I arrived at Moniack Mhor on April 5th, after a day travelling up from London on the train. On the first night, dinner was cooked for us and we socialised a little, getting to know the other students and the two tutors, Morag and Tim, who were going to be guiding us through the week. It was an exciting night, and held a lot of promise for the week to come. I went to bed fairly early, I remember. I heard rain beat against my window, like handfuls of stones. My favourite way to fall asleep.
The way the course was structured was that the group met for writing classes in the mornings, from 10.00am to 12.00pm. This wasn't compulsory, but nearly everyone showed up for them and they really were a great way to get the writing day started. After our morning's work, everyone would go off and do their own thing for the afternoon. We were encouraged to make afternoon appointments with the tutors to show them our work and get feedback. The group of 15-16 students were split into groups over the week to do cooking duty once - the rest of the time you just showed up in the dining room and found dinner waiting for you! The evenings usually had some group activity on as well which, again, was optional.
What follows is some excerpts from my journal on the first two full days of the course.
Tuesday 6th April 2010
And so the Arvon course has begun. I am currently on my own in my tiny room, listening to Gershwin on my iPod speakers, breathing in the smell of mint tea brewing in my pink and white striped mug, noticing melted chocolate under my finger nails. I have spent the past hour and a half re-reading The Memory of Us (*the working title of my novel). And now I feel tired.
That is exactly how I feel most of the time whenever I think about it. Tired. Heavy. Bone weary. This mountain I have tried so hard to climb....well, come on Phil, how hard have you tried to climb it? Lately you haven't been trying at all. I keep telling myself not to worry, not to concern myself with what other people are doing. Just do what I came here to do. This is what I've been dreaming of. Time and space away from it all. To write.
I've got to stop worrying. About whether what I'm doing is as good as or on the same level as what others here are doing. About Ruth's family and what they might do to me if the story isn't to their liking. Well, especially about that.
I like the people on the course with me. I think the ability level in the group is very even. I feel out of my depth, however. The others here seem to have a coherent story, one that seems to flow logically. I have so many issues and obstacles. Well, perhaps that's my problem. I keep focusing on the hurdles. But bloody hell, I can't even write a synopsis for the damn thing. People ask what my novel is about and I don't know where to start. It turns into a long rambling speech when I should be able to tell them in a few sentences.
But it's amazing what having paid a small fortune for the privilege of being here will do for your productivity. I'm just telling myself to get the hell on with it. And, incredibly, I am. In between naps, reading and a few chocolate gingers. Still not convinced what I'm coming out with is any good....but still. Words are coming.
Wednesday April 7, 2010
A difficult day.
Where do I start?
Found the writing exercises difficult in this morning's group writing class. I kept hearing my own voice coming through, as opposed to Ruth's. We had to choose a partner and share our morning's work with them - the gentleman I was paired up with, after hearing my story, revealed to me that in the late 1960s he knew one of Ruth's friends from Palmers Green, whom I mention a lot in the novel as he became a famous novelist. It set me on fire. The coincidences and bizarre twists of fate never seem to stop with this story.
I then sailed through the afternoon writing about Ruth and her husband meeting their novelist friend, who I have used another name for - I've named him after my dear friend and collaborator Neil - and I was so engrossed I missed by 2.40pm appointment with my tutor Morag! I ended up coming back when Morag was free at 3.20pm. I was filled with the ecstasy of having worked, really worked, on the piece for the first time in eternity.
I had given Morag two sections of The Memory of Us to read. She had a lot to say.
She said that I wrote beautifully - there were some parts of what I'd written that were very evocative indeed. But she was confused. Was I writing a novel, or a biography? Because from where she was sitting, The Memory of Us is a biography, just written in Ruth's voice. We talked a lot about the process of turning a true story into a piece of fiction. It is inevitable that you have to make stuff up, you can't just stick rigidly to the events as they happened.
"No one's life is a plot, really, is it?" she said.
I revealed some of my fears to her about the story, and told her a bit more about the obstacles and barriers I'd encountered along the way. Morag said many things to me, all of which I already knew deep down to be true. Particularly about needing to flesh out my characters properly, as people, not just people on pedestals. "You've got to be really impertinent," Morag urged, "you've got to kick down the bedroom door and find out what's really going on with these people. At the moment, it's all a bit too....chocolate box-y."
When a piece of work is so close to you, you know its flaws, its holes and gaps. You know what the problems are. But it was still very difficult to hear. Not difficult in the sense that I didn't agree with her, I completely agreed with her! But having someone else say these things to me would mean I would have to face it, do something. It felt like when I've been to see my counsellor, and I've come away with clarity, but so much to work on. When you've shone the light on something, that's it. There's no going back. You can't kept working blindly any more.
Morag was so kind, and I could tell that she really believed in me. But having had a person who I respected confirm my worst fears about the book, I spent the rest of the afternoon filled with dread. What the hell was I going to do with myself over the next few days, if all I was going to end up doing was shoving this manuscript in a drawer?!
I mentally prepared myself for a night in the desert (NB: spelled "dessert" in my diary originally! ha ha). I thought I would have no choice but to sit with my journal for hours, writing whatever was in my head until the answer came. If it came.
I was on dinner duty, so went down to the kitchen about 4.30pm and helped cook the meal for the group with the people I was teamed up with. Their company was easy and friendly. I focused on my task of preparing the mini meringue nests with as much alacrity as I could muster.
After dinner, the novelist Andrew O'Hagan came to speak. He read from his new novel The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe. I found him fascinating. One of the students whispered to me that he reminded her of a young W.B Yeats. It must have been the glasses :) He had so much wisdom to impart, and I was like a vampire, wanting to feed on it all. Morag, before I had a chance to raise my hand, asked Andrew to share his experience of turning a true story into a novel as a few students - she looked at me - had been faced with this.
As Andrew opened his mouth to speak, I had a moment where I just knew every word would be gold and I wanted to memorise everything he was saying. My pen was poised at the ready!
He said that stories belong to everyone. Nobody's story is theirs and theirs alone. When you live in this world and die in this world, your story belongs to the world. The world can use it and take from it what it wishes.
But what stayed with me the most was when Andrew said that we should never be worried about offending people with our writing, or whether people are going to be upset with us if we write about something that actually happened that doesn't fit with their version or perception of events. He said, "you don't have to apologise for being interested in this story." So many works of literature have been based on the life/lives of real people - Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, to name but a few....there's nothing wrong with finding a story that inspires you, and then telling it your way.
It was like a light suddenly went on in my head. All this time I've been thinking that I could only write this story a certain way, to keep other people happy. But sticking slavishly to the facts and the timeline has got me nowhere. The facts have no life, no oxygen. I must bring them to life. The potency of my work depends on my inventive power. At the moment, that power is running low. To make my novel what I want it to be, I'm going to have to dispense with getting everything right. After all I, as the writer, have ultimate sovereignty, Andrew said.
He truly was an inspiring man. I went up to him afterwards to thank him for his insightful words - I actually hugged him! Don't know what he must have thought of that, but anyway. Andrew O'Hagan, I will build a shrine to you, you are my God.
Then I went upstairs and wrote until 2am.
And then things took another turn.