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Arvon Friends’ Stories


Arvon Friends share how they found the inspiration and motivation to carry on writing through Arvon.

Arvon Friends play a big role in our work. Thanks to their regular donations we are able to provide young people and adults from disadvantaged backgrounds with the guidance, time and space to write. You too can become an Arvon Friend!

If you would like to share your story with us please contact Liza on liza.frank@arvon.org.


Mary Nathan -

Mary Nathan

Firstly, a confession: I became an Arvon Friend because I wanted to do the Friends’ Retreat. I’ve stayed an Arvon Friend because of what I found when I got there – which I’d love other writers to experience, whatever their circumstances.

From the moment Rachel Connor smiled on the Lumb Bank doorstep and said, ‘There’s tea and cake in the sitting room,’ I knew I’d found a writing home. There was peace. There was the support of other writers. There was the word-soaked air in every room, along every path. There was cake. I wrote and rewrote and wrote again, and came away with a few pages that I knew contained something. And it was that something, reworked, that won me a place on the 2013 Escalator programme to write my novel 23 Maudlyn Street.

So am I looking forward to May’s retreat, to this week’s something? Am I? I can’t wait!

Chris Metcalfe -

Chris Metcalfe

Although I have written poetry since my school days, I have always harboured an ambition to write a novel, but “other stuff” has always got in the way. Thirty years immersed in corporate life certainly gave me lots of other stuff to deal with! In late autumn I had the opportunity to take stock, leave the corporate world and begin my journey towards fulfilling my dream. But where would I start?

Through pure chance I was directed to the Arvon website, and from the moment I logged on I knew I had found a new spiritual home. I joined a group at Lumb Bank in November, where I found the confidence to write again and find my own voice.

It was a life changing experience shared with a group of like-minded fellow writers that were a joy to be with. The tutors constructively challenged and supported my work, and the fellow participants and Arvon staff gave me inspiration. Hopefully many of us will remain friends during the rest of my journey.

I am writing whenever I get the chance and you know what – there are still times when other stuff gets in the way. However, as a Friend of Arvon and with all my friends from Arvon – I am confident that I will never lose that confidence and motivation to use my voice and achieve that first novel.

Yasmin Khan -

Yasmin Khan

I started my research by checking out the Arvon website. It had me at “week of writing”. Well, that and the pictures of Lumb Bank. I was drawn to the crime fiction course as I write thrillers. Before my course, I had written three scripts (two radio dramas and one TV screenplay) but hadn’t written prose for years. The writing tasks and group reviews forced me to consider what I really wanted to write about.

The group of writers I spent my week with included people from as far afield as Australia and India. Last month one of the writers I became friends with came to stay with me on her way to researching her rather fabulous sounding novel that is set in France. Another of the friends I made introduced me to his sister who, by happy coincidence, is a published novelist and teaches creative writing in the town where I live and I now attend one of her classes. Having friends who are writers, making time to write and having access to expert advice are all things that Arvon showed me are essential.

I’ve now decided to merge two of the plots from the scripts I have written into a single novel titled “Pleasure Palace”. The central character is an award-winning journalist who is recovering from a breakdown and goes back to her hometown to take a job on the local paper, keep a low profile and stay well. When she uncovers a brutal murder, a quiet life becomes impossible.

I’d never be writing the novel if I hadn’t been reeled in by the cast iron Arvon promise of “time and space to write”. When I showed my husband my final piece from my Arvon week, “A Postcard from Lumb Bank”, he looked slightly shocked and said “But what if people think it’s true?”. Of course I made up the story but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t think it’s true. Isn’t that the point of writing? A writer I know recommended an Arvon course when I was struggling to know how to develop my work and make it onto the shortlist of competitions after what seemed like an endless tour of longlists, honourable mentions and ‘noteworthiness’.

Anne Strathie -

Anne Strathie

From Cambridge to West Yorkshire via Antarctica – Arvon Friend, Anne Strathie, tells us about her travels to piece together her biography, Birdie Bowers: Captain Scott’s Marvel.

