Maggie Gee on Arvon
The first evening: it’s Monday already! People are arriving in ones and bunches down long lanes, dragging bags to upstairs bedrooms, looking shyly and at angles at each other or talking too fast at dinner; and then the expectant silence, tautened by a little fear, in the big room with the shadows behind them and an owl outside as they wait to see what the tutors might ask them to do before bedtime. Then quite suddenly it takes form, something like a game, perhaps, something that frees the pen or the voice inside, and everyone is quiet, a few look round the walls for help, then heads go down, there’s a low rustling, yes they’re writing, the spirit is in the room… It has begun.
Why do I feel a sense of freedom on the Monday I arrive, even though I still get a little nervous, and I know what follows will be one of the hardest-working weeks of my year? As creative writing courses pop up all over the land, spreading from universities to publishers, agencies, newspapers, what still makes Arvon special? Why is Arvon still a breath of green air – that name with an echo of ‘Arden’ about it, a promise of something joyful and Arcadian as well as lots and lots of new words?
Arvon is not academic. It produces no qualification, it offers no credits to eager American students abroad, it speaks not of theory, it does not grade. It isn’t an industry marriage bureau, introducing tense beginners to a shiny array of publishing insiders (though people do fall in love and in friendship here – unsurprisingly, for they tend to feel happy and free.) It isn’t formulaic, though the old original pattern mostly survives: the morning classes, the afternoons to wander and write, the final evening performance and the one-on-ones with the two tutors – I can’t say “with the two writers,” because at Arvon, everyone is a writer: for five or six days we are all touched with magic dust as the ordinary world where people might be software engineers or teachers or mothers or postmen or therapists, slips away. Arvon is not functional (though it is practical) and it is not unaffordable: as creative writing courses become more and more expensive, the near-week at Arvon remains, to my mind, the best value of all. It is not a con, and it is not taught by people whose only qualification is that they themselves have done a creative writing MA; here writers teach writers (John Moat said that “with any art or craft it is only the living and practice of it that provides the authority that can offer someone else genuine guidance.”)
What is Arvon, then? It’s a haven, and a bit of heaven. A place where no one need be embarrassed to love words or books, or by wanting very much to write better. A place of equality, where everyone except the tutors (who are probably reading new work) cooks and washes up and sets the tables, and where the enjoyment of the food and, often wine, increases as the pace of work builds up and the need to relax for a while and like each other grows. A place where teachers and students live together and share laughs, and where lots of the talk about writing doesn’t happen in class. A place where days are longer and there are no TVs or boxed sets of DVDs to eat up the evening. A simpler place, where the plainness of the rooms implies that money doesn’t matter. By contrast, the glory of the countryside outside the window – whether you are in The Hurst with its high sloping garden and loping hilltop walks, or Totleigh Barton with its low water-meadows and lowing cows, or Lumb Bank with its long sunset views across the valley to the blue-green woods beyond, or Moniack Mhor with its radiant northern bleakness and sense that the sun will skim the horizon and never go down – the countryside is waiting for you all year round, for the land and the air are free, an extra that comes with the course, a perilous and gorgeous incitement to walks and poems.
What are my personal memories? Not the ‘star’ students, though at least half a dozen of the writers I have taught at Arvon have gone on to be published, often years later, and that has always been a thrill – for the interest does not die on the day the tutor, by now exhausted, hauls her large case to the yard where the taxi will send her whizzing back to the train. Yes, Pat Barker was taught here by Angela Carter, and Lesley Glaister by Hilary Mantel: still that is not what Arvon promises, or what makes it special.
