28 May 2019 / #Arvon50
When you go on an Arvon writing course anything can happen. Shutting sixteen people in a remote house with talented, generous tutors brings any number of surprises: friendships, laughter, tears, burned roasting pans and even the odd hangover. Nobody, in my experience, comes back from an Arvon course unchanged. It is a uniquely wonderful environment and exciting things happen.
In 2012 I was to experience that first hand when I enlisted on a course at Totleigh Barton. As a non-fiction author with ten published books under my belt I had decided that I needed a change of direction. Script writing appealed to me as a new and different discipline. On the way from Exeter station my fellow passengers chatted about the scripts they were working on, how much Final Draft costs and how many hours of television they watched each week. I could barely understand what they were talking about and hadn’t watched any of the sitcoms they clearly knew intimately.
I realised I had made a terrible mistake. This was definitely not for me and I was desperate to make an escape. When I rang my husband and said I wanted to come home he said: ‘Stay, give it a chance. The weather is lovely. You need a break. And anyway, you never know what will happen.’ It turns out to be the best advice I’ve ever been given and it is the advice I would give anyone who arrives on a course and gets cold feet.
So I stayed and loved it. I listened, learned, made copious notes and decided that my first instinct had been right: I am no budding script-writer. Tutors, Brian Dooley and Simon Block tactfully agreed. When I had my tutorial with Simon he asked me what I did as a day job. I had just received the hardcover jacket for Jambusters, my book about the Women’s Institute in wartime, on my phone. So I showed it to him. To my surprise he was interested and we spent the half hour talking about women on the Home Front. We talked again over supper (it was my turn to cook) and the next morning, as we parted, he put his hand on my arm and said: ‘Julie, I think Jambusters could be enormous.’ I was taken aback but he had seen immediately the potential for a drama about a group of women set within a wartime village. Here was a true scriptwriter.
A month later he introduced me to an ITV producer. I met her in London and four days later she took out the option on my book. When she asked me if I had any suggestions about developing a drama based around a wartime WI I said yes. After all, I had been on an Arvon course, hadn’t I? ‘I know,’ she said with a grin, ‘Simon told me. I think you might have been his worst student.’
That was October 2012. Jambusters became the inspiration for ITV’s wartime drama series, Home Fires, which ran for two seasons in 2015 and 2016. And the scriptwriter? I’m happy to say it was Simon Block.
Since then I have done a fiction writing course at Lumb Bank and become an Arvon tutor, leading my first course in 2016 with another coming up this summer. It is a treat to be on the other end of the Arvon experience and it is no less transformative in many ways. Working with fellow tutor Ian Marchant was a joy and we had a sparkling bunch of writers, one of whom we believe has the ability to make a publishing splash in the future.
I will be grateful for my Arvon experiences for the rest of my life. It has taught me to treasure being a writer at whatever level of experience or however many books you have or have not published. It has given me renewed respect for fellow writers, whether tutors or student-writers, and it has made me determined to stay in touch with the business of learning about writing. Thank you Arvon.
Arvon turned 50 in 2018 and to celebrate we have collected the stories of writers far and wide who have a tale to tell about Arvon. The collection is published in our anniversary book and featured on our blog. This contribution is by Julie Summers.
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