Articles - 9th December 2019

Cultural Retreats

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

I’ll be the first to admit that I signed up to the short story course in part to procrastinate sitting down and writing. Truth be told, I also had relatively little experience of actually, successfully, writing publishable short stories. Preparing for the course on a Sunday afternoon in North Devon, I located a louche larder of handwritten sagas and empty envelopes addressed to potential publishing houses, filed between exercise books morosely titled with variations on ‘The Bible of Eternal Solitude’. The stories I found were stale, clunky, cliche-riddled passages with heavily descriptive dialogue and long subtextual shadows, equally inspired by Victorian poetry, bad dreams and whichever Malorie Blackman, Agatha Christie or Charlie Higson book I’d recently finished. When we attend creative writing courses, it’s not necessarily because we’re unschooled in the mode; chances are that we’ve tried our hands at it more than we’d like to admit. 

I discovered the Arvon Foundation’s course brochure in the London Review Bookshop’s customer toilet and applied for a low-income grant shortly afterwards, on the off-chance that they might subsidise some of the costs. When I was offered a £500 deduction from my course fees, despite having no real idea of the foundation’s prestige, I leapt at the opportunity.

Unlike the 2011 British horror-thriller film starring Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton, I was the lead role in this Retreat, Cynan Jones and Carys Davies my patient, well-spoken guardians.

I travelled South-Westerly in the beloved company of an M&S Christmas cocktail, shakily highlighting passages in a second-hand copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. This too, was another mode of procrastination which my brain ascertained to be equivalent; reading about writing instead of acting it out (see also essays by Brian Dillon, Joan Didion and George Orwell). Part memoir, part literary polemic, King specifically addresses creative writing workshops opening that, “It is the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters”. It’s easy for King to turn his nose up at workshops, and there is a weird artificiality to their essence, breeding creativity in the agar jelly of their literary petri dishes. What King is forgetting is that he himself gained a writerly education taking creative writing classes at college, and, many novels later, teaching them. The real education, I supposed, would follow after the course. 

As Ted Hughes observes in the 1981 foreword to The Way to Write, “[What Arvon] brings about in an organic and natural way, is what years of orthodox English teaching almost inevitably fails to bring about, except in the most artificial and external way”. Unsurprisingly, Hughes persistently masculinises the prospective Arvon student throughout this foreword; a bigoted and rather unrepresentative decision considering that, as I had suspected, the demographic of my course group was overwhelmingly women. Men, who have always written, and continue to do so to whatever standard, are not conditioned to seek the approval or permission of their peers in the same way that their female counterpoints are encouraged to. I was hardly naive enough to expect to finish the week with enough coke-fuelled horror mystery shorts (à-la-King) to publish my first collection, but admittedly, I also hoped at the very least to leave imbued with that vague institutional permission to continue writing. When the day of the course came around, I sent off my dramatic adieus then snaffled the responses with crumbs of mobile signal which I procured loitering around a Sheepwashian cattle grid two days later under the guise of a ‘reflective walk’. “What are you retreating from?” My ex-boyfriend asked. I left the message on read and continued my walk, unsure of how to respond. 

I didn’t finish my story collection, but I did learn a great deal about intergenerational socialising and the importance of shutting the outside world out and not feeling like you must apologise for doing so. I learnt that with some exceptions, writers are mostly a solitary breed, that I am an appalling public speaker and that even the most decorated literary authors who feature on contemporary prize shortlists often receive months of vocal coaching to enable them to accept awards or even read their work aloud. I learnt that it is immensely liberating getting pissed for five consecutive nights with a group of strangers and talk about books all day. But most importantly of all, I learnt that one must never drunkenly attempt to ingratiate oneself with esteemed company by generously offering them a half-eaten enchilada, nor should one ever alienate half of a dining hall with adlib creative descriptions of Jemmy Twitchers (the Barnstaplian delicacy) to Hampstead Noveless and prestigious short storyist, Tessa Hadley. Amen.

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