Wednesday 9 November 2016

30th birthday treat: my Arvon week of writing

On this wintery day that's feeling all too bleak for many, I'd like to tell you about the writing week I went on recently. Probably to cheer myself up more than anything else, but hey ho, that's the prerogative of a writer, right?

I want to tell you about it, because it was something I'd looked forward to for so long, a thirtieth birthday present from myself and many others. And if I'm not careful it'll fade too quickly from memory as my head gets crowded with yet another cold, worrying about how I'm going to start making a living, and possibly feeling a bit overwhelmed/shit-scared by this big leap we made recently.

So. Two weeks ago, I drove down to the middle of Devon, to a very very old white house in a phone-signal-less valley.

I was shown up to my room (which I unexpectedly didn't have to share: winner!), over creaking slanted wooden floors, past shelves packed with books and one of those window seats that I've always wanted, just outside my door! A great start.

I went for a week that specifically focused on 'life-writing', which includes memoirs and autobiographies: telling your own or other people's stories. The additional element brought by the two tutors was an interest in stories across borders. The result was that my eight writing companions (ranging from 30 to 80 in age) were the most incredible, interesting bunch of people.

From the "Hullgarian" (Bulgarian woman making her home in Hull), to the daughter of Romanian political refugees who had a stateless passport until she was 30 and grew up in Sweden, to the Sudanese-Canadian who went to school in the UAE, to the British-Indian-Ugandan who's family fled under Idi Amin... everyone had a story. No, lots of stories. And numerous passports! As much as it was a privilege to have time and space to write and rest for a few days, it was just as awesome to sit around the huge table at mealtimes, drinking good red wine and learning a little about growing up under Communism, psychotherapy in post-conflict zones, Jewish/Hindu/Catholic heritage, brave grandmothers, the struggles to leave a place called home, and to be allowed to make a home somewhere new. And so much more. That sounds pretty intense, we did laugh a lot too!

We had workshops in the morning with our tutors, Kapka and Nick - looking at different techniques and writers, doing exercises, sharing some of our work. A simple task like writing about our first day at school unsurprisingly provoked such a range of memories and descriptions. In the afternoons we had 1-2-1 tutorials and time to write, nap, walk or help with cooking the evening meal (with tasty locally sourced ingredients). There was no internet, and if you wanted any signal you had to climb a hill. I can't remember when I've last been so disconnected. It was so good for my soul. All of it.

As for the actual writing, well, I didn't do as much as I'd expected. But I did some and shared some and now have quite a few more ideas and a clearer sense of direction. Hooray. I spent most evenings reading old journals which was funny and cringe-y and sad all at once. Looking back into the past has its pros and cons for sure. And actually a lot of our conversation was around that: the cost of writing your story and its possible impact on yourself and those around you. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown visited one evening to read some of her work. She said to be a writer you can't be loyal – otherwise you won't tell the truth (because you'll be worried about offending people). A pretty strong statement, and I'm not sure that anyone agreed 100%, but it did provoke interesting debate and self-questioning about what we were or weren't prepared to say.  A writer has a lot of potential power; you're encapsulating history with what can only ever be a subjective view. Which I think we need to consider carefully as well as boldly.

So there we go, a beautiful few days that went way too quickly. We all wanted to stay on longer. There's definitely lots to be said for retreat-ing, think it might have to become a more regular thing. Happy to receive donations towards the next one, haha! I'm certainly richer for it, I felt physically so much better by the end of it too. And I look forward to hearing more of my writing-companions' stories – I hope they will get the chances and be brave enough to share them more widely. Watch this space!

The Arvon Foundation has a few locations like this around the UK and hosts all sorts of writing weeks, including poetry, script-writing, comedy, writing for children and more. It might sound like it, but they didn't ask me to write this! I just genuinely really enjoyed my time and would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone wanting to give themselves and their writing a boost.

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