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Fat Girls Don’t Dance – Maria Ferguson’s Arvon Week

I visited Arvon’s Lumb Bank in December 2014. At the time I was working for Apples and Snakes as a Programme Assistant four days a week, and writing/performing poetry on the side. My colleague Daisy was organising a trip to Arvon for our young writers, and needed another ‘responsible adult’ to come along. I, of course, jumped at the chance as not only would it mean a week out of an office in front of a computer, but I’d get to stay at Ted Hughes’ old gaff, see Sylvia Plath’s grave, and have an opportunity to maybe write something good.

I had heard of Arvon retreats before as being these sorts of idyllic, creative getaways where you could spend hours writing and gazing out of windows, then drink red wine in front of an open fire, enjoying readings from other poets and perhaps occasionally weeping. Thinking about it all of those things did indeed happen, but I had no idea that the experience would be the start of what is now my proudest achievement, both as an artist and a person.

The course tutors were Inua Ellams and Warsan Shire, both incredible writers who I admire greatly. A few days in we had a workshop with Inua where we had to pair up and talk about something we had never written about before that we would find difficult or painful. Once I started talking to my partner it became clear to me that the most difficult thing to write about for me would be my relationship with food and my body. For the rest of the week I focussed on writing about just that. I shared some of this work on the final night to the group, and although it was difficult I thought I had found something to write about that was both deeply personal and yet completely universal.

On Boxing Day 2015 I started writing my debut one woman show, Fat Girls Don’t Dance. Using the material I had generated during that week at Lumb Bank I delved further and further in to my years training as a dancer in parallel with my tumultuous relationship with food. Two and a half years later it has sold out performances at Roundhouse, Battersea Arts Centre and Bristol Old Vic, as well as at community venues in Leicester, Southampton  and Ventnor.

In December 2015, a year after the Arvon course, I left my job at Apples and Snakes to concentrate on the show full time. Last summer I did a full month’s run at Underbelly during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it had sold out audiences, standing ovations and 4 and 5 star reviews. The script has now been published by Oberon Books along with other material that didn’t make it in to the final piece and a short collection of poems exploring the themes of body image and femininity, including a poem to my stomach that I started at Lumb Bank and worked on with Warsan.

A few weeks ago Fat Girls Don’t Dance won the Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show and it continues to tour around the UK. Over the past two and a half years I have visited schools, colleges, community centres, theatres and arts centres promoting positive body image. The whole experience has not only developed my skills as a writer and performer, but has given me a new found confidence in my body and the ability to celebrate all the things it can do.

My week at Lumb Bank was a complete game changer for me. It made me more certain than ever before that I wanted to write and perform, not just as a hobby but as a career. It made me want to get better and to put myself in to my work to tell stories, in a way that only I can, that people can relate and respond to. Out of that week I gained perspective, confidence, ambition and determination. I also forged lasting relationships with other poets who continue to help and inspire me. Without that week at Arvon I very much doubt I would have made it this far, and for that I am eternally grateful.

 


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