What I learned about writing from Arvon (and hope to take back)

Alison Mercer teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival

Photo: Dan Hall. Here I am teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015

Seventeen years ago I did an Arvon course at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge; this autumn I’m going back to Arvon, this time as a tutor. I’m so happy to be going back, and a big part of that is because I had such a good Arvon experience myself.

Back in 2000, I knew I wanted to write, but for ages I hadn’t – not since I was a teenager (although I kept diaries, which are still in a cupboard somewhere.) I think part of what I was looking for was permission – that crucial thing that you need to overcome all those negative voices in your head telling you that writing is a waste of time, getting published is impossible and it won’t be any good anyway etc etc.

And I got what I needed, though it was a while longer before I really committed systematically to writing a novel and making time every day to get on with it.

Alison Mercer in Paris

me circa 2000 (hot chocolate in Paris, Café Flore)

I had picked out a beginners’ fiction writing course, figuring that a) it wouldn’t be too intimidating b) my fellow students wouldn’t be too intimidating. In November I’ll at the Hurst in Shropshire with Elizabeth Enfield, leading a course on romance and love stories in fiction. I hope that when it’s over, our students will go back home fired up with enthusiasm and with a few new tricks to help them push on with their writing, as I did all those years ago.

Here’s a bit more about what I got out of my first Arvon experience, and if you ever sign up for a course I hope you’ll find the same.

The power of scenery. My first impression of Hebden Bridge was of how beautiful it was. I was living in SW2 and had barely left the city for months; here, everything was green. There’s something about being transplanted from your usual habitat that’s highly conducive to getting your pen moving across the paper.

Permission to write, big-time. Everything was geared up to make it easy for you and support you in your writing. In everyday life, pretty much the opposite is true. I was charmed by the different nooks and crannies available to write in, and the care that had gone into creating them.

Structure is your friend. The course was highly structured, with morning classes, afternoons for writing and one-to-one tutorials, a mid-week visitor and an end-week goal – writing something to read to the whole group on the final evening. The basic structure of most five-day Arvon courses is the same today.

I’m the kind of person whose natural inclination is to chafe against structure, but over the years I’ve learned how much I need it, both for writing novels and for day-to-day life. (I have an autistic son, so routine and ritual are big in our house.)

My Arvon course tutors in 2000 were Alicia Stubbersfield and James Friel, and our midweek speaker was Patricia Duncker, who I met again at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015. All of them are Arvon tutors still.

Get on with it. That was the heart of what my first Arvon experience taught me. If you put pen to paper, you’ll get something down, even if you only have fifteen minutes. And then you can revise it and improve it. You might even be pleasantly surprised when you read it back. This was a revelation to me.

There’s also something very powerful about a) reading your work aloud b) reading it to a group – in other words, suddenly finding yourself with an audience.

Other people make all the difference. My Arvon course had a collegiate atmosphere. For five intense days, we lived together, cooked evening meals together and ate together. We prepared the evening meal in teams – luckily, my team back in 2000 included some much better cooks than me. Someone had brought a guitar, and I remember late-night Sinatra singalongs and good use being made of the red wine honesty box. Our group met up a few times afterwards, but I drifted out of touch after I got married, had a baby and moved out of London.

My fellow students were supportive and convivial, and that made the process of writing and sharing what we had written much less alarming. When you’re up against a challenge (like writing), at some point you’re going to need allies – and other writers are the best.

Alison Mercer writing at desk

at work at my desk

There’s something for every writer at Arvon, whatever your form and genre, and whether you’re just starting out or already have a first draft you want to knock into shape. There are also grants available to help cover course fees and first-time Arvon writers are a priority.

I’ll report back after my return to Arvon in November!

PS. My favourite books on writing are:

  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead.

Negotiating with the Dead, by Margaret Atwood

I also like The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, who was Raymond Carver’s writing tutor.

More about tutoring and studying creative writing

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival

A tale of two creative writing courses

What makes a great love story?

