On Monday, 23rd March 2015 The Story House Ireland will open its doors to its first participants for a course on short fiction led by Susie Maguire and Julian Gough with guest writer Dónal Ryan. This is how it began …
It was the mid-2000s and I was searching around for a writing retreat but I couldn’t find what I wanted. And what did I want? The truth is that I didn’t know. I was not a ‘Writer’, there was little evidence of that unless you looked closely at scattered crumbs along my life path. A teacher in secondary school who read an essay of mine and said it was the best he’d ever read. Winning second prize from The Irish Times for an essay on Hubert Butler’s Escape from the Anthill when I was starting my Open University degree. The surprise and delight of that fuelled me to keep studying for six years and longer. But a writer? No, people like me didn’t do things like that – woman/mother/working-class background? No. In spite of Eavan Boland’s understanding and eloquent articulation of women’s exclusion, she omitted that bit about class. But there was an itch I couldn’t scratch. Somewhere in me I knew it had to do with words and now I appreciate the irony that I couldn’t put words on it. One Sunday morning I was in the kitchen having my breakfast, in that desultory Sunday morning way, when my ear caught something on the RTE Radio 1 programme ‘Sunday Miscellany’, it was a mention of The Arvon Foundation, an organization I hadn’t heard of before. Why my ear pricked up at that I have no idea – I wasn’t paying any particular attention to the programme, it was just a background hum. But I immediately went to my computer and googled Arvon. As soon as I found the website and started to read some details I knew that this was what I had been searching for. I knew nothing about Arvon before that moment but something in me recognized it immediately. Nowhere else had I seen it explicitly expressed that ‘anyone can benefit from the transformative power of writing.’
According to the website there were four Arvon centres and one of them, Totleigh Barton in Devon, was near a village called Sheepwash. Years earlier I had worked for the Central Statistics Office here in Ireland gathering data on households re employment, education etc. For several years I had driven around the south east of Ireland finding my way using very large scale maps – a time before SatNavs. One of my areas was the remote, beautiful Nire Valley, folded into the Comeragh Mountains in Co. Waterford. Scattered across the map of The Nire Valley were marks which indicated sheepwashes – places where in the past mountain sheep farmers had communally dipped their sheep. If I had a choice of Arvon writing centres then the one near a village called Sheepwash it had to be.
In Totleigh Barton on that first Monday evening we all strolled after dinner across the yard to an old barn made comfortable with squishy sofas and armchairs. We were invited to introduce ourselves by the tutors, John Moat and Peter Please. I heard myself say that I was afraid of what I might write. I was shocked by what I had just said. Waves of hot panic washed through my body, shame and embarrassment. What on earth did I mean by that? What was I thinking? I hadn’t a clue then and it was years before I gained some insight into the way that writing worked and what a force the subconscious is. However in that barn on that August Monday evening no-one took the slightest notice of what I had just said. I imagine in retrospect that John Moat and Peter Please nodded with infinite understanding.
Even though I had been travelling since four that morning I felt compelled to write in my journal before bed – ‘I can’t go to bed without recording on paper something of what I feel here tonight. I feel excited to be home. Yes, home. I can express it no other way. My whole being is tingling with excitement. This feels right from the inside out.’
Our week was set out for us. We would meet after breakfast each morning in the barn for some writing with John and Peter. The afternoons were our own but we could make appointments to meet with John and Peter individually. Peter told us that if he was outside carving wood that was a signal that he was available for a writing chat. John would be in the goose house.
I made an appointment to speak with John early in the week. He listened while I explained about what I hoped to write. Then he asked me to go away and write the first page of a novel. I’m sure I stopped breathing. Surely he didn’t expect me to do this. I had said I wanted to write, and here was this calm, lanky Englishman telling me to go ahead and write. But, but … my thoughts were in a whirl. Surely I couldn’t … just do it? Me? John had called my bluff. I expressed none of this inner turmoil to him, but instead took myself off to the bedroom I shared with another participant, Philippa from London, and started to write. Someone thought I could write and that was the starter I needed. I wrote in the bedroom, I wrote in the gazebo, I wrote in the barn. It seemed as though the sun shone for the entire week although it didn’t really. I wrote in the sitting room one rainy evening and a sparrow whirred up from the grass directly outside the window. A small brown sound that lifted my attention from the page.
