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.

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 3)

Aargh - 2010 laptop! 2010 phone! 

Aargh - 2010 laptop! 2010 phone! 

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 to catch up so far.

This day, 7 April 2010, was a wonderful day on the course, and I am grateful to have had such a timely reminder of the lessons and wisdom I gleaned from Morag Joss and Andrew O'Hagan

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


Wednesday April 7, 2010

A difficult day.

Where do I start?

Found the writing exercises difficult in this morning's group writing class. I kept hearing my own voice coming through, as opposed to Ruth's. We had to choose a partner and share our morning's work with them - the gentleman I was paired up with, after hearing my story, revealed to me that in the late 1960s he knew one of Ruth's friends from Palmers Green, whom I mention a lot in the novel as he became a famous novelist. It set me on fire. The coincidences and bizarre twists of fate never seem to stop with this story.

I then sailed through the afternoon writing about Ruth and her husband meeting their novelist friend, who I have used another name for - I've named him after my dear friend and collaborator Neil - and I was so engrossed I missed by 2.40pm appointment with my tutor Morag! I ended up coming back when Morag was free at 3.20pm. I was filled with the ecstasy of having worked, really worked, on the piece for the first time in eternity.

I had given Morag two sections of The Memory of Us to read. She had a lot to say.

She said that I wrote beautifully - there were some parts of what I'd written that were very evocative indeed. But she was confused. Was I writing a novel, or a biography? Because from where she was sitting, The Memory of Us is a biography, just written in Ruth's voice. We talked a lot about the process of turning a true story into a piece of fiction. It is inevitable that you have to make stuff up, you can't just stick rigidly to the events as they happened.

"No one's life is a plot, really, is it?" she said.

I revealed some of my fears to her about the story, and told her a bit more about the obstacles and barriers I'd encountered along the way. Morag said many things to me, all of which I already knew deep down to be true. Particularly about needing to flesh out my characters properly, as people, not just people on pedestals. "You've got to be really impertinent," Morag urged, "you've got to kick down the bedroom door and find out what's really going on with these people. At the moment, it's all a bit too....chocolate box-y."

When a piece of work is so close to you, you know its flaws, its holes and gaps. You know what the problems are. But it was still very difficult to hear. Not difficult in the sense that I didn't agree with her, I completely agreed with her! But having someone else say these things to me would mean I would have to face it, do something. It felt like when I've been to see my counsellor, and I've come away with clarity, but so much to work on. When you've shone the light on something, that's it. There's no going back. You can't kept working blindly any more.

Morag was so kind, and I could tell that she really believed in me. But having had a person who I respected confirm my worst fears about the book, I spent the rest of the afternoon filled with dread. What the hell was I going to do with myself over the next few days, if all I was going to end up doing was shoving this manuscript in a drawer?!

I mentally prepared myself for a night in the desert (NB: spelled "dessert" in my diary originally! ha ha). I thought I would have no choice but to sit with my journal for hours, writing whatever was in my head until the answer came. If it came.

I was on dinner duty, so went down to the kitchen about 4.30pm and helped cook the meal for the group with the people I was teamed up with. Their company was easy and friendly. I focused on my task of preparing the mini meringue nests with as much alacrity as I could muster.

After dinner, the novelist Andrew O'Hagan came to speak. He read from his new novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn MonroeI found him fascinating. One of the students whispered to me that he reminded her of a young W.B Yeats. It must have been the glasses :) He had so much wisdom to impart, and I was like a vampire, wanting to feed on it all. Morag, before I had a chance to raise my hand, asked Andrew to share his experience of turning a true story into a novel as a few students - she looked at me - had been faced with this.

As Andrew opened his mouth to speak, I had a moment where I just knew every word would be gold and I wanted to memorise everything he was saying. My pen was poised at the ready! 

He said that stories belong to everyone. Nobody's story is theirs and theirs alone. When you live in this world and die in this world, your story belongs to the world. The world can use it and take from it what it wishes.

But what stayed with me the most was when Andrew said that we should never be worried about offending people with our writing, or whether people are going to be upset with us if we write about something that actually happened that doesn't fit with their version or perception of events. He said, "you don't have to apologise for being interested in this story." So many works of literature have been based on the life/lives of real people - Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, to name but a few....there's nothing wrong with finding a story that inspires you, and then telling it your way.

It was like a light suddenly went on in my head. All this time I've been thinking that I could only write this story a certain way, to keep other people happy. But sticking slavishly to the facts and the timeline has got me nowhere. The facts have no life, no oxygen. I must bring them to life. The potency of my work depends on my inventive power. At the moment, that power is running low. To make my novel what I want it to be, I'm going to have to dispense with getting everything right. After all I, as the writer, have ultimate sovereignty, Andrew said. 

