I was six months pregnant with my second child and two years pregnant with my first novel when I plucked up the courage to go on an Arvon course. Both by this stage were making me pretty uncomfortable. Both were getting bigger inside me, but whereas I knew the baby would eventually pop out one way or another, I couldn’t say the same thing for the novel. Would it ever emerge into a coherent piece of writing or was I destined to spend my better years staring at a screen in despair? Just how long and tortuous was this gestation going to be?
Well, a lot longer and more tortuous than I knew at that stage. The first draft had been a breeze – an exhilarating ride of frantic keyboard bashing whenever my first baby napped. But confronted with the task of turning that breathless story into a proper, tightly structured novel I had faltered. How was I supposed to have any sort of perspective on something that long? How could I be objective, see what needed doing to improve it? Book yourself onto an Arvon course, said my writer friend.
And so, armed with hopes, fears and a hint of desperation, I pitched up at The Hurst for an advanced novel writing course. On the way there I had some very bad news about a friend and nearly turned straight round again. I’m so glad I didn’t. That extraordinary week helped me turn a corner, to get writing again, surrounded by people all passionate about writing. They were lovely. I’m not sure how lovely I was, crippled by tiredness in the evenings and preoccupied by my friend, worried about my toddler who was missing me. And unable to use wine as a social lubricant. I’m usually a very sociable person, and likely to be the last woman standing on any bonding evening such as we had part way through the week. In this case I was almost certainly the first woman slumping. What made it worse is that our tutor, the gorgeous Susan Elderkin, was also pregnant and seemed in far better shape than me!
It doesn’t sound promising, does it? And yet the Arvon alchemy was at work – that potent combination of stunningly atmospheric setting, waist-wideningly scrumptious food (I could blame it on the pregnancy), tutors who were both inspiring and approachable, amazing fellow students and, most of all, space for my writing. How could it not be nurtured in such conditions?
I didn’t sort the first draft out then, or indeed for another couple of years. But when I did, I applied principles that Susan Elderkin had demonstrated, remembered the encouraging words of my fellow students and fuelled myself with some of the Arvon inspiration that I found still tucked away inside me.
Last year, a mere eight years since I started writing it, my novel Untouchable Things won the Luke Bitmead Bursary, the biggest UK prize for unpublished novels. As a result it was published by Legend Press this September. And now, perhaps, I can think about my next Arvon course. One thing’s for sure, I won’t be pregnant this time. Or only with novel number two.