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Mahsuda Snaith – From Secret Writer to Arvon Tutor: A Timeline of Arvon Residentials – #Arvon50

#Arvon50
Arvon is 50 this year and to celebrate we have collected the stories of writers far and wide who have a tale to tell about Arvon. The collection will be published in our anniversary booklet and featured on our blog throughout the year. The following piece is by author Mahsuda Snaith.

Moniack Mhor 2003:  I am a young, Asian student from an inner-city council estate who writes mostly in secret.  I have finished one novel but have no idea what to do with it so have stuck it in a metal box-folder.  Attending an Arvon residential seems like a fantastical dream yet me and a writing friend scrimp and save to make the dream a reality.  We travel from Leicester to Inverness by coach (by coach!) and enter the rolling hills of Scotland. I have never seen so much heather. I am surrounded by writers and slowly let my secret out; I am a writer too.  I sit in stunning countryside, eat delicious food, write and write and write. We are tutored by James Kelman who teaches me an invaluable lesson; ‘Just do the bloody writing.’

Lumb Bank 2013: I am part of a group called ‘Inscribe Writers’ which supports Black and Asian authors.  They secure a grant which means we can attend the course at a massively reduced price. I get to Hebden Bridge via train and watch as the landscape turns from concrete grey to forest green.  When at Lumb Bank I work on feedback about the novel I am working on –the one I stuck in a box-folder way back when. I talk to writers about writing and learn the power of ‘free writing’, without judgement or editing, just letting the writing flow.  I sit in stunning countryside, eat delicious food, write and write and write.

The Hurst 2015: Since attending my previous Arvon course I have won an international short story competition, gained an agent for my novel and lost an agent for my novel.  This particular Arvon residential comes as part of a prize for winning the SI Leeds Prize for unpublished fiction. The fiction in question is the box-folder novel, still unpublished.  I sit in stunning countryside, eat delicious food…but I do not write so much. Without an agent I feel dejected, a little like perhaps my novel will remain in unpublished purgatory. But then something happens.  In group sessions I gain new insights about my work, in breaks I talk to writers about what writing means to them, I wonder through the woods, I read the books filling the corridor shelves. Slowly, I am revived.   

Lumb Bank 2017:  I am not a resident this time but a guest speaker.  After the last Arvon I’ve got a new agent, worked on the novel and secured a book deal.  The box-folder novel is now published and Lumb Bank has asked me to come and speak to their fiction writers.  I meet the course tutors who are lovely, I meet the writers who are also lovely. Then I sit in front of them all and feel like I am about to be pounced on by lions.  I am not a proper writer and they are about to find me out. I stumble through a pre-rehearsed speech then open up to questions. I relax; I’ve always loved talking about writing.  I chat with the residents until midnight. By morning, I don’t want to leave.

The Hurst 2018: I am a guest speaker again, this time at the Hurst.  I arrive early and go for a walk, the memories of 2015 washing over me as water washes over stones in the woods.  When I speak in front of the group I am happy and confident. I am a proper writer and have, I realise, been a proper writer since the moment I put pen to paper.   The only difference now is I have more things to say, not just about writing but about the publishing industry too. I don’t want to fill the residents with despair (there’s already enough of that when you’re a writer) I want to give them hope.  If I can do it, a past resident who sat on the very sofas they sit on now, so can they.

Totleigh Barton (the near-future): After working with inner-city school pupils, I am asked by First Story to lead a residential week at Totleigh Barton.  This is the only Arvon retreat I have not visited and it seems apt that my Arvon journey will come full-circle here, where the first Arvon centre began.  Perhaps there will be an inner-city kid who writes in secret amongst the group. Perhaps they don’t realise this makes them a writer. Perhaps I will teach them that it does.  What I will make sure to tell them is this; just do the bloody writing. After all, it’s the writing that will get you through in the end.


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