Away with words

There are no dis­trac­tions, or wifi, at Robert Hull’s fic­tion-writ­ing re­treat – but such a wealth of ca­ma­raderie and ex­pert tu­ition that he leaves buzzing with cre­ativ­ity and short story ideas

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De­spite the glow­er­ing weather, the 1½-mile walk from my cre­ative writ­ing re­treat at the 16th-cen­tury manor house of Totleigh

Bar­ton is in­vig­o­rat­ing. The re­mote west Devon land­scape is heavy with win­ter; it’s stark and ele­men­tal but also evoca­tive and, most im­por­tantly, thought-pro­vok­ing. Be­ing in the wilds gives me the time and space to work out what needs to change in my short story, and how.

Just be­low Sheep­wash, the River Tor­ridge is in flood. Swollen by days of rain, it has burst its banks, block­ing a road into the vil­lage I’d in­tended to visit. On a hump­back bridge, my walk is halted: wa­ter surges around the bridge’s north­ern flank, as well as be­neath it. Na­ture has its vic­tory but – on the penul­ti­mate af­ter­noon of the Ar­von fic­tion writ­ing course – I’ve been gifted the metaphor to de­scribe all that the week-long re­treat has given me: a tor­rent of ad­vice, in­sight, pos­i­tiv­ity, ca­ma­raderie, a note­book brim­ming with ideas – and the knowl­edge that my walk­ing boots def­i­nitely leak.

The poets John Moat and John Fair­fax founded Ar­von in 1968 with the aim of giv­ing young writ­ers the chance to de­velop their skills. The first res­i­den­tial course was held at a Devon com­mu­nity cen­tre but, in 1972, the manor house at Totleigh Bar­ton be­came its proper home. Fur­ther cen­tres at Ted Hughes’s for­mer home, Lumb Bank in Heb­den Bridge (1975), and The Hurst in Shrop­shire (1999), were added to what is now a char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tion known as the Ar­von Foun­da­tion.

Ar­von cour­ses ex­tend be­yond po­etry and fic­tion to in­clude non-fic­tion and mem­oir, song­writ­ing, screen­writ­ing, play­writ­ing and ra­dio dra­mas – and cater for all lev­els of ex­pe­ri­ence. Its list of alumni is im­pres­sive and I’m sure for many who at­tend there is also the draw of be­ing taught by es­tab­lished writ­ers and artists, as well as a visit from a guest speaker: ours is Jane Har­ris (Sugar Money; Gille­spie and I).

After the walk, I re­turn, con­tent, to my sparse, func­tional writer’s quar­ters in one of Totleigh Bar­ton’s sev­eral out­build­ings (some in my 10-strong group have rooms in the main house). The af­ter­noon falls into a fa­mil­iar, com­fort­ing and pro­duc­tive rou­tine. I re-read a story

I have been work­ing on and make changes sug­gested dur­ing a tu­to­rial, along with those prompted by the walk. As writ­ers do, I gaze out of the win­dow – into the gar­den and at the farm­land be­yond – and jot down ideas, as well as mak­ing notes on the novel ex­tracts one of our tu­tors has pro­vided for in­spi­ra­tion. Dis­trac­tions are few. Here – more than 10 miles from Oke­hamp­ton, the near­est mod­estly sized town – there is no wifi: emails do not ar­rive, the in­ter­net is a far­away land. There are no TVs and mo­bile phone sig­nal only ap­pears at around the sec­ond cat­tle grid … about five min­utes’ walk from the manor. This af­ter­noon, as with those be­fore it, all I have to re­mem­ber is that com­mu­nal din­ner is served at 7pm.

A writ­ing course may not seem like a re­treat in the con­ven­tional sense but I find the ditch­ing of dis­trac­tions and be­ing part of a like-minded group is an up­lift­ing mix of fo­cus, con­tem­pla­tion and en­cour­age­ment. It’s im­por­tant to me that the week (which starts with ice-break­ing in­tro­duc­tions on Mon­day af­ter­noon and ends with emo­tional good­byes on Satur­day morn­ing) is not all about iso­la­tion.

At the first ses­sion, in the manor house’s barn, our tu­tors tells us about them­selves: Rachel Seif­fert (A Boy in Win­ter; the Man Booker-short­listed The Dark Room) and Jonathan Buck­ley (The Great Con­cert of the Night and win­ner of the 2015 Na­tional Short Story Award for Briar Road). They en­cour­age us to do the same and share how far along in our writ­ing jour­ney we are. Some have writ­ten a novel, oth­ers a work in progress. A few have not writ­ten be­fore. I have some short sto­ries, and ideas I don’t yet have a home for.

