My Experience Of Residential Writing Workshops

by limebirdsally

Limebirdkate, aka the terrifyingly-named 4am writer (yes that’s a literally-derived nom de plume) recently wrote a really useful post on her personal blog talking about  writing workshops, focusing particularly on online workshops. It fired up some rusted-over memory nodes towards the back of my brain on a residential writing course I went on a few years ago run by the Arvon Foundation (oo, I’ve just seen their snazzy website – it was a little course book when I booked my course!) The Arvon Foundation is a charity that runs five-day residential creative writing courses in Britain, with each course focusing on a specific genre. I went on a creative writing for adults course down in Devon.

(Image from Arvon Foundation website)

At the time each course was delivered by two tutors. On my course one was a vibrant published author who also taught a creative writing course at University. I found her inspiring and engaging. The other was a meek, three-figure-book-deal published author who’d just delivered the third book of his deal after working on the books for three years and confessed to being in a bit of a daze throughout the course. I remember one interesting conversation where he commented that as amazing as a £100k book deal might sound, by the time you’ve taken various fees, tax and spread it out over three years you’re looking at a pretty low income! Perhaps under different circumstances he would have been more lively, but it felt as if he was just coasting along the course, so was less use as a teacher.

So the course. I was a huge swot at school (life’s so much easier when you love doing the things that society tells you, you should be doing!) so I personally thrived on heading over to the class studio with my notepad for each morning of fun exercises and sticking up my hand to answer the teacher’s questions (yes, I’m that girl). I can’t remember many of the details now, but there were exercises such as describing your protagonist from the perspective of other characters, which was useful for giving them three-dimensionality; and offering a critique on a selection of poems. Afternoons were clear for your own writing and during the course of the week we had one tutorial with each tutor where they critiqued a sample of our work. There was also a cooking and cleaning rosta.

During the evenings each of the tutors read some of their work and on one night we each took turns to read some of our own works-in-progress to the group – again being that girl I loved it, but some of the others were terrified! One night there was a visiting author, who read from her book in a dreary, affected voice. To my annoyance I bought it out of some sense of social obligation, but the money would have been better spent on an umbrella made of netting. On the upside she did treat me to the funniest moment of the course when during questions somebody asked her how she’d got her agent…

Students lean forward, eager to hear words of inspiration from someone who’s managed to schlop her way clear of the sludge pile.

Waves hand dismissively. “Oh I go to a lot of parties. A friend introduced us.”

Despite the fierce overhead heaters the room instantly went cold. Our expressions took on a range of smirks, outrage and envy as we absorbed the full significance of the huge advantages doled out to an literarily-average, Hampstead socialite in getting published. What a f**ktard! (Sorry I’ve been childishly looking for expletive replacements on my personal blog and promised to use my favourite in my next limebird post – thanks Simon!).

The course wasn’t cheap but at the time I was pre-family and the country was pre-recession so I could afford the expense and time away. During the decision-making process I did weigh up the course against spending a week at a ‘writer retreat,’ which was essentially renting a room in a quiet guest house in a picturesque location for a week for half the price and working individually. I’m glad I opted for the Arvon course as the social side of sharing meals and classes with other writers was what really made the course for me and there was still a three-four-hour slot for personal writing each afternoon. It was also nice to have the tutors give a personal critique. I’ll also note that being a charity they do offer financial support to those who need it. 

I think the vibrant tutor made the course more worthwhile as she felt like an authentic teacher rather than just a writer trying to supplement their income. The latter isn’t a problem in itself if they’re a good teacher, but obviously not all writers make good teachers! Unfortunately I can’t really remember any of the writing lessons I learned as it was some time ago, so I’m not sure how useful the course was for honing my skills. I think the value for me was essentially spending a week focusing on myself and my writing within a social setting, which simply wouldn’t happen if I was at home for the week.

I’d love to hear your experiences of writing courses and what you’ve found useful / less useful. We’re currently developing a writer resource page, so if people have lots of information to share we could pull it together into a reference.

