The Hurst’s Gabriela Blandy blogs about dread and inspiration…
I visited The Hurst a few years ago for a week of life writing and shared a bedroom at the top of the house, aware of the spaces below that were shut off, rundown and unsafe. Some – such as John Osborne’s study – had parts untouched since his death. How a letter, strewn across a desk can give you a shiver of life!
That first night I dreamt about the chest of drawers in my room – dark, glossy enough to show a glimpse of your reflection. In the dream, I wake after a restless night to discover the chest smack in the centre of the room and a feeling of understanding why my night had been disturbed. I ask my roommate what she thinks about this sudden relocation of the furniture and she says: the ghosts aren’t happy.
If I were to think of the reputation of John Osborne’s temper, it wouldn’t surprise me that he would throw such a challenge at a wannabe writer – Call yourself a writer? Pah!
Except it was a dream.
And I was thinking nothing of John Osborne that first night I slept at The Hurst.
This strikes me as odd now, of course, having been in his shadow for the last few weeks since I started working here.
‘Whenever I sit down to write it is always with dread in my heart,’ John Osborne said.
What a powerful, painful statement.
I know what he’s talking about – that back of the mind black that won’t name itself yet casts a day-long shadow. If only it would name itself you could find a way to know it; spend less time, staring into the darkness in order to locate and ask: would you please step aside?
It was failure John Osborne dreaded. But if the act of writing can be as simple as sitting down to put words on paper, what possible failure can there be? A blank page at the end of an hour? Fear of criticism?
When I went on my non-fiction course at The Hurst, I had no idea what would happen. I’d been publishing fiction up until that point – short stories – but now I was supposed to turn a lifetime’s voyage into prose. How?
I was in Australia, when I enrolled on the course, living at the top of a hill in a dense Karri jungle. The enormous windows of my house looked into kale-like foliage. I watched parrots and pink-breasted pigeons all day long. All I felt like writing about was the farm where I grew up. I was full of a sense of failure, because I was trying to write a novel. What I really wanted was to get to a point where I could allow myself to write stories about absolutely whatever I fancied.
If anyone is an inspiration for that it’s Catherine Smith, one of our tutors at The Hurst this week. For the first time since 2003, when Arvon first began running courses at The Hurst, the main building is in full occupation and corridors that have long been silent are filled with booms of laughter. Catherine’s beautifully enacted short story ‘The Castle’ is a perfect example of a writer simply following their mind. She’d sat on a beach in France, watching a young couple arguing, while their little girl built an intricate sandcastle, studded with shells. The Castle places you in this girl’s mind. It is a stunning feat of ventriloquism.
Although I’m only five weeks into my job here as Assistant Centre Director, I have not felt as nervous – making my journey up the long driveway – as I did a few summers ago when I arrived for my Arvon course.
Would I be any good? I panicked.
And what about dread – what if it got in the way?
There were times when I did stare at a blank computer screen, but there was also a moment when I finally stood by the printer, waiting for my work to emerge. Later that same day, I was sitting by the lake in the cool afternoon. Clouds passed over, and every so often allowed a sudden fanfare glow of sunshine on the water. Beside me was Jay Griffths, whose book Wild: an elemental journey is a breathless experience of words. The sight of her hand, lying across my own work, allowed a feeling to ooze from my heart. I finally felt as though I had been given permission to write whatever it was I wanted.
And this week I’ve been lucky enough to meet John Hegley who has been leading our student writers with a sensitive, playful touch as if guiding a feather towards the best spot to land. If there’s any writer who has given me confidence to put words down about whatever I feel, it’s John.
After he sang to us on our second night this week, a hand went up: what’s the worst heckling you’ve ever had from an audience member?
John dipped his head and sighed, saying that there had been someone. This chap had kicked and jeered and wouldn’t back down. Finally, John threw up his arms and said: that’s it, I’ve nothing else to come back with.
I could see the defeat as he told the story, but there was something else too – in that act of submission I sensed a splendid energy, just like the audience must have felt too.
It wasn’t humiliating, John said, adding: no – the audience seemed to respect me for it.
He looked around the sitting room at twenty silent faces and said: respect and honesty – now that’s a pretty good point to end on.
Dread is a little like that bloke in the audience that doesn’t know when to stop and let you have your say. So perhaps the next time you sit down to write and find there’s a chest of drawers, sitting ominously in the centre of the room, just be honest – your readers will respect you for it.
Gabriela blogs here