“Before I was a publisher, I worked as a plasterer. Plastering often coincides with change: people moving into a new house, or trying to sell one. Floods, fires. Doing-up a room for a baby on the way. Divorces, more often than you’d think. People changing their surroundings to describe a change within – the floods and fires of their interior worlds. Perhaps this is the reason for the convention, within the building trade, to itemize a multitude of unspecified tasks as ‘make good.’ Remove hearth and make good. Skim partition wall and make good. Through some sort of crowd wisdom, we arrived at the basest expression of what people want.
Over the summer of 2005 I had a few accidents in quick succession: two falls from ladders and an electrocution. We were working on a kitchen that’d been ruined by a flood in the bathroom above. The old, blown plaster had to be removed. I put my steel masonry chisel to the wet wall, unaware that a gas fitter had left a live wire trailing against it. My muscles contracted; I couldn’t pull myself away, couldn’t speak or cry out. It was a moment of absolute silence, like the apex of a yawn. Then the circuit breaker tripped and I was flung away, into the middle of the room.
I sat on the back steps, looking out across the gardens of the adjacent houses. The colours were so complex. I’d never really wanted to be a plasterer – does anyone? – but had fallen into it at a time when I really needed the money. I’d studied English and creative writing at university; I liked novels and poetry, and short stories above all, but these things had faded from my life. They didn’t fit into the brawny, dusty world I inhabited. I looked ahead to some uncertain retirement age, and wondered if I could make it, and how changed I would be by then, and whether I would think I’d wasted my time.
Not long after that, I heard about an Arvon short story course at the Lumb Bank Centre in Heptonstall. I’d been on another Arvon course at Totleigh Barton, years before, as a student, and found it helpful to my writing. This one wasn’t too far from where I lived. The tutors were AL Kennedy and Thomas Lynch – two writers I admire very much. There were grants available for people on low income, and I qualified.
The course was inspiring for all the reasons that other people who’ve been on Arvon courses will tell you about. The commitment and warmth and generosity of the tutors, the sense of community, and above all, the implicit contract that when you attend an Arvon course, you must take yourself seriously as a writer, at least while you’re there, without embarrassment. Over that week, I glimpsed again a life in which literature was central, rather than peripheral, and I wanted more of it. I remember my train journey home afterwards, and how I made a promise to myself.
I did some work experience at Comma Press, the Manchester-based independent publisher specializing in short fiction. Just a few days, here and there, while I worked at other jobs to support myself. Over time, the work experience at Comma became freelance work, which became salaried employment.
That was nearly ten years ago. Comma has grown into a multi-award winning press with an international list including some of the world’s finest short story writers. It’s been an unusual privilege to be part of that, and it wouldn’t have happened without the impetus of my week at Lumb Bank.
If it’s not too much of a stretch, it seems to me that, like plastering, Arvon courses quite often coincide with change in people’s lives. Sometimes this change is the fulfillment of a promise to themselves, a promise so secret and fragile that they shield it even from their closest friends and loved ones. It doesn’t have to be a big promise, like changing your whole career. It might just be an agreement with yourself that you will write regularly, and finish your novel, your poems or your stories; a promise that you won’t look back one day with regret. An Arvon course can help you begin to make good on that promise.”
Find out about Arvon’s grant scheme here.