from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 4)

This week I'm 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 part 2 and part 3 to catch up so far.

This day, 8 April 2010, was the most intense day of the course. It started innocently enough but as the night closed in, the knots were harder to untie.

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

Thursday April 8, 2010

Last night I stayed awake until I hit over 40,000 words total word count on my manuscript. I unleashed. I did what Morag said to do - kicked down the bedroom door.

"Be impertinent!" she told me. And I was, even though I squirmed writing some of it.

It is so hard, having only known Ruth as a fairly asexual being, the 85 year old woman with the musical laugh, and her husband whom I know only from glowing memoirs and warnings not to say anything to tarnish their reputations. With all this in mind, I was never going to venture much further from the chocolate box school of romance, as Morag put it.

I was incredibly uncomfortable - for all my voyeuristic tendencies I'm surprisingly easy to offput - but the words were put down. I liked them. I then followed Morag's advice of transporting the two characters to somewhere and doing something that I have completely invented.

"Put them in a place you know they never went, doing something you know they never did. Completely invent it. See if it opens up something, see if you have fun with it. Then you might have your answer." she said to me yesterday.

So I put them in Amsterdam, in the late 1930s, exploring the red light district. The promiscuity they witness opens up a dialogue between them about their pasts. I borrowed a few things from the stories and experiences shared by various men in my life over the years - things that greatly disturbed me at the time (and still do a little). I figured I might as well put the anguish to good use.

I've made more progress in the last 48 hours than I have in the past year. Suddenly, this book is breathing, it has lungs. It is still on life support, but I know it will wake up and walk. One day.

This retreat has been good for me. Days that start with structured exercises, then food and tea, and then the afternoon to spend as I please - I read, I write, sometimes I nap! I have found myself incredibly tired in the late afternoons. So much mental energy. I would like to have a charger for my creativity, like my mobile. If only it were that easy.

It's wonderful to have the space to think about the book and what shape it might take. I thought I had to accept my original idea and specifications from elsewhere as it. Finito. Now there is room to move, there is freedom in what I'm doing. I'm still frightened, but not in the same way. 

In this morning's group writing class, we explored "points of view". We had to write a list of 5 fights we'd either witnessed or been involved in, then pick one and write about it from all these different viewpoints. Very interesting! I picked a lovers tiff I witnessed while back in Hobart last year. It was at midnight, and the guy was threatening to throw himself into the Derwent because the girl had just said "I don't wanna go out with you anymore!". He sprinted off towards the waterfront. We kept walking and came across him a few minutes later, on his phone, tearfully saying "it's me. I'm coming back." I wonder where they are now.

Later, 4.50pm.

Have just had a meeting with Tim Pears, the other tutor here - we were encouraged to have one-on-one sessions with both the tutors. It has buoyed my spirits but left me a little confused. He really liked what I showed him. "It's great!" he said, "keep going!". There didn't seem to be any of the novel/biography confusion that was evident in the excerpts I showed Morag yesterday. So I was puzzled. It's great? Keep going? That was the last thing I expected to hear. 

Tim is such an interesting man. His eyes are a vivid deep blue, like pieces of broken Spode china - they sparkle, and are so kind. 

We talked a lot about me feeling obligated to the true story, to the people in the book as they were in living and breathing form, and about me feeling like a slave to the truth, constrictive as it is. He suggested perhaps I write a short non fiction piece, like an article, about them that is true, and then I will have, in a sense, fulfilled my obligation to tell the true story, and then I'll be free to do as I wish. An interesting idea.

I told Tim that there was a part of me that was still 17, the massive over-achiever at high school, who thought I would have done so much more by now, and that if I don't have something finished by the time I'm 30 I'll feel like a bit of a failure.

"How old are you now?" he asked, eyes twinkling.

"28. 29 next month," I answered.

"Oooh! There's still time!" he laughed. A pause. "No, seriously, I don't think anyone should publish a novel before they're 40."

Interesting. [2017: Very Interesting.]

The group writing exercises we've been doing have encouraged us to write in the now - as in what is happening this very moment, and to describe it with as much detail as we can. One exercise we did on Tuesday we had to recall memorable meals and describe every crumb, every every bite, every sip. It was so much fun. Inspired by this, last night I wanted to write a scene where my characters make and eat garlic bread. It was well after midnight. I felt twitchy, knowing there was real garlic bread leftover from dinner downstairs in the kitchen. I thought what better way to bring it alive with detail than writing it while eating that leftover garlic bread? It would be cold, of course, but I knew it would be delicious. As a child there was nothing I liked better than cold garlic bread, leftover from my parents dinner parties. So I walked carefully down the deserted hall, down the stairs and through the (also deserted) main room where the fire was still going, into the kitchen. I broke off a few pieces from the leftover loaf and scampered back up to my room. My heart was pounding! (why?! Probably because I thought I was going to get caught and told off!)

I wrote the scene, described them making it and eating it. I don't think it would have been a common thing back in 1940 but I wrote that it was made because of one of them was reminiscing about a trip to France. Ruth's garden also conveniently revealed a flourishing garlic plant.

Hey, I'm the writer! I can make it up!

The bread was still a bit warm, and my fingers glistened with butter. My tongue burned a little with the heat of fresh garlic. 

I also had a small bowl of ripe strawberries, which I ate afterwards to get rid of the garlic breath. Strawberries were also often a leftover at my mother and father's dinner parties. Sometimes they were chocolate dipped. Very pleasant sensory memories! I felt nine years old again, before I cared about calories, fat and weight watchers points, and the correct time of day to eat something. All I cared about back then was taste, pleasure, and satisfaction.

Later. 8.22pm.

AARGH!! This is so hard! From where I'm sitting right now I can't see where I'll end up. But I'm still sitting here. I will make progress before the day is out.

I wrote down all the questions I'm trying to answer with this novel. There is one answer for all of them. But what is it?! I feel like a very reluctant detective.

It feels like knitting. I'm a horrible knitter. I drop stitches. I can't cast on. I always need help from people who are so much better at it than me. Knots, holes, everywhere. 

Later. 12.03am.

Knots untied to the extent of 1,000 words. All of them rubbish. These characters are dummies -they are incapable of movement or speech. They just sit there. Blood from a stone. All this pressure I've put on myself for this to be a masterpiece.....the bar has been set so high I can't even see it.

This thing doesn't even have a plot. It's just a load of "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened." - the kind of stuff I was writing in primary school. My eyes start swimming when I try to read over. One big blur. That's what my novel is. I want the answers but they won't come.

Nothing will unlock. I feel like I need to light a candle and pray.

And what did the final day and night reveal? Find out tomorrow.