Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Bloodied and Bandaged: My Arvon Experience

by Jo Wyton

Last week I attended an Arvon Foundation course in the rainy depths of Shropshire, and I will just say up front that it was fantastic!
My course ran at the John Osborne centre at the Hurst
For those unfamiliar with Arvon, it’s a charitable foundation set up in 1968 by John Fairfax and John Moat, both close friends of Ted Hughes. They have a number of houses dotted around the UK, all in the middle of nowhere in the beautiful and mercifully remote countryside. Their courses cover everything from Writing for Beginners to Writing for Games and Writing Poetry. Each course is led by two or three (if you’re very lucky) published authors, with the occasional visiting author popping up during the week.
See - middle of nowhere!
In this case, Linda Newbery and Celia Rees were our Writers in Residence, and Gillian Cross was the visiting author. (Excuse me whilst I steady myself.) Each morning consisted of workshops, with one-to-one tutorials in the afternoon and various discussions (and sing-a-longs, for that matter) in the evening. Our group ranged from 17 to, well, that would just be rude, wouldn’t it?

The lovely Celia Rees (left) and Gillian Cross (right)
Now it’s a strange kind of place, an Arvon centre, where everyone takes it in turns to cook and wash-up, you find yourself sitting next to Linda Newbery at dinner, and the toilets are sponsored by Dame Maggie Smith. (No, really.)

Arvon Centre folk get imaginative as often as possible!

On the inside of the downstairs toilet...
(thanks to Becca Beddow for the above photos!)
Most people arrive at an Arvon course a little bit bloodied in some sense of the word – it might be that they’ve had writers block for a year, or that their lives have drastically changed and they’ve decided to pick up a pen (or a laptop) for the first time. It might simply be that their plot or first chapter isn’t working.

Whatever ailment people arrived with on day one, I am certain that by the time we all left, they were a bit closer to fixing it. My own particular ailment is confidence in my writing, but to be honest I mostly just wanted to learn some new tricks and meet some new people.

The bloomin' brilliant Sheena Wilkinson (whose debut novel Taking Flight is scooping up the awards!) and Philippa Francis (writing as KM Lockwood)
Becca Beddow trying to concentrate despite me taking photos of her!
It’s safe to say that new tricks a plenty were offered up and gratefully received, and I did indeed meet plenty of new people, many of whom I will definitely stay in touch with. But mainly I just came back feeling ready to tackle anything!

Arvon provides the chance to surround yourself with writers, every one at a different stage in their quest to transform into the Lesser Spotted Author, and maybe to rediscover what it is that makes them love what they do. It also, coincidentally, gives you a peaceful week away from your emails, telephone and the general rigmarole of daily life.
No e-mails here, thank you very much!

I picked up some great tips and advice during my Arvon week – from everybody, I think. Gillian Cross spoke of the serendipity of writing a novel on Wednesday night, and then the following evening another guest provided me with my own serendipitous moment. Linda Newbery listened with patience whilst, with great ineptitude, I tried to explain my plot, and somehow she even managed to follow what I was saying enough to help. Celia Rees welcomed me to my tutorial with the words, “Well this is all good, but THIS is a prologue. You don’t need it.” So at least one darling was murdered this week.
Celia said something else that I’m certain is going to stick with me. She said, “Don’t just write a novel. Write your break-through novel.” (Or something to that effect. I was generally thinking ‘Oh my god, I’m sitting next to Celia Rees’ and trying not to hyperventilate at the time.)

Celia Rees (left) and Linda Newbery (right) planning our next punishment. I mean, workshop.

The tutors were all more than generous with their time and experience, as were the other people on the course. Everyone was so supportive, which isn’t unusual for children’s writers, but it is unusual to experience it for almost a week!

By the end, the atmosphere in the house had descended into friendship, and our last night was full of people reading their work and singing folk songs over a glass of wine. For me personally, it was also full of a trip up the stairs, a couple of bags of frozen peas (one of which ruptured on the stairs – apologies lovely Arvon people), and the wonderful Gita, who bandaged me up.

Just in case you needed to see evidence...

