|The river at Ty Newydd, National Writing Centre for Wales|
There’s a Monday around this time of year that’s supposed to be the gloomiest day in the calendar, the day when the most people take sickies, worn down by the weather, alcohol withdrawal and the ocean of time before the next bank holiday. So, a Monday in January is a great day to be running away to a writer’s retreat, as I am doing.
Residential writing courses and retreats, as run by Ty Newydd in Wales and the Arvon Foundation at various locations, are wonderful things for lots of reasons. They’re not cheap, but easily justified when you compare the cost to a creative writing MA and consider what you can get out of them. The effects of a week with other writers, tutors, and the inside of your own head, uninterrupted by work, children, chores and a decent internet connection, are profound and long-lasting.
First of all, there’s the joyful shock of being surrounded by people who are as interested in writing as you are. You can talk about your passion, and those around you actually want to listen. They are sincere when they ask about what you write, how you work, may they read a sample, and you are feeding each other by having these conversations. In the company of people who care about writing, doubt about your path drifts away. Instead of imagining yourself a lone ranger in a world of people with more ‘grown-up’ priorities, you perceive the world as studded all over with as many hidden writers as there are stars in the sky; you just can’t see them in daylight. You are one of many, and that is immensely reassuring.
Then there’s the surprise at the range of individuals who are there with you, and the work they produce. Every time I go on one of these courses, I find my expectations dashed, and my faith in people’s imaginations restored. There are high flying careerists writing side-splitting humour, put-upon mothers churning out biting satire, little old ladies creating dark, violent fantasy worlds. It’s amazing, and again it works to remove worries about the disparity between your daily life and the world of your writing. You think, if they can do it, so can I; just get on with it.
And of course there is the invaluable input from the tutors themselves. You can’t guarantee you will find yourself being taught by your ideal mentor, but regardless, an experienced writer of any stripe has much to share, and without fail tutors on these courses have been incredibly generous with their time and wisdom. Months afterwards you will still be processing their lessons, finding ways to apply their suggestions, or just realising that your own way of writing is working for you and every writer is different. This latter is one of those slow-burning lessons that writing courses can bring, and it is just as good for you as any teacher’s tip. Having faith in your methods when they are working for you is a vital step in the move from being a wide-eyed pupil to feeling like a fledgling writer.