I know it in my bones, but now I have to try and analyse it too. This is what I think. Writing here is at once a spiritual practice, a value, and a place of deep refuge; a way of understanding one’s life and communicating it to others who will listen; and a focus of concentrated ‘craft’ work, something that has to be enacted in the detail of every sentence written. It is a process of becoming, and becoming more free. Now I shall look at what John Moat said, because he and John Fairfax, the only begetters of it all, should know, and this is what he says, and I’m not too far off: “the capacity to be open and responsive to the Imagination is every child’s, every individual’s most precious gift. When that gift is realised, i.e. when the individual has thus uniquely expressed him or herself, then this is the unique gift that each has to offer.” In my experience, writing is also a source of many confessions and uproarious laughter: everyone has been unfaithful to the Muse in one way or another, everyone has failed or been blocked, everyone has found words hard even as their love for them increased, and here it is all right to admit to it all in the knowledge that the others understand, and want to know. Here is a place where you do not have to justify yourself: writing is a way of being more alive.
I remember getting very tired in the early days of Arvon teaching when I didn’t realise that it isn’t feasible to read the 10,000 words of novel that a student happens to have brought with him and hopes you will have read by breakfast, because unless you sleep, you won’t be on form for the morning class. Soon I started to understand I must pace myself, read a few pages very carefully rather than too many pages superficially, and always make time to have a walk in the beautiful countryside before supper. I learned to trust in the Arvon alchemy that means – so far, touch wood – that by the last evening there will be a radiant glow of good will and fellow-feeling around for the final performance, and that even the writers who were most frightened when they first had to read out to fifteen strangers will have relaxed, and will be giving the reading their all. I have learned to trust that the evening meals, though perhaps Tuesday’s seems to pose a near-insuperable challenge to people who have never cooked for eighteen before, will have turned by Friday into a flamboyant celebration, with each set of cooks trying to outdo the one before in their desire to celebrate something beautiful, transient and real: the love that mysteriously starts to envelope the group as the week goes on. “Feel the love” is a phrase that always seems to hover over the final evening at Arvon, and if that sounds completely over the top, I am guessing that you’ve never been on an Arvon course.
I have been on a course as a student too, in Totleigh Barton two years ago, where I learned about writing plays from playwright Nell Leyshon and producer and theatre manager Frances Poet. I discovered just how precarious it can seem when you are reading out very new, unedited work, but also how Arvon starts you writing new things, gives you new perspectives, intensively teaches techniques you don’t know, takes you out of your comfort zone but also consoles you with new friendships, new people, new skills, new sources of pleasure. I haven’t actually managed to write an entire play yet, but I have begun writing, and have publicly performed, dramatic monologues, and find that my novel-in-progress is also pushing its way to life in a territory new to me, halfway between a book and a play. Slowly but surely, the Arvon alchemy is transforming something in my work, as I have seen it do for others so many times. It is what I wanted and needed: I asked and I was fed, not just by the wonderful Nell and Frances but by my fellow students – thank you, friends.
Now I must say thank you to Arvon – and marvel. In this strange British Isles of ours, in many ways a world that has narrowed and darkened since the 1960s, Arvon has stayed unchanged and yet youthful. It has not become over-groomed, not spawned a nervous series of new mission statements, not professionalised and privatised itself into sterility. It is basically four houses in the country through which a pilgrim’s progress of human beings passes, staying a while to write and to share their writing, with good helpers, and good company. Thank you John Fairfax and John Moat for what you give again and again through your faith in the Imagination, beginning as you did “like a couple of sorcerer’s apprentices,” as John Moat says, “watching in amazement as the spell constantly came up with the goods.”
And now it is the final evening; it’s Friday, so soon! And the long dark table has been decorated with wild blossom in bottles and vases and the white petals are lit by candles in saucers, and in the background an open fire is burning, cheeks are flushed and people are holding back a little on the wine because soon it will happen, the thing itself, the performance, the finale, and the conversation flows bright and deep over small disruptions of laughter until everything is eaten and the dishes are washed and we troop across to the barn again where it all started, and silence falls as the MC introduces the first writer, and the new words sound in the high cave that holds us, and we listen to the best of what we have found and made, ending with another beginning, the only way to end. It’s happening again as it has done for decades, the enactment of John Moat’s great and generous vision of new writing, newly shared: “Here is the intention: to arrive at the beginning and to know the place for the first time. Omega, the ultimate coming home. Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end of the Story.”
Five Days is a chapter from The Gist: a Celebration of the Imagination, co-published by Arvon in June 2012.