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 Emylia Hall.
On paper, an Arvon course lasts five days, but I’d call that inaccurate: Arvon is for life. It’s a decade since I turned up at Totleigh Barton with half a draft and a hopeful heart, and without doubt it was the single most formative experience of my first-book-writing adventure. It was November 2008 and the course was Novel Writing, with Patrick Neate, Louise Dean, and Bidisha as the guest. I can remember almost everything about it: the oven-baked risotto on my cooking night, Donovan’s woolly jumpers (yes, he of Mellow Yellow), Louise telling us on the first evening, ‘this week you’re going to walk the walk: you’re all writers,’ and the ripple that went around the room, the collective intake of breath.
I already knew this wild patch of Devon a little, for as a child I’d attended an arts residential at the Beaford Centre, on the other side of the River Torridge. I know now that Beaford played host to the very first Arvon courses, led by the two founding Johns. I like thinking of that eight-year-old me, walking in such footsteps, little knowing that one day the path would lead me onward to Arvon itself.
That week at Totleigh I went to bed late and rose early. I filled notebooks. Through Louise and Patrick’s workshops I realised the agility of imagination, my writing hand moving briskly and in new directions. The tutorials left me feeling purposeful, ardent, and wanting to find my way through the woods of my own novel. As a group, we were bonded by desire and interest and trust. Louise gave us all Moleskines and read Raymond Carver. Our mid-week guest, Bidisha, lit up the room. Patrick soloed It’s Raining Men to persuade one of the shyer writers to read: she did, and it was beautiful. I remember returning to work the next week and telling my colleagues about the experience, saying that it felt like falling in love for the first time, and my boss asking ‘are you sure you didn’t actually fall in love?’
Three and a half years later and The Book of Summers – the first of my four novels – was published. I’d scrapped or rewritten most of what I’d brought with me to Arvon, but one section remains almost entirely intact – it’s on page thirty-nine – and was the piece I’d read out in the barn on the last night, my voice breaking, hand shaking, paper flapping.
In 2015 I taught on an Arvon course for the first time, at Lumb Bank, alongside Patrick. What a privilege that was. I’d come full circle, and for me it was a timely reminder of the journey. In one morning workshop I looked around at the bent heads, the moving pens, the pools of sunlight down the long, wooden table, and thought right now, there’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be. I’ve tutored three more courses since then, and every time it’s felt extraordinary. Every time, it’s felt like coming home.