m now charging ahead with that one, and it’s slowly starting to knit itself together. Hopefully a week’s Canadian adventure with Elizabeth will get some more words out!
Totleigh was gorgeous. There was no wi-fi or mobile reception; it was sunny and hot all week; I went running a couple of times and jogged up far too many hills round to the little village of Sheepwash, which was an adorable thatched place ripped straight from a postcard. I went up the track one night to look at the stars only to find that in Devon the sun takes a MILLION HOURS to set. I went up there at 10.20, and finally gave up at 11pm, having seen a whole five stars and realising that ironically Camberwell would do better.
Each night a group cooked for everyone or cleared up, and we got in loads of wine from the local wine merchant which kept us going. In the evenings either our tutors read to us, or a guest – we had the wonderful Jess Richards and her book Snake Ropes, which I’d not heard of before but fell straight in love with. On the last night, we all read from our work, and by then felt comfortable and confident to call it work, rather than ‘that terrible mess’ or ‘bits I’ve scratched together on my iPhone.’
I went to Arvon in desperate need of a holiday. I came back feeling calm, confident and ready to work on a story and characters that I feel properly invested in. The London contingent are making plans to meet up fortnightly to carry on what we’ve been doing. I hope that by the next time I go to Arvon – and there will be a next time – it will be to iron out kinks in my first ever finished draft of my first ever finished novel.