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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.

from the archives: my experience on an arvon novel writing course (part 5)

Another suitcase in another hall.....

Another suitcase in another hall.....

This week 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 , 3 and 4 to catch up so far.

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

Friday 9th April 2010

The last full day on the Arvon course. Hard to believe, really. It's been amazing what writing something every day has done for me. It's reemphasised to me just how important it is, as any successful writer will tell you, to just show up every day and write. It doesn't matter what you write, or whether it's any good. You just have to do it. It sounds easy, doesn't it? But the truth is, it's hard. It's very, very hard. If it were easy, there would be no need for courses like this really. I don't know what my own reasons for avoidance have been - perhaps a whole host of psychological barriers it would take a textbook to explain, perhaps just pure laziness. Wanting to get out there and live life rather than just write about it, maybe.

This morning was our final class, with Morag, on plot. She showed us a photo she'd taken on holiday in New Zealand a few months ago. It was a sign in a shop window. We had to come up with a character, a set of circumstances and a things that gave them solace, grief and uncertainty. From this we were to develop a plot.

I don't think I stopped writing for the entire two hours. I was completely lost in it. Words, ideas, energy just flew out of me. Facts, history, real life timelines had no place. It was just up to me, so off I went.

Until that moment, I had forgotten how much fun writing is. I hadn't written this way since I was at school - well over ten years. Something was unlocked. My cheeks were pink and my eyes were bright. I felt energised, happy and excited about what I'd written. It's been ages since I've felt like that.

Went and had lunch, and then joined some of the girls on a little drive down to Loch Ness. Snapped photos of the vast, impressive Loch. You only have to look at it to know that it's bottomless.

Then we returned to Moniack and I went upstairs to work. I was still buzzing with the energy of what I'd written earlier. I loaded up The Memory of Us and stared at the last bit I'd written, feeling dull. My eyes hurt looking at it. I didn't want to try and write anything. The energy I had from earlier was bouncing off that impenetrable, invisible wall.

I was so very frustrated. I picked up my journal and reread the story I'd written by hand in my journal that morning. It was pretty good, I thought. It sparkled. It had wit and vivacity and a sense of fun - all things I want my writing to have. So I just thought I'd type it up, from the notes. Just to have my fingers moving, to be doing something instad of sitting there, stewing, feeling frustrated.

So I typed it up and enjoyed every minute of it. Tweaked a few things, but I typed away until I got to the natural point of conclusion and then sat back and surveyed the work I'd done. Two hours had just flown by.

Then I had to think about what I was going to read at the group gathering that evening. Everyone had been asked to read a small selection of their work - it could be anything we wished, anything we were particularly pleased with or attached to, anything we felt showcased us well as writers.

So I clicked my mouse over the still open Memory of Us document. Read through it. Well, skim read it really. All the words and thoughts blurred together. It really is the dullest thing on the face of the earth. Well, maybe I'm being too harsh. I noted a few random paragraphs where I thought "that's pretty good" or "I like that", but these were just lone paragraphs, unrelated, from different parts of the story. I had to read aloud for at least 5 minutes and I had maybe 60 seconds worth that I was happy with?!

Then it hit me. 127 pages. Over 40,000 words. And there wasn't any significant chunk of it I felt was worth reading aloud to people. I felt like I'd been whacked in the chest.

And then I looked at the story I'd just written. Granted, it was only a first draft and wasn't perfect, but I liked it! It had something! I liked Viv and Rose and Col. I wanted to know more about them. I wanted to know what happened at the Auckland Cup. I wanted to know what happened to that ten dollar note that Helen Clark used to pay for the brooch.

I wanted to read that story aloud. I felt that those couple of hours I'd spent on that story had revealed so much about what kind of writer I want to be.

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

Yes, I'm terrible and will make you wait for the next bit. Ha ha!! :) 

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.....