“I was working on my first full-length book, a biography of Antarctic explorer Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers and spent many days in the Scott Polar Research Institute archives in Cambridge and travelled to New Zealand and to Scott’s wonderfully-restored expedition base in Antarctica.

I had gathered ample archive material and experienced the majestic scenery and wonderful wildlife of Antarctica, but felt I needed space and input from other writers before completing the text. A Life Writing course at Lumb Bank provided invaluable feedback from tutors and fellow-attenders, peace and quiet to hone my draft text and the opportunity to read passages out to an audience who were less familiar with the story.

I returned home refreshed and ready for the final ‘push’. Birdie Bowers: Captain Scott’s Marvel was published in the centenary year of Scott, Birdie and others reaching the South Pole, so I was kept busy with talks and book-signings. I also bumped into one of my fellow Arvon alumni at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and have kept in touch with one of my tutors who lives in America.”

Mavis Gulliver -

Mavis Gulliver

Ten years ago, after retiring from teaching, I was determined to improve my writing skills. I took correspondence courses, read widely, perused guidelines and wrote frantically in order to make up for lost time. It was a lonely struggle until I attended an Arvon Course. Stimulating sessions, writing exercises, feedback from tutors and discussions with fellow students showed me the way ahead.

At Moniack Mhor Peter Sansom gave me confidence to submit poetry to magazines. Jan Fortune, published my first submission in Envoi; and embarking on her course at Lumb Bank led to a collaboration, Slate Voices, which will be published next year. My first solo collection will follow in 2015. ‘Writing for Children’ with Linda Strachan and Cathy MacPhail started me off on a fantasy novel which has since become a trilogy. The books will be published in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

It’s been like waiting for buses – years of poems and articles appearing in magazines with gaps between – then three contracts arriving at once. My own hard work can’t be underestimated; but thanks are definitely due to Arvon Courses and tutors. Advice? Read widely, write every day and don’t submit anything that is less than your best.

Slate Voices – Cwmorthin and Islands of Netherlorn will launch on 15th June 2014 at the Atlantic Islands Centre, Isle of Luing, Argyll. Cry at Midnight, the first part of The Witchbane Trilogy will be launched at the Islay Book Festival in September 2014.

Pennie Roberts -

Pennie Roberts

After 30 years of full-time work I left employment last March to set up my own baking business (tick), cycle from Caen to Narbonne (tick) and finish writing my novel (ahem). English language and literature were my first loves and although I thoroughly enjoyed being a physiotherapist I can now start writing for enjoyment (poetry and short stories) and hopefully for publication (that novel).

I have had some academic publications and two opinion pieces in The Guardian but in order to get my novel published I have finally worked out, all by myself, that I need to finish writing it. Almost-annual Arvon courses over the past few years have helped my slow but steady progress and I will get it finished, I’m just not sure when. I have received so much from Arvon – support, vision, friendship, access to great writers – that I wanted to give something back by becoming an Arvon friend.

Julie Mayhew -

Julie Mayhew

On my first Arvon course, I took with me the first few chapters of a book called Red Ink (which I wasn’t sure was any good) and a deep-set dislike for communal living. I came away with a huge shot of confidence in my blossoming book and some friends for life. I wondered how I could install a cooking rota at home on my return. With the neighbours perhaps? Most importantly, my time at Lumb Bank made me understand that everyone has a right to set down their own story, and I started to take my writing seriously.

More recently, I was chosen for the Arvon/Jerwood Mentoring scheme. That year, under the mentorship of Maria McCann, was transformative. I developed a whole new strength in my writing. My second novel, which had stalled before it had even started, suddenly began to fly. I signed with a superb agent, who found the perfect home for Red Ink at Hot Key Books. I met some more friends for life. Arvon’s Friends Scheme is perfectly named – it’s how I feel towards Arvon. They’re a friend I’ve turned to at tricky, self-doubting points in my writing life and I know they are there if I need them again for time, space and inspiration.