The cen­tre’s ami­able staff pro­vide our break­fast and lunch but din­ner is im­por­tant at Ar­von – as it’s pre­pared by writ­ers for the rest of the group (yes, there’s a rota drawn up). Each evening, two or three of us make the meal, with the as­sis­tance of recipe cards and over­seen by the house cook.

Our days are punc­tu­ated by com­mu­nal meals, where we share and solve writ­ing prob­lems or chat about books and writ­ers we love. Morn­ings in­volve work­shops with our tu­tors: Rachel has us try­ing out writ­ing tasks and pro­vides nar­ra­tive in­sight, while Jonathan’s chap­ter ex­tracts fo­cus our minds on the myr­iad styles and tech­niques for start­ing a novel. Each af­ter­noon as I go back to my room, or get cosy by the manor house fire, my mind buzzes with pos­si­bil­i­ties for how to de­velop the sto­ries I have – and, even bet­ter, I have the time to work on them.

There are epipha­nies, too, which come cour­tesy of the one-to-ones each tu­tor pro­vides. Jonathan’s ad­vice al­lows me to see a struc­ture for a novel based on one of my short sto­ries. Rachel points out where a story needs fo­cus and suc­cinctly shows the im­por­tance of not putting con­straints on an idea. “Is this a novel, novella or short story?” I ask. I don’t have to know, she sug­gests. I just have to write and see where that leads me.

That thought stays with me, not just for the free­dom it in­jects into that piece of writ­ing, but be­cause its pos­i­tiv­ity sums up what the course pro­vides: a frame­work for cre­ativ­ity and the en­thu­si­asm to carry it for­ward.

• Ar­von five-night cour­ses start from £745pp in­clud­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion and meals. De­tails on 2019 cour­ses at ar­

Mak­ing and mend­ing Hamp­shire

A Nest of Gen­tle Mak­ers is a new twice-yearly week­end re­treat in Min­stead in the New For­est, with a fo­cus on gen­tle cre­ativ­ity in a re­lax­ing en­vi­ron­ment. There are ses­sions with an artist and il­lus­tra­tor, pro­duc­ing draw­ings, col­lages, rub­bings and prints in­spired by na­ture; a stitch­ing work­shop, based on a Ja­panese patch­work tech­nique; a guided walk in the for­est; and three yoga ses­sions. Guests stay in heated tipis or shep­herd’s huts; food is largely veg­e­tar­ian and in­cludes a bar­be­cue and a din­ner around the camp­fire.

• £370 full-board, 10-12

May and 11-13 Oc­to­ber, anestof­gentle­mak­

Boat­build­ing and other crafts Scot­land

Ar­chi­pel­ago Folkschool runs short res­i­den­tial craft cour­ses in beau­ti­ful ar­eas of Scot­land. They range from a week­end spoon-carv­ing course (£200, 10-12 May) to a week learn­ing black­smithing (£950, 6-13 April), both on a farm in Lochgoil­head, Ar­gyll & Bute. Boat­build­ing is the main fo­cus, though: this year there is a “build your own sea kayak” course and a women’s boat­build­ing week, both on a croft on the Isle of Mull. Ac­com­mo­da­tion ranges from tents and hos­tels to home­s­tays. As well as teach­ing prac­ti­cal skills, these re­treats pro­mote par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­mu­ni­ties and con­nec­tion with the en­vi­ron­ment.

• Boat­build­ing from £750, women’s course 8-15 June, sea kayaks 3-11 Au­gust, archipelago­

Arts and crafts West Sus­sex

West Dean Col­lege of Arts and Con­ser­va­tion near Chich­ester holds week-long cre­ative re­treats over the sum­mer. There are al­most 30 sub­jects on of­fer, from draw­ing, paint­ing and sculpt­ing to jew­ellery mak­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy. Each in­cludes vis­its to lo­cal arts venues, an op­tional trip to the Chich­ester Fes­ti­val The­atre and an end-ofweek party. Ac­com­mo­da­tion is in the Grade II-listed manor house, the old vicarage or an an­nexe in the col­lege’s park­land. There are also one-day work­shops (such as sil­ver­smithing, £125) and three-day cour­ses (gar­den de­sign, say, £372).

• Sum­mer schools from £771

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