‘….the Dickens caravan consisted of six children, Anne and two nurses, Roche the courier, Dickens, Catherine and Georgina, and the…dog Timber.’
Claire Tomalin, ‘Charles Dickens – A Life’, 2011
At the beginning of this month, 15 OCA students spent six days together on OCA’s first residential writing retreat in partnership with The Arvon Foundation, a charity founded in 1968. Arvon, a flagship organisation of the literary world, offers 150 residential courses for writers each year in four historic houses around Britain. For OCA, Arvon was the natural choice for our first venture into residential courses as OCA and Arvon share the aim of helping writers find their creative voice. Running under the deliberately broad theme of Stretching the Boundaries, the residential gave OCA and Arvon the chance to find out how OCA students of differing levels of experience would respond to an additional way of developing their craft.
What do writers want? Most, of whatever level of expertise, would reply ‘time to write’. OCA creative writing students talk about the structure that open learning gives them to develop their writing. Some combine open learning at OCA with occasional residential retreats, where they can focus on developing their ideas with an intensity that family and work commitments do not permit day-to-day.
It’s a struggle the legendarily hyperactive and over-committed novelist Charles Dickens would have recognised. When he felt the distractions of London becoming too overwhelming for him to resist, he took himself off to Switzerland and Paris in search of the solitude writers crave. Accompanying him was the retinue of people and a pet amusingly described by Claire Tomalin in her 2011 biography, Charles Dickens – A Life.
Of course, he didn’t find solitude, and ‘could not get going with his writing because the box holding his proper writing materials and the small bronze figures he liked to keep on his desk had not yet turned up’. There are times for writers when any distraction will do – and Dickens was no different.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that OCA creative writing students past and present jumped at the chance to spend time working exclusively on their writing in a supportive environment in a remote and beautiful location. One travelled to Yorkshire from the United States, one from Ireland, one from Bangladesh, and three from the Scottish islands. Judging by their enthusiastic response to the time they spent together, the retreat gave them all the space and motivation to write.
Guy, whose short story ‘James’ was commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin competition last year, said: ‘On the last night we sat and listened to each other’s readings and realised that we had all grown, not just as writers but as people.’ He has returned to Ireland with new energy to transform the material in ’22 kilos’, a short story of based on his former London life, into a novel, and has posted on his blog the poems he read to the group on the Friday evening.
Annie Maclean, who is from East Sussex, sums up the experience of many who attend residential writing courses: ‘What it gave me was confidence: confidence that it’s OK to be writing, and confidence that my writing is OK. What surprised me was that we introduced ourselves not with “Who are you and what do you do?” ie Where do you work? – but rather “What is your name and what are you writing?” Every free moment was used for our writing – wonderful!’
Lee McOwan, who is looking for a publisher for her memoir of the poet RS Thomas and has just enrolled on a further course with OCA to help her write the novel she had started before the course began, said: ‘One sunny morning as we were sitting in the dining room doing a workshop with Joanna (Ezekiel, the OCA tutor on the course), there was a flash hailstorm which brought a sparrow-hawk to swoop down and perch on the garden railings for a while just outside the long windows of the house. A magical moment.’
Nikki Howell, who completed ‘Starting to Write’ in 2008 and ‘Writing for Children’ in 2010, travelled to West Yorkshire from Coventry, where she lives with her family. ‘I would be hard pushed to remember a happier few days,’ she says. ‘I believe the course encouraged existing students to persist with their studies and for past students to revisit courses and maybe take up new ones.’
There was praise too for Arvon tutor and novelist Ross Raisin, OCA tutor and poet Joanna Ezekiel, and for guest reader Jane Rogers, who stood down as OCA creative writing curriculum lead following the success of her 2011 novel ‘The Testament of Jessie Lamb’, long listed last year for the Man Booker prize. Jane read from the novel, talked about the process of writing it and discussed the work-in-progress of some of the course participants.
Arvon and OCA are committed to continuing our partnership by offering another course during the course of OCA’s 2012/13 academic year. We’d be very interested to hear what would encourage you to sign up for future courses, whether or not you have just come back from Lumb Bank – what time of year would work best, should the course be aimed at the beginner or the more experienced writer, should we focus on a particular genre?