Miriam Darlington -

Miriam Darlington

I had stored up a lot of waiting to come on an Arvon course. Life generally had prevented me from getting down to the real work I had been longing to do – starting my book. By the time I got to Totleigh Barton I was bursting to begin. Arvon gave me confidence and the ignition I needed! This was the reason I became an Arvon Friend. Like so many people, particularly women, I had spent years bringing up children and working and all I needed was some impetus to make the shift to get started.

The nature writing course I attended with Mark Cocker and Stephen Moss provided just that. I didn’t want to leave that idyllic setting (there were otters in the river, and barn owls floating about the fields, an open fire, peace..) but the book quickly took off and got written! After that, every door seemed to fly open for Otter Country. It has swum off on its own into the world now, a proper grown-up book, but I will always remember where it was born. Thank you, Arvon.

Miriam is now a full-time nature writer. Otter Country, In Search of the Wild Otter was published by Granta in 2012.

Kate Ashton -

Kate Ashton

Kate Ashton has been an Arvon Friend since 2010. Here she shares with us the part Arvon played in her writing journey…

“Arvon courses have provided contact with experienced editors whose feedback on my work has been invaluable. Starting out again as a writer and translator in this country after living abroad for 25 years, Arvon gave me a chance to re-orientate and update myself, and make new contacts.

Flagging self-confidence and regular rejection belong to writing, but it’s very nice to spend a few days with established editors and/or writers who understand and can offer a word of support. Arvon is famous for forging friendships, and I’ve made one or two that have lasted years. One poetry colleague and I have been swapping work for first reading since meeting at Lumb Bank seven years ago.

A few days spent in a beautiful place, preferably remote from email, eating well, enjoying a glass of wine and expert tuition – what could make a better break from the writing table?”

Liz Kershaw -

Liz Kershaw

Thirty-odd years ago, I started writing a crime fiction novel. I had no idea of how to put a story across or create vivid characters and I had no idea how to go about learning the skills I needed. Predictably, the result was abysmal; I gave up and filed ‘writing’ away with other failed projects like chutney-making and tapestry. But, somehow, the ambition was still there, eating its way up through layers of personal and career obligations until one day, it led me to an Arvon course.

That first course was back in 2008 and I emerged after a transformational week at Totleigh Barton with enough confidence to make the first tentative steps back to writing. Since then, I’ve written, binned, honed, pruned, suffered and rejoiced my way to a half-way decent plot, some believable characters and a competition win which will put my work before a leading publisher.
The problem is, I have an insistent internal critic. I see flaws in my work-in-progress which obstruct me from forging ahead with an imperfect, but necessary, first draft. The words on the page are transparent versions of the ones in my head. The roar of ‘I can’t do it’ drowns out the sound of the keyboard. Lack of confidence suffocates my writing. And when this happens, the only effective weapon in the war against myself is to expose my work and seek some sort of external validation: writing groups, peer support and – shining far above everything else – an Arvon course.

Polly Johnson -

Polly Johnson

I’ve been an avid ‘Arvonite’ for several years. Where else do you have the excuse to do nothing but write, talk about writing, and eat toast under the stars with like-minded people? It can last, too: My first Totleigh group still meet several times a year to crit each other’s work and reminisce.
Apart from guilt-free writing time, you can meet some of your favourite authors and receive honest feedback and tuition. The book I was working on at Moniack Mhor is due to be published in November and it wouldn’t have happened without the encouragement of one of the tutors, who told me it had potential and gave me the confidence to keep going.

I’m currently editing my second book, again helped by some excellent advice from the tutors on my course in July, and working on a third.
There’s nothing quite like Arvon. I love it! It’s not only my once a year total writing binge, but it actually helps, and works. I became a Friend not only for the early brochure, but because it helps people who might not have the same access to the Arvon experience – and I think everyone should try it at least once!