Colin Grant – First, Do No Harm – #Arvon50

13 Jul 2018 / #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 Colin Grant.

Medical education, at least when it comes to surgery, is built on the notion “see one, do one, teach one”. More than thirty years ago, at medical school, that maxim wasn’t really as stark as it seems. Our first experience of surgery merely consisted of holding back the retractor on the exposed muscle tissue and fascia of the patient so that the surgeon could work uninhibited on the organ that required her or his attention. It would be weeks before I graduated to being allowed to attempt to sew up the patient after surgery. But a year later I was able and expected to pass on my expertise in sewing to the next intake of students. I didn’t know then that medical school was also providing me with training and transferable skills that could be put to good use at Arvon’s creative writing residencies.

I recall acutely a taxi journey with Arvon’s Ruth Borthwick in Trinidad five years ago when, in heavy traffic and our vehicle stationary for some time, she turned and asked me whether I had ever considered teaching. I had written three books but it had never occurred to me that I had information or skills that a writing student might find useful. I was embarrassed by the question and mumbled that no, I had never entertained the idea. I had never had a lesson in composing stories; I had learned through reading and considered at some level that my writing was intuitive. In any event, I said to Ruth, I did not possess the kind of language that a teacher surely needed to communicate with prospective students; I had never interrogated my creative practice. I recall that Ruth looked perplexed but perhaps realising my discomfort she did not pursue the subject.

A few months later I received an invitation from Arvon to be parachuted into one of its centres for the night to read and share my understanding of what it is to write. I am so thrilled that Ruth brushed aside my doubts and that Arvon has continued to invite me back.

I have drawn on experiences gleaned from medical school but the analogy with medical education has limitations. At the London Hospital three decades ago, we were schooled to be on the lookout for pathology. It gave us a peculiar outlook, a selective perception. We saw pathology everywhere. But I have come to see that the medics’ attention to detail, the careful taking of medical, social and family histories are practical tools to explore the craft of writing at Arvon.

Tutors are also minded that they have a duty of care towards students. I have been surprised to learn that our work requires discretion and a commitment to honouring the confidence of students who expose not just their writing but themselves. The one-to-one sessions can sometimes have the semblance of confession. But ultimately I keep one other medical mantra in mind throughout my time at Arvon: first do no harm.


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