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.

cleaning the windows

Hello friends. What are you up to? Right now, I'm sipping Melbourne Breakfast tea, feeling a fog behind my eyes I'm not sure is grief, exhaustion, screen fatigue, a bit of a hangover, or all four.

I want to tell you all the lovely things that happened in Australia and how humbled and thrilled I was by the support and love for my little book, everywhere I went. That the whole trip was everything I was hoping for and more. 

But right now I just need to get some stuff out of my head. I hope you’ll bear with me. If you’d rather not, that’s fine, please come back in a few days and I'll tell you all about Australia then. I’m not offended, I promise.

Tom has just cleaned the windows in our house. It's amazing how different everything looks.  We've put off cleaning them for ages, which only made it harder for the light to get in.  So in many ways that's what I'm trying to do here. Clean the windows, because I've been putting it off for so long, but once I do it, things might be easier, maybe even look a bit different too. And ultimately, you've got to take care of your house. It's where you live, after all.

And I've just popped in to the living room to see what Tom's up to, to find that now there's bird shit on one of our newly cleaned windows. What an apt metaphor indeed. 

Life has been quite hard lately. I didn’t disappear on purpose, but our return to the UK was such a crash to earth, that trying to gather my thoughts about everything that's happened has felt either too hard or kind of pointless.  

A week after we got back to the UK, Tom’s mother died. She was terminally ill so it wasn't unexpected - in fact, we were concerned that it might happen while we were away - but the swiftness of it all upon our return was a profound shock. Any plans we had of getting back to normal after our trip were forgotten, we couldn't think much further ahead than the following day, yet life had to resume regardless, we still needed to eat and bills needed to be paid. Having just been away for five weeks, we couldn’t take more time off work to process the loss. The family home is a seven-hour drive away, deep in rural isolation, so our jet-lagged and weary bodies accumulated several more long and tiring journeys.  There was no time to recover, from anything, or to take anything in, really. We just had to keep going.

Seven weeks later, we're still exhausted. I know it's grief - not just for the loss of my mother-in-law, but the sadness I feel every time I return from Australia, as leaving there gets harder each time and I miss my family and friends more and more. Watching my husband go through losing his mother has been heartbreaking, and has made me want to gather my own family close to me. There's also another strange sense of loss with The Latte Years - it isn’t out in bookstores in the UK yet and I got used to seeing it everywhere while we were in Australia. But here, it's nowhere to be seen and therefore it doesn't feel real anymore. I know that sounds overdramatic but I can't think of any other way to put it. That wonderful five weeks in Australia, as well as finally being a published author after so many years of working towards it, now feels like it was all a dream. It has been one brutal crash back to reality, that’s for sure. 

Instead of whatever it was I was expecting life to be like right now, I've got something else and I haven't really known what to do with it. 

And I've realised I'm not very good at letting dust settle. I like to have goals, I like to have things to work towards and look forward to. I like to have a plan. When life isn't going the way I want it to, my strategy has been to shake things up, do something about it, be bold and take life by the horns. But sometimes that just isn't the most appropriate solution. It certainly isn't at the moment. 

I'm learning things about life I don't think I was ready to learn just yet, but I didn't have a choice. And if that's how I feel, then I know it's a thousand times harder for my husband. I've tried to be a rock for him, to be whatever he needs me to be and do whatever he needs me to do. But that's been tricky as well, as grief is so unpredictable and complicated. To say nothing of the guilt that sets in when you just wish this wasn't happening. I am one of life's fixers but I can't fix this. I wish I could.

In the midst of this, I've tried to press on with what I'd planned to do when I got back from Oz and that was to write my next book. I'm sure you can guess how that's been going so far. I've been feeling so lost and wishing circumstances were better, calmer and less mucky for me to begin. But I created an entire book out of the muck that was my life 10 years ago, and everything that came after it. The perfect moment to write The Latte Years never arrived, real life was happening all around me and I had to suck it up and get it done. I was hoping things would be different for Book 2, but alas, it appears life will keep hammering me over the head with this lesson until I get over myself. 

I think that's probably at the core of this - both my inertia at the moment, and my fear of coming back to this space to report, "hey, life actually hasn't been great lately." 

I’ve seen so many writers online talking about ‘the good old days’ of blogging and why can’t it be like that again, more authentic, less polished. I forget that a blog post is just capturing what you're thinking and what is going on for you in that moment. It doesn’t have to stand the test of time. It just has to be written.

And as for the the voice in my head that says “you've got a book out, you can’t just write any old shit and put it on the internet for all to see anymore” - well, I’m telling that voice to fuck off. That’s just fear talking. Fear and I are old friends but it’s starting to get toxic again, where I know it’s not really happy for me and wants to keep me small.

Oh, the deep, deep irony of having written a book about being brave with your life, going after your dreams, believing in yourself, speaking your truth and….that I still have to work on those things every single day. 

The messages of The Latte Years have actually never been more relevant for my life right now. That life is messy and complicated and you’ll never have it all figured out. That just because you reach a goal, it doesn’t mean everything will be plain sailing from there. That if you present nothing but a shiny happy outside to the world, you’ll just end up feeling trapped and lonely. That things not working out as you thought they would really isn’t the end of the world, in fact, it’s often a very good thing. That the only way forward is to just keep going. And that if you've got the love and support of good people in your life, ultimately, everything will be OK. 

I've been thinking about 'what's next' for me ever since The Latte Years went to print nearly six months ago….but maybe it’s OK for me to just be, to let go and see what happens. I don’t know. 

What I do know is that there is no accumulated competence or confidence when it comes to this life and vocation I have chosen, that every day you start again, from scratch. It is a practice, it is a process and it doesn’t have to be perfect. 

Most of all, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude to be alive. Seeing someone I cared for deteriorate over the past year has made me realise how quickly the life you’ve built and all the little pieces of yourself that make up who you are can be snatched away, and there’s nothing you can do when it does. It was tragic to watch. 

I am so grateful for my life. For the gift of good health. For the balm of hope and the heart-lifting joy of true love and friendship. For the little things - spring flowers, the freshness of cold air, the comforting smell of onions and garlic frying. Life, in all its highs and lows, wonders and puzzlements, its many tiny moments of clarity, its storms and sunrises. All of it. I try so hard to never to take it for granted. 

So, yeah, that’s where I am right now. 

Thank you for listening. Here's to keeping it real, eh? *clink* xx

redirect successful

Me with a pencil case I wish I'd bought in Typo, Melbourne Central, on a too-brief visit in June 2013.

Me with a pencil case I wish I'd bought in Typo, Melbourne Central, on a too-brief visit in June 2013.

Now that the redirect on my old site finally seems to be working, I thought I'd write a quick post to say welcome to my new corner of the web!

If you're thinking "WTF Phil...I don't visit your blog for a few months and you've just...moved?!" then please visit my FAQ and fill yourself in there. I think I pretty much covered everything!

Now that my near-10 years at Skinny Latte Strikes Back is at an end, I'm really excited about the new directions I'm going in and keen to share it all with you.

The biggest news is that my husband and I have moved back to the city, after nearly three years out in the country getting a much needed change of scene and perspective. I'm beginning to think that there are two types of people who leave London (and perhaps this applies to all big cities the world over) - some that leave and never return, and others that leave, come back and then never leave again! I suspect Tom and I might be the latter camp...but never say never.

As the last of the boxes is unpacked, I feel more like myself than I have for a long time. The canvas is blank again and my paint brushes are itching to be used. 

There's so much to share with you all and it's coming soon. Thank you for your love and support and patience. I hope you'll continue to share the journey with me.