Tips on how to write a novel in (next to) no time

Novels are time machines that take in hours from their writers and convert them into the ability to transport their readers elsewhere. They eat up evenings and weekends and whatever you throw at them. It’s amazing how long you can spend agonising over a couple of sentences. On the other hand, it’s equally surprising how much you can produce in just five minutes.

If you’ve got a job, and/or caring responsibilities, and want to write a novel but have no spare time, how are you ever going to fit it in? Part of the answer is sleight of hand. You need to kid yourself that it’s feasible until you’re so deep in that there’s no way you’re going to give up. You have to get over the hump.

Here are some tricks and ruses that will help to get you started and keep you going. The time your novel takes up is going to have to come out of somewhere, sadly; you’re never suddenly going to get a whole new load of hours in which to write it, unless a very wealthy and obliging patron comes along. So, what gives?

If there’s anything you routinely do that you don’t really like doing and would prefer not to bother with, why not cut back on it? In my case, that has meant embracing my inner domestic slut. The inner domestic goddess is no help at all on the writing front – we’re barely on speaking terms. And to paraphrase Rose Macaulay, better a house unkept than a life unlived (or a book unwritten).

I do feel ashamed of my writerly sluttishness, but console myself with the thought that Iris Murdoch apparently had a very messy house. And as for Quentin Crisp – he maintained that after the first five years, the dust didn’t get any worse.

You’re almost certainly going to have to cut some corners somewhere.

During your precious writing time, resist interruption. According to Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame, when Plath was a new mother living in Devon she tried to write in the morning and leave housework till the afternoon. However, she was liable to be interrupted by surprise visits from the local nurse and midwife, who would head on upstairs and find Plath working away, undressed, the bed unmade, and the chamber pot unemptied.

The Person from Porlock called on Coleridge and Kubla Khan ground to a halt. If you can avoid letting the Person from Porlock in, then do. It may be necessary to cultivate a bit of writerly ruthlessness.

Be very, very selective about what TV you watch. Consider abandoning all reality TV. The reality you invent will be much more compelling. Maybe this will mean some holes in your water cooler chat, but you’ll manage.

Get to know some other writers. If one or two of them are published, so much the better. It’s proof that it’s possible. I met Jenny Colgan socially back in the mid-90s and a few months later there were posters for her debut novel up all over town. It happens.

One way of meeting other writers is to do a creative writing course, selected according to the funds and time you have available. The Arvon Foundation runs week-long residential courses that don’t cost the earth and there are various online options. Some terrific writers have done creative writing courses. Many have not. It isn’t a pre-requisite.

Set yourself a deadline and make sure that someone else knows what it is. The carrot – publication, praise, renown, money – is far off, and likely to keep on getting jerked out of reach, so a stick is more likely to help you on your way. A deadline is an excellent stick.

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I set myself the target of writing a chapter a month, for twelve months, at the end of which I figured I’d have a novel, of sorts. I handed over each chapter on the due date each month to a colleague at work (in a brown envelope so no one else would pick it up and start reading.) I missed one month’s deadline, which was when my children had chicken pox. Just knowing someone was expecting me to deliver spurred me on.

Find yourself a reader, or readers, but choose with care. With an early draft, you don’t need detailed feedback. That can come later. In the meantime, while you’re trying to get the damn thing out, ‘I liked that bit’ will probably suffice.

You may not need much more than to know that someone has read it. You certainly won’t want detailed criticism. Hint: your ideal reader will probably share some of your tastes and values, but is unlikely, especially in the early days, to be your spouse.

You will also need at least some people around you who believe that what you are trying to do is worthwhile, even if you haven’t yet shown them what you’re writing. If your spouse or partner is one of these, count your lucky stars. However, you should beware of telling the world at large that you are writing a novel. Play your cards close to your chest until you’re really getting somewhere. This helps to create the psychological space and sense of freedom you need to make stuff up (which is what you need to do for writing to cease to seem like hard work, and become a pleasure).

More tips to follow…

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.