Arvon courses mean different things to different people. But everyone went away with something new, something to work on, and I reckon everyone’s writing will be all the better for it.

Sign me up for next year.

Slushpilers go to Arvon:


  1. I'm so jealous ... I'm going with you next year!

  2. Oh, but surely you'll be running your own courses soon, Candy?! (And that way, you won't have to wash up...)

  3. OMG. Candy, it is like we are twins. I started typing the exact same comment...!
    And Jo: peas? really? I thought you were allergic to peas!

  4. It's a valid point Teri, but it was peas or a ginormous hand. I went with peas.

  5. Didn't I tell you it would be great? I had a wonderful time with Gillian Cross and Melvin Burgess last year, can highly recommend these courses. Must confess, I didn' do a blog though . . .

  6. I still think the Arvon Foundation should invest in industrial size dishwashers.

  7. The courses sound great, but from my point of view, SO expensive. If we have to dishes anyhow, we could rent a lovely big cottage somewhere and fill it up with writers for a week

  8. Ah, it wouldn't be the same though Teri. The whole point is to meet writers you wouldn't otherwise meet, and you only wash up once in a whole week! I thought it was brilliant - I'd have happily payed to stay on another week!

  9. btw you can't have a title like that without a photo of the injury.

  10. I agree! photo, photo, photo....!

  11. It's a bonding experience, Candy, cooking and washing up together. It's not like making the tea for the kids. Or washing up after the Christmas dinner.

    Great article Jo, I wanted to live on an Arvon course after mine. Go people, go! And it needn't be expensive - they actively encourage you to apply for a grant. This year they've been able to give full grants to some people. Apply!

  12. Jo, what a fantastic blog! LOL at "punishment... I mean workshop", and brilliant photos, so misty and autumnal. I'm glad someone got a picture of the sponsored loo signs :P
    The peas thing was hilarious, but I hope your hand is back to normal now!
    Lovely to meet you. :)

  13. Lovely to meet you too Sol! It did all feel very autumnal in the mornings - all that lovely mist in the valley.

    And Candy - there you go - photo evidence!

  14. How glorious, Jo! I've been on two Arvon courses and one was with Linda Newbery - who was generous and insightful and said I looked like Adele Geras which I thought was an excellent start to actually being a proper children's writer. Happy days. Great blog!

  15. Sounds like a really fantastic experience. Hope your hand is healing although what is they say; no gain with out pain?! Sounds fantastic though, if only i could find soneone to look after the small people while i go away for a week....

  16. @Addy - does Adele know she's got a mini me?
    @Jo - that's not good enough. where's the blood? not even a bit of bone?

  17. Sounds absolutely wonderful, Jo! Color me green with envy... though maybe not pea-green!

  18. Glad you found it such a great experience. I went to a crimewriting course a few years ago at Arvon's Scottish centre (where, by the way, they had a dishwasher!) and was tutored by Val McDermid. That's probably as good as it gets for a genre writer. A brilliant institution and, I believe, they do help fund a limited number of attendees who can't afford the fees. Worth investigating if that's what's stopping anyone.

  19. Great blog, Jo! I'm glad you enjoyed the week and hope we weren't too cruel...

    Glad your hand is on the mend - some people will do anything to get out of writing! But at least it happened on the last day. You are too modest to mention how much your enthusiasm for writing and your support for your fellow writers added to the week, so I'll do it for you.

  20. This brought it all back for me... 'descended into friendship' is a great way to describe it! Still trying to shake off some of the folk I met at the Arvon I did! *ahem, Maureen*

    So glad you got lots out of it.

  21. Right, okay, Arvon has to got on my "bucket list"! I'm pencilling it in for 2013!

  22. Can't wait to see you and others next week at SCBWI, Jo! Your article brought back loads of memories. For me, it all started at Arvon with Malorie Blackman and Lee Weatherly in 2007, and I would recommend a course to everyone.

  23. @Candy, Adele has no idea - I think she needs to know!

  24. So it should, Nicky Schmidt! And Sheena - Taking Flight is on its way, and I can't wait to read it!


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