He truly was an inspiring man. I went up to him afterwards to thank him for his insightful words - I actually hugged him! Don't know what he must have thought of that, but anyway. Andrew O'Hagan, I will build a shrine to you, you are my God.

Then I went upstairs and wrote until 2am.

And then things took another turn.

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 2)

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.

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


I arrived at Moniack Mhor on April 5th, after a day travelling up from London on the train. On the first night, dinner was cooked for us and we socialised a little, getting to know the other students and the two tutors, Morag and Tim, who were going to be guiding us through the week. It was an exciting night, and held a lot of promise for the week to come. I went to bed fairly early, I remember. I heard rain beat against my window, like handfuls of stones. My favourite way to fall asleep.

The way the course was structured was that the group met for writing classes in the mornings, from 10.00am to 12.00pm. This wasn't compulsory, but nearly everyone showed up for them and they really were a great way to get the writing day started. After our morning's work, everyone would go off and do their own thing for the afternoon. We were encouraged to make afternoon appointments with the tutors to show them our work and get feedback. The group of 15-16 students were split into groups over the week to do cooking duty once - the rest of the time you just showed up in the dining room and found dinner waiting for you! The evenings usually had some group activity on as well which, again, was optional.

What follows is an excerpt from my journal on the first day of the course.

Tuesday 6th April 2010

And so the Arvon course has begun. I am currently on my own in my tiny room, listening to Gershwin on my iPod speakers, breathing in the smell of mint tea brewing in my pink and white striped mug, noticing melted chocolate under my finger nails. I have spent the past hour and a half re-reading The Memory of Us (*the working title of my novel). And now I feel tired.

That is exactly how I feel most of the time whenever I think about it. Tired. Heavy. Bone weary. This mountain I have tried so hard to climb....well, come on Phil, how hard have you tried to climb it? Lately you haven't been trying at all. I keep telling myself not to worry, not to concern myself with what other people are doing. Just do what I came here to do. This is what I've been dreaming of. Time and space away from it all. To write.

I've got to stop worrying. About whether what I'm doing is as good as or on the same level as what others here are doing. About Ruth's surviving family and what they might do or say to me if the story isn't to their liking. 

I like the people on the course with me. I think the ability level in the group is very even. I feel out of my depth, however. The others here seem to have a coherent story, one that seems to flow logically. I have so many issues and obstacles. Well, perhaps that's my problem. I keep focusing on the hurdles. But bloody hell, I can't even write a synopsis for the damn thing. People ask what my novel is about and I don't know where to start. It turns into a long rambling speech when I should be able to tell them in a few sentences. 

But it's amazing what having paid a small fortune for the privilege of being here will do for your productivity. I'm just telling myself to get the hell on with it. And, incredibly, I am. In between naps, reading and a few chocolate gingers. Still not convinced what I'm coming out with is any good....but still. Words are coming.

Continued tomorrow.....

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 1)

O n the inside, looking out?   My room on the Arvon course at Moniack Mhor,   Inverness, Scotland - April 2010

On the inside, looking out? My room on the Arvon course at Moniack Mhor, Inverness, Scotland - April 2010

This week, it's been seven years since I went on the Arvon course that changed the course of my writing life. It was on that course that I realised my work needed to go in a different direction. A week or so after I returned, I began the first, most embryonic (and unrecognisable!) draft of what five years later would become my first published book, The Latte Years

I wrote about the experience on my blog at the time, which I archived about five years ago now, and a few days ago I spent a fun nostalgic few hours looking through all those old posts. Ironically, I think that blog was a far more honest blog than the other one I kept at the time, the one that was more popular. Green Ink showed the real me, rather than just one side of me. I feel excited to explore all of that again, in this space. 

I loved sharing my Arvon experience and so I thought, for fun, I'd repost them here. I haven't been on another course since, but I hope that will change in the near future! It really was the start of a new chapter and I remember it with nothing but fondness. I think a few things have changed in the intervening years - the centre where I did my course, Moniack Mhor, is no longer part of Arvon but an independent writing centre, I believe, but I would still highly recommend Arvon. I can only imagine the courses themselves have got better as the years have gone by! 

So, if you'd like to travel to a writing retreat in Scotland with me in 2010, please read on! I'll post all of them over the next few days, to coincide with the seven years that have passed.


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

I went to Arvon to work on a novel I've been trying to write for three years.

