from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (final instalment)

I've been sharing the blog posts I wrote about my experience at an Arvon writing course, to mark seven years since the experience. Please see this post for background and parts 2 , 34 and 5 to catch up so far. This is the final instalment! 

This post originally appeared on my blog Green Ink in April 2010, and has been slightly edited.

And so I sat, as I let the enormity of the decision I was about to make sink in.

Did I want to keep going with The Memory of Us? At this very moment, the answer is no. I want to have a break from it. It isn't fun to write anymore. I have invested so much time and energy into it, and I know is a story that I will tell, that will be told. I just need to have a break from it. It just isn't inspiring me at the moment. The direction I have taken it in is definitely the wrong one, and I will need time to find my way again. I need to forget about all the bad influences on it, the doubts, the fear, the threats, the heavy weight of expectations. It needs to be free of those and find a new way through. I know I set the bar too high for myself, telling myself it could be nothing less than a masterpiece. It is no wonder I have struggled so much.

I want to write about what I have seen, done, felt and known. I want to be able to sit and write with authenticity, humour and vivacity. I want writing to be fun again. In those few hours of writing that other story, purely from my own imagination, I had a glimpse of my writing life as it could be, and I wanted to grab it with both hands.

It didn't hit me how bored I'd been with The Memory of Us until I'd finally admitted it out loud. I don't doubt that, eventually, the story will be told. But when - that is a question I don't have an answer for right now. I think the decision to focus on other things that are a bit more fun to write is a good one - and I also think it's been building for a while. I was just too afraid to admit it. The characters just weren't setting my imagination on fire. I've been frustrated and disillusioned for quite some time. But how could I admit this, after so much investment, so much work, over the past two and a half years - to say nothing of all the coincidences and twists of fate that led me to think yes, yes, yes, this is the story I've been waiting for.......

I've really let my pride get in the way here, I think. And I'm not short changing The Memory of Us, by any means. I just want to have a break from it. It did not prove to be stimulating or inspiring company in the near week I was with it constantly. When I talked to Morag about it on Wednesday, she seemed to think that this project had been weighing me down quite a bit, and it wouldn't be a tragedy if I put it aside for a while. 

"But what would be a tragedy," she cautioned me, "is if you stopped writing all together."

There's no danger of that! Now, it feels like the possibilities for me have grown a bit wider. With time and energy to devote to things I do want to write about I feel like there are wider waters for me to cast my net. Topics I might not have thought were really my thing now intrigue me. I want to give pleasure with my writing. And I think that will only happen if it is a pleasure for me to write.

There are so many things I want to write about. I want to write about relationships, friendships, parents and their children, about people chasing their dreams. I want to write about people transcending circumstance. I want to write about fear and desire and love. I want to write about my country, the cities I've lived in, why I love it, why I left it and why I might or might not go back. I want to write about the city I live in now, where my freedom and independence came of age. People have told me often over the years that my own life has a wealth of material - and maybe it's time I started listening.

I don't really know what expectations I had coming on this course really - there was part of me that thought I'd walk away with The Memory of Us virtually finished, and there was another part of me that knew it was crunch time, and there was another part of me that wanted it to be the start of something, the end of the beginning, as Churchill put it. 

So there you have it, my decision. Out in the open. I am free. I wonder what will happen.


The last night of the course was excellent. Over dinner we were given the task of writing a poem about any aspect of our time at Moniack - I wrote a traditional Aussie ballad about "Donald", this enigma of a character who had started making an appearance in the group class work! It was fun to write, and I didn't struggle with the rhyme like I have done in the recent past, I felt like I did as a teenager, making up silly poems for school plays or to make my sisters laugh. We all read our poems aloud to laughter and applause. Then, just as we were being served dessert, we heard the strains of....bagpipes?!

Not unexpected, I suppose, seeing we were in the depths of Inverness, but it sounded like it was coming from the kitchen! Sure enough, the door was opened and there was one of the Moniack staff's daughters, in a kilt, playing "Happy Birthday" on the bagpipes! It was one of our group's birthday, and they had arranged a cake and a piper in her honour. After the birthday song finished, the piper launched into a traditional tune and we all started clapping and stamping - it was amazing! All I needed to make the evening complete was a dram of whisky :)

I then poured an enormous glass of Cabernet Syrah and settled in for the group reading, which was taking place in the main room in front of the roaring fire. Everyone read. It was wonderful to finally hear some people's work, having been curious about it all week. Some of it was exquisite. Everyone's work is so different. The voices were so unique, no story was the same. It was wonderful to feel, possibly for the first time in my life, completely unintimidated. It was impossible to compare our work to anyone else's, because all the projects really are so different. It was really nice to feel among peers. Happy that I'm doing my own thing, and they are doing theirs.

I read my short story with gusto and humour, and some exaggerated accents - I got laughs where I hoped I would get them, and I was pleased with the flow of the narrative. There were bits I was really pleased with, that I could hardly believe I had written at all. Morag came up to me afterwards, her eyes shining, and told me how pleased she was, and that my writing just "sparkled" in that story. That made me very happy.

When we'd all read, Morag and Tim spoke briefly about the week and what their advice was to us upon leaving and going back to our normal, busy lives. Morag's wish for us all was to have energy and courage. Tim said for us to keep the momentum going, to continue to make the time and space to write every day.

I have definitely come away with that feeling. To keep the energy going, now that it has been unlocked. The course description was about falling in love with your novel again. I went a bit deeper than that. I fell in love with writing again.