(Just finally a personal favour if it’s not asking too much after this lengthy post. A limebird friend recently told me that they struggled to read some of my creative writing due to my poor punctuation, particularly the way I use commas. The comments were given in a very kind, constructive way so I’m very grateful for the feedback, but also very confused as I write in a diverse range of styles professionally and I’ve always prided myself on my strong technical writing skills! I’d be very grateful if you could let me know what you think about my punctuation use as I’ll have to give myself some refresher lessons if I’ve fallen into bad habits with my teen point-of-views and forgotten how to write properly!)

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22 Comments to “My Experience Of Residential Writing Workshops”

  1. I have never taken a writing course and never plan to, since I cannot write on demand – I have to have some kind of inspiration and that comes only when it will.
    However, I am a compulsive copy editor, so you’re on dangerous ground when you invite comments on punctuation and grammar. I’ll just hit on two things.
    First, your sentence: “Life’s so much easier when you love doing the things that society tells you, you should be doing!” The comma is superfluous between “you” and “you”; however the sentence doesn’t make sense without it. You could clarify it by writing “Life’s so much easier when you love doing the things that society tells you THAT you should be doing!” To avoid so much repetition of “that,” take the one out before “society.”
    Second, this phrase: “describing your protagonist from the perspective of other characters, which was useful for giving them three-dimensionality; and offering a critique on a selection of poems.” A comma would be better than a semicolon. Two chief uses of semicolons are to separate two independent clauses that need to be linked together (as in my sentence above beginning “The comma is superfluous.” ) The other common use is to separate phrases that contain commas within them. I think that’s what you were thinking here. However, “which was useful for giving them three-dimensionality” is merely a subordinate clause within a sentence of which the correctly parallel verbs are “describing and offering,” so a comma is perfectly legitimate.
    Now, I hope I haven’t made any mistakes myself in what I’ve just written! You know, the pot calling the kettle black!

  2. Thank you Lorinda I appreciate the comments (honestly!) The first was a bit of laziness on my part as I should have just re-phrased the sentence, while my use of semicolons has definitely been affected by all the lists we use in our work reports so that one’s a good call! So as a compulsive copy editor had you noticed issues with my writing before or was it just being asked to look? Thanks again.

  3. Well, Sally, I’m always seeing things about people’s writing, but nobody likes a nitpicker! But if I’m invited, I find it hard to resist! I don’t recall anything specific about yours in the past.
    I have one other quibble about your comma use. I was always taught to set off names when you are addressing someone, as I did above in “Well, Sally, I’m … ” For example, in your return comment, I would write, “Thank you, Lorinda, I appreciate … ” Also, “Thanks, Simon!” And exclamations at the beginning of sentences like “Oh, I go to a lot of parties!” I’ve always set those off with commas, too. I see it done a lot these days as you did it, so maybe that’s become acceptable.

    • Blast, I do usually do use the comma with names because I know it’s technically correct even though I prefer it without! Thank you Lorinda, your solicited nitpicking is much appreciated!

  4. I’ve taken the courses in college for screenwriting. It’s about 50/50 creative writing and how to write a script or do other things that will make Hollywood gaga for a script. I guess it wasn’t big time creative writing but we had a few fun exercises.
    Also, I’ve never taken issue with your grammar, but I’m not that amazing at grammar anyway.

  5. I’ve never done a writing course, either. And it’s hard to write to the “demand” of my posting schedule. So, like Lorinda, I’m not sure how well I could write under set conditions.

    Punctuation is a tricky thing. How different is “English English” from “American English?” I know your use of commas and periods in numbers is different from my American style. And I’ll be hiring a professional editor before I submit my works in progress for publication!

    • That’s a very good question! I’d be interested in the answer, too! I know the quotation marks are different – single quotes are the primary form and double quotes fit inside them – the opposite of American usage. Isn’t that right?

    • Well the writing time in the afternoon was our choice and the exercises were very similar to the kind of thing you might have done in an English lesson at school so I don’t think there was a lot of write-on-demand, although it was definitely a benefit to have a work-in-progress.

      The punctuation could be a cross-Atlantic thing as the person who made the comment was also State-side so perhaps I’ll not worry too much about it! Thank you for commenting!

