There was a time I believed I’d never be able to go on a residential writing course. They weren’t cheap, I felt as if I’d be frittering away precious household resources and I’d be away from the family for the best part of a week. But when Iron Press advertised a short course for contributors to their magazine at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge I leapt at the chance.
Peter Mortimer had been editing Iron Magazine with Ian McMillan for a couple of years. We discovered this was the first time they’d actually met! Luckily they got on well. We walked to the pub in Heptonstall, laughed a lot, shared ideas and took turns to help cook a meal for the whole group. At the end of the week we photocopied our own magazine. Some of our writings found their way into Iron. Ian McMillan went on to front The Verb on Radio 3, as well as having a career as a stand-up performance poet.
That week I discovered The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran in the library and made friends with the late Tony Charles who I admired so much as a poet and a person. Later I would go to his wedding in Somerset.
That’s a writing course for you. The lasting friendships are priceless. I think of Alison Leonard whose book about the writing life, Telling our Stories, had made me feel so much less isolated. When I’d finished it I wrote to her, care of her publisher, to say how much it had meant to me, but received no reply. This was before the easy days of email.
So when I heard later that she was running a course in North Wales with Rose Flint about spirituality in writing I enrolled. I introduced myself to Alison as soon as I got there, expecting a reaction, but she didn’t know who I was – my letter hadn’t been passed on. She was mortified. It turned out she liked my writing, though. I felt blessed. That course took place in Cae Mabon, an ecological clearing by an icy lake, almost an Iron Age village with a beautiful thatched roundhouse as its centrepiece. Our group met and read and talked there and it was truly magical, full of emotion and inspiration. I remember sitting on a grassy bank in the sun trying to explain how I wrote about characters. It might have been the first time I took my writing seriously. Years later Alison wrote a beautiful review of my second novel for The Friend magazine.
I still keep the invaluable ’twenty rules for novel writing’ which were handed out at another Lumb Bank course. My memories of that week are strong, too – a glimpse of Ted Hughes sitting in the study, walks down into the river valley, the sound of heated discussion drifting out onto the lawns, lots of creativity. One of the tutors, Daphne Glazer, later became a friend when our novels were published by Tindal Street Press. We even did some readings together and still exchange real letters.
I try and think what it is I’ve got out of these few-and-far-between shots of the writing life. Certainly they’ve been a chance to spend time with writers I admire, to learn new techniques and share my own work. Listening to like-minded students and contributing to discussions and workshops always gives me a greater sense of who I am as a writer. Writing in beautiful surroundings, whether a roundhouse, a garden or a library is an inspiration. A residential course is a wonderful chance to drop out of day-to-day life and concentrate on being a writer. When I come home I feel as though I’ve been away for a month. I am energised.
At the heart of it though, are relationships. It’s the encounters I remember, with tutors and fellow-students – the simple exchange of advice in a workshop, a shared task, a piece of practical help. These, and their uncountable long-term dividends reverberate through my writing life long after the buzz of the experience has levelled off and the techniques have been embedded or forgotten.