Rachel Connor works for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, former home of the ex-Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. Along with her colleagues, she hosts groups of writers who come to stay at the writing centre most weeks of the year. She never tires of the view. You can read more about Rachel, her work for Arvon and her forthcoming novel ‘Sisterwives’ on her website at http://www.rachelconnorwriter.com/
Monday morning; there’s the thrum of a lawnmower outside on the lower terrace, the hum of a vacuum cleaner from the landing above. The house is in waiting, being prepared for the sixteen writers and two tutors who will comprise this week’s participants. ‘Arvon has been running these courses for forty three years,’ we tell people in the welcome talk. ‘This week it’s your turn.’
What amazes me every week is how readily most groups grow into their ‘turn’ and claim ownership – not just the physical space of the house itself but a growing into the rhythm of the week. It’s that feeling of wanting to ‘make the most’ of the place, the time, the opportunity to write. Because, let’s face it, it can be a big thing to set aside a week to go away and write, to leave behind families, partners, work and the demands of everyday life. Some make new friends; all go away changed in some way. Some realise that they are writers, when they’ve grappled for years with what that means; others might learn something difficult, fundamental – even unwelcome - about their work. All of these things mean that the writer will grow.
The reason Arvon works is simple: the system works to create not just a writing course, but a place where people come together as a community of writers. It was there right from the beginning, forty three years ago, and is still a keystone of the way the courses run now. As well as attending workshops together, everyone eats around a big table; participants are put into groups for cooking and washing up. By the end of the first evening – the first meal and wash up, the ‘get to know you’ writing session – the bonding is already beginning to happen.
Of course, washing up (or even cooking, for that matter) isn’t to everyone’s liking; there are inevitable grumbles about the lack of dishwasher. But none of this is new. In Lumb Bank’s kitchen we have a framed poem, written in the 1990s, ‘On Lumb Bank Not Having a Dishwasher.’ By the end of the poem, the poet’s initial dismay has been dispelled. It’s deliberate, she realises, because it makes you stop, and look, and think.
And then there are the workshops. As a member of staff at the centre, working in the background, putting away shopping or preparing the lunch, it’s easy to feel like Cinderella. There are the gales of laughter from the dining room, where the group is writing. There are the tantalising snippets of work being read aloud, evidence – afterwards – of an exercise designed to generate and stimulate. Sometimes there are fragments of poems pinned to the walls. More than once I’ve found myself wondering if we might invest in a baby monitor, for the purposes of listening in while I’m making salad.
One of the remarkable things about my job is being witness to countless small but significant moments in people’s writing lives. It might be in the sitting room on a Monday, after everyone has arrived, when a participant realises – perhaps for the first time in their life - they don’t have to explain their motivation for writing. It might be seeing a nervous student waiting outside a closed door before their one to one tutorial with a tutor. They clutch notebooks to chest, faces almost white with anticipation. Then they emerge, butterfly-like, lighter, validated, understood.
For me, the most rewarding weeks are those we run with young people. We might have inner city kids – with little or no experience of the countryside – arriving into the space and green of the valley. They marvel at the ‘wildlife’ and the view. Within minutes they’ve found the piano. Their concentration is tested; they learn new kitchen skills, how to chop an onion. They eat food they never thought they’d try. And writing...with the guidance of two tutors who are chosen for their humour, compassion and sensitivity, these schoolchildren gently open up, petals turned towards light. ‘Miss,’ they say, coming into the kitchen during a coffee break. ‘I’ve wrote a poem, miss, do you want to hear it?’
How could there be any other answer than yes?