Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Arvon: the short story with Claire Massey and Nicholas Royle

Lumb Bank: inspiration inside and out

Another Arvon course, another leap forward in my thinking and my writing. This happens every time I go on a residential course like this one, and yet each time I am surprised by how much I learn – from the tutors, from other writers, from observing my own writing in a different space. Combined with the energy and inspiration that seventeen productive writers can generate, the effect is overwhelmingly positive.
Rather than waffling about inspiration, I thought I’d share a couple of the exercises that the excellent tutors Claire Massey and Nicholas Royle (both of whom teach creative writing outside of Arvon) used in their workshops. I do so because I believe all writers need to shake up their approach sometimes, and being pushed to do something you wouldn’t normally with your writing invariably frees you up, mentally, from familiar patterns and ways of thinking that you have started to take for granted.

In the first workshop of the week Nick used an exercise based on a book by Jo Brainard called I Remember. It was simple enough – we all wrote for 15 minutes, beginning each sentence with ‘I remember’ and describing whatever our memories pushed up at that moment. Apart from being a great way to get to know a room full of people very quickly, listening to others read out what they’d written reminded me that other people’s lives can be fascinating, or moving, or shocking, or funny. It is the details that work. Someone described seeing their father cry under a strip-light in the kitchen, and as Nick pointed out, it was the strip-light that brought the scene to life, even given in a single sentence.

I never deliberately write about my own life in my stories, and I found it uncomfortable to read out my own ‘I remembers’. However, the laughs and the silences taught me that what is familiar to me through memory or habit can make for great story detail for others, and there is a lot to be said for Nick’s own approach of using real places, people and events in fiction. Truth behind a detailed depiction can give it an extra impact, even if the context has changed.

Claire asked us to think about motifs or images that recur in the work of writers we love, as well as in our own stories. This was tough to do, but as we collected all our ideas together it was fascinating to see how many came from the natural world – birds, paths, rivers, shells, feathers, stones. As humdrum as these may all seem, it was both challenging and enlightening to pick two or three from other people and try to write a story with them. Claire also asked us to draw maps, individually and as a group, which proved to be a wonderful way to stimulate the imagination; I will definitely be doing this for the world of my own short story collection.

We worked our way through many other useful exercises over five days, and the overall effect for me is that I have not been able to stop writing since I returned to ‘real life’ in London. Courses with Arvon or Ty Newydd (National Writers' Centre for Wales) are a big investment, moneywise, but there are bursaries available and if you are looking for a way to turbo-power your writing, they are more than worth it, and that’s not even counting all the wine and cake. Yet again, I have come home a better (and slightly fatter) writer.

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