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?