|Totleigh Barton - writers' haven|
The only negative aspect of going on an Arvon creative writing course is the comedown afterwards. Torn from a nest of writerly enthusiasm and expert tuition, we all face the fact that for most of us, our story writing is fitted in around other necessary time-eating evils such as work, chores and general staying alive (perhaps we shouldn’t call childcare an evil!).
My third Arvon course (and sixth residential writing course including those at Ty Newydd in Wales) was the most useful and productive so far. Focused on short stories, and tutored by Tania Hershman and Adam Marek at Totleigh Barton, every three hour group session was a frenzy of creativity.
Tania based many of her tasks for us around writing to prompts and with constraints, forcing us to produce first drafts in 15 minutes or so. Prompts included phrases picked at random from poems and snippets from New Scientist; constraints included shapes to write in, clichés allude to, and the exclusion of certain vowels.
She also kept us playing ‘word cricket,’ a game in which, given an opening sentence, you write continuously as words are tossed out at you to include in your story. This might sound as insane and as ultimately fruitless as a game of consequences, but I for one amazed myself with what could emerge from ten minutes’ play. What seemed like nonsense at the time would make a strange kind of sense and could be far from surreal, given enough imagination in accommodating random words. After a week of this and ‘constrained writing’ we all admittedly had notebooks full of silliness, but nestled in there somewhere we all found the beginnings of a golden story.
Adam Marek focused on editing in one session, by the end of which I had figured out how to deal with a particularly frustrating draft I had taken with me and immediately began improving my work. The generosity of his approach showed when he did something I have never seen a writer do before and shared with us a very first draft of the title story from his new collection, The Stone Thrower. We giggled, Adam cringed, but the scales fell from our eyes as we saw just how much a story can change before it reaches its finished state, even in the hands of a brilliant writer. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to learn so much in the space of five minutes.
It’s hard to sum up what I’ve learned, but here are a few essentials: It’s ok to write to external stimuli rather than sticking to dredging only from your own imagination; splurging out lots of ideas or drafts of stories not only warms up your writing muscle but will also produce something good, even if it’s just one sentence; permission to write silly or bad material will get you to the good stuff – it helps to assume nobody will ever read what you’re writing; no two brilliant writers use the same techniques to get to a great story.
So, as I always do on return from these courses, I send thanks to Arvon and especially to Tania Hershman and Adam Marek, and urge you to try a writing course if you are serious about creating stories.