A tale of two creative writing courses (with an Arvon happy ending)

‘So…’ The two middle-aged men in jumpers regarded me dubiously. I tried to look back at them like a Writer. Like the existentially serious black polo-necked youth I’d met while I was waiting for my interview, who had left me feeling like a bit of a fraudulent dilettante.

‘Are you sure you shouldn’t be trying to become a journalist?’ said one of the creative writing course tutors. The other looked down at the printout of the short story I’d sent in with my application and added, more in sorrow than in anger, ‘There’s a repetition in your first paragraph, you know. You wouldn’t get away with that here.’

And so I lost my chance to do a highly-regarded creative writing MA, and went off to do a journalism course instead. I’m not surprised the jumperish men turned me down, really, as I hadn’t written enough or regularly enough, and had pretty much scraped together the story with the offending repetition in it at the last minute. (In The War Against Cliche Martin Amis says it’s a sign of bad writing to iron out all your repetitions, but alas, the habit is ingrained now and I can’t help myself. See? Scarred!)

Anyway, if I had got in I would almost certainly have spent the best part of the year-long course feeling horribly insecure and clueless. So it all turned out for the best. And some years later I went off to do a week-long Arvon course, which was a very happy creative writing course experience, and here’s why:

  1. I stayed at Lumb Bank, which is this fab old house that used to belong to Ted Hughes, with little writing shelters in the garden. When I went I hadn’t been out of Zone 2 in London for months. Pastoral bliss.
  2. When you’re on an Arvon course you get looked after and shopped for so that you can Write. In the outside world this is, alas, not usual.
  3. We had a lovely person looking after us who went out and bought me The Sun – I was obsessed with my Mystic Meg horoscope at the time. All those valuable things that were going to turn up in my attic! Where are they, Meg? Where?
  4. Everybody was lovely! It was a week of otherworldly loveliness!
  5. Evenings involved lots of red wine consumption (money in the honesty box) and drunken singalongs featuring lots of Frank Sinatra. (Someone had brought a guitar.)
  6. You’re put in little groups to take turns at the cooking, but luckily there were enough people who knew what they were doing for my incompetence not to matter.
  7. You have to write stuff very quickly and read it out, and everyone has to do it, so you just have to get over yourself. And then you see that you can actually do something in as little as five minutes! The start of something, at any rate.
  8. I came back all fired up.

I did an evening class at a local college some years later, and that was good too, and I’ve heard good things about online courses run by the Open University and various other universities, which don’t cost the earth and can fit in round other things.

There is definitely something to be said for spending time with other people who are interested in the same thing. Especially with red wine, Frank Sinatra, Mystic Meg and pastoral bliss thrown in.

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