Along with all the others I put my name on the rota for preparing dinner on one evening. I can’t remember the menu except that there were a lot of potatoes and I volunteered for potato peeling, being Irish, to the amusement of the others. The previous evening some of us had met in the sitting room to read our works in progress to each other and get comments. Carol, a jazz singer from London, had wanted to read but then decided against sharing her work.
But suddenly, this evening in the kitchen, in the middle of carrot chopping and potato peeling she decided that she would like to read it to us now and rushed off to her room to get her pages. She read to us a vivid piece about identity and the particular challenges to identity there are in a woman’s life, about her own life, about all those name changes. Who was she really? There was a palpably charged atmosphere in the kitchen. We all stood around the large wooden table with our aprons on and knives and other implements paused above pots and chopping boards, silent while she read. It was a powerful Arvon moment, an experience of listening to authentic writing, that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
All week we were encouraged to observe. Although I had no art or drawing experience I had brought a drawing pad with me, suggested in advance by John, and on the first page there is a shy drawing of a tree growing in a curve towards the right with the comment underneath ‘Tree covered with lichen in the garden at Totleigh Barton as seen from the gazebo. 9-8-07’. Technique? Zilch. Attention? 100%. I later learned that John was a gifted artist. I remember that one of the others in the group, Katy, was instructed by John to go down the fields and observe a cow pat for the entire week. She read out a richly observed and sensual piece of writing on the final evening. Peter shared with us his journals, beautiful closely hand written pages that seemed to have a texture, like something woven. On that final evening I read that much re-written first page and other bits that had emerged on to my page during the week.
I left Totleigh Barton on the Saturday morning knowing I had been changed in some fundamental way. The week was utter simplicity, time to write, a belief in writing itself. But the five days had worked on me, and it seemed on the others, in a way that could not be explained in any rational way. There was one nagging question overriding all the week’s work. Why was there no residential writing centre, such as Arvon in Ireland? One that existed to foster creativity through writing, that valued the process of writing to the individual, and that was open to anyone who wished to write. I asked John why there wasn’t one even in Northern Ireland. He couldn’t say. But he inscribed my copy of his book ‘The Founding of Arvon’ with this message: ‘For Margaret who knows Arvon’s real home is in Ireland. Love John.’ At the time I had the resources to travel to Devon but what if I hadn’t? Why, in spite of Seamus Heaney’s patronage of Arvon from its inception and the dozens of Irish writers who had taught there over the decades, was there no similar centre in Ireland? I wanted that to change.
Shortly afterwards, by a great stroke of good fortune, I discovered Pat Schneider and Amherst Writers & Artists whose work was similarly based on an understanding of the value of the process of writing to the individual. I have written about some of my experience with Pat and her work here. Do I still have a fear of writing, of what I might write? Of course, but the difference now is that I am so much better at recognising it (although it can be very devious and nasty) and that recognition when it happens takes away much of the power of fear. In the years since that encounter with John Moat and Arvon I have continued to write, although not yet a novel, and I have gained immeasurably from a writing practice that includes journalling, fiction and poetry. I confess that I don’t understand it when writing is spoken of as a lonely pursuit. To be honest the time I spend writing is the time I feel least alone. And I especially love the times when I can combine writing with teaching and the value of the process of writing is proven to me over and over.
John Moat passed away on the 16th September 2014 and he will be deeply missed by all who knew him. For anyone interested in gaining an understanding of John Moat’s philosophy of writing and an understanding of his generous legacy, I suggest reading his memoir, The Founding of Arvon and also The Gist: A Celebration of the Imagination, a compilation of essays on writing by writers associated with Arvon, including Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, published to honour John’s life and wisdom.