  6. I did an Arvon course a few years ago, but one that was run by my sister’s university (I gatecrashed). It was in the Arvon building & had the usual cleaning rotas etc, but any workshops & lessons were run by the actual uni tutors. I didn’t actually find it all that useful because I was expecting days full of actual learning and most of the time was left free for the third year students to work on thier dissertations! We only had one session a day and only half of us were ever there, so it was more of a writing retreat than a course and, as a student, I had plenty of free time without needing to pay for it!

    So, my Arvon experience wasn’t all that great, but uni was fantastic! I don’t think I’d do another writing course now because we covered so much at uni that Id be going over the same things. Some of the tutors were terrible and we were forced to take so many English Lit modules that my whole class once had a tantrum about it, but with a course so long you can spend a whole year going over fundamentals and still have plenty of time to work on different genres and techniques and styles. I can’t tell you exactly what I learnt, but I know that I write much better now than I did before I graduated!

    As for your grammer, I’ve never had a problem with it. Generally speaking, if I can read it without getting confused I don’t really care if it’s perfect or not!

    • I would have liked to do creative writing at Uni. I can’t remember which Uni it was, but there was a great course that would have let me do a mix of creative writing, geography and business studies, but as soon as I saw that University College, Durham was a real Norman castle there was just no choice for me as living in a castle completely trumped course!

      It sounds as if the Arvon course was a completely different experience for existing students who are already learning that kind of stuff so I can see how it wouldn’t have been much as much value. There was one student on my course, who was there on a grant, who just stayed in bed during the morning sessions, which seemed a bit pointless.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. You’re welcome, Sally!

    I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you used one of my favorite words in print.

    And a great post, by the way!

    • Thank you! It’s a great word, although I’m back to work on Monday after maternity leave as research director in charge of charities research at one of the UK’s top social research institutions so I may need to tidy up my language for a while…well in front of clients and government officials at least!

  8. I would love to go on a writing course! I’ve never been able to before (cost, time off etc) but its looking more and more like I’ll be able to now. I think it would be great because I’ll have the chance to write socially (as you say its a different experience and not one I’ve had lots of – the writer’s group I go to tends to critique rather than write when we meet).

    Also, so answer your question, I can’t see any problems with your grammar particularly. I’m giving mine a brush up even at the moment while editing a short story and I’m more concious of issues now. I can’t see any glaring problems with how you use commas.

    • Thank you for your comment, Ileandra. I went on my course before there was a writing blogging community and my work at the time involved working on different evenings so I couldn’t commit to a writing group, so for me it was the first time I’d actually got out and met other writers. I saw it as a replacement for going on holiday with a group of friends, but having a bit of writing time each day as well and would definitely recommend it as a few days off from your usual routine. Hope you enjoy yours if you do go on one! I’d love to hear how it goes.

  9. I’m doing an Arvon course in May, it will be my first writing course and I am both excited and nervous about it. I’ll be sure to write a post about it upon my return! 🙂

  10. I’m running a writing course in Nottingham, so reading other people’s comments/experiences is invaluable! I hope to be engaging and constructive rather than dull and repetitive. It’s the first one I’ve taught, and I’m pretty nervous about it.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • That’s great! For me personally I tend to engage with a tutor/ conference speaker / seminar moderator etc who is clearly passionate and enthusiastic about what they do, which in this case would both be the writing and the helping other writers to develop their skills. I like to feel I’ve been taught something and picked up some kind of gem that will stick in my mind, but more importantly I like to feel the tutor has helped me learn something for myself. I also like the opportunity to talk and to feel clever, but that’s just the swot in me!

      All the best with the course!

  11. Great post, Sally. I’m so glad you took the time to share this lively experience with us! I would love to go on a writing excursion like that, or a retreat of some kind. Although I think those who put things like that together need to be very careful about who they choose to teach the courses. Especially if they want repeat business or at least positive recommendations.

  12. I loved this, but eek! I can’t write a postcard in five days. I need time to wander and putter around with my words.

  13. I attended an online writer’s workshop hosted by Tony on the holodeck of StarShipSofa, which was only about 3 hours long but well worth it! (The speakers were Gregory Frost,James Patrick Kelly, David Mercurio Rivera, Sheila Williams, and Michael Swanwick). I am attending the second one this Saturday (speakers are Ann VanderMeer, Peter Watts, and Nancy Kress). I’ll let you know how it goes.

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