To give you a bit of background: this novel was inspired by the life of a woman I knew as a child, who was a writer. Like myself, she was born in to a large family in Tasmania (75 years earlier than me) and then came to England in her mid twenties with a desire for adventure and to live where the great poets and writers lived. She didn't bank on getting caught up in the second world war, however, nor on meeting a poet who became her husband. After barely surviving the war, they returned to Tasmania on an extended holiday but ended up staying there for the rest of their lives. As well as writing, they were campaigners for social justice and also heavily involved and interested in environmental causes which came into the spotlight in the 1970s. Her husband died in the early 1980s, the year I was born actually, and she mourned him the rest of her life. 

I knew her only for three brief years. My family and I had moved into a house two doors down from hers when I was ten years old. I don’t really recall how we became a part of each other’s lives, but in the two years we lived in that house in Mount Stuart, she became as much of a friend to me as my school friends my own age – but more so. This was someone whose wisdom and experience and knowledge I was in awe of, and I soaked everything she told me up like a dry sponge. I used to run down to her house every afternoon after school and show her, with childish pride, my latest story or poem, and always, without fail, she would praise it, and make me think that one day, one day, I could see something I had written in a book too. 

We became very close, even though the only way we communicated was through writing things down (she had lost her hearing through illness some fifteen years earlier). I remember her house being filled with paper, like a park is filled with golden leaves in the autumn. Everywhere you looked, there was paper.

Ruth was my first mentor, and the person who made me want to be a writer. She passed away when I was thirteen. I was devastated. Yet somehow, I knew her spirit had not left.

Fast forward to 2006. I was nearly 25. I started writing a short story, and the voice that came out of it was unmistakably Ruth's. I had not consciously thought of her for many years at that point. But as I tried to write about the love story, her meeting her husband in London in the last golden years of the thirties, my own world was collapsing. Writing about a wonderful marriage when my own had reached its inevitable painful end, and writing about someone following their dreams when I was too scared to even walk into a travel agent to book a ticket to London, was a harder task than I could manage. The story was put away.

2007. I had just moved to London. I started my first job, in Bloomsbury, and I found myself thinking about Ruth all the time. I got out the book she compiled in tribute to her husband, Forty Friends, which I had for some reason brought with me. I discovered that her place of work, in the late 1930s, was only a block away from my own. The story was brought out again. It was full of holes and gaps. But I wrote and wrote and wrote, try to get blood out of the stone, and for a while, thought of little else.

There were so many coincidences and uncanny twists of fate that led me closer to Ruth's story. I was so convinced that I had found my life's purpose. I lived on the same street as she had, at one point (unknowingly). The story was there. I was literally walking around in it. And yet writing it was harder than I had ever thought it would be.

There have been many obstacles and barriers to writing this novel, some not appropriate to mention in a public forum such as this. Not that I fear any repercussions, you understand, it's just that in writing this novel I've begun to understand how protective people are about their memories, and their versions of the truth. The ironic thing is that I didn't set out to tell the truth, just a story. But somehow my mind got knotted and lost. My imagination got confused about what it was supposed to be doing - telling the truth, or making something up. It abandoned me, fed up with all my empty promises. I think writing a novel based on a true story is so much harder than writing something you completely imagine. You get caught in the crossfire between accuracy and authenticity. 

There were epiphanies though, over the last two years. There were nights where I woke up, reached for a pen and some paper in a half asleep state, and scrawled the title of the novel as it has come to me in a dream, over and over, for fear the pen might have no ink in it. There were photos my father found. There was an LP with Ruth's voice on it, found on some obscure website for £10. 

And still the words would not come.

I told myself that life had got in the way. Love, marathons, travelling, a full time job in publishing, a penchant for the Kings Road on a Sunday. If only I had time and space, and no distractions. If I told myself that often enough, I kind of believed it. 

And, suddenly, it was 2010. The novel had not been touched for many months. 

I read the description for an Arvon course for those with a "work in progress".  Fall in love with your novel again, it promises. That is exactly what I need, I thought. I need to find out what the hell I'm doing with this beast of a story, and whether it wants to be told. I need to find the love that motivated me to tell this story in the first place.

After some deliberation, I booked on the course with money my beloved grandmother left me, hoping she would approve. I toasted to my bravery and hopeful success. As the weeks flew past and the course date drew closer I felt equal amounts of terror and excitement. Somehow I knew this would be crunch time, that whatever was revealed to me I couldn't come back from. 

At 7.55am, on Monday 5 April 2010, the train left Kings Cross station, bound for Inverness. It did not leave from Platform 9 and 3/4, though I hoped that magic was in the air. I was going to need all the help I could get.

To be continued.....

A PS from 2017: the words for this novel now seem to be coming. I knew it would have its time. I wonder if now is it.