Liz Jensen – Arvon at 50

27 Sep 2018 / #Arvon50

Today, with eight novels behind me, I look back with bafflement at the amount of guilt I felt when I signed up for an Arvon Fiction course in 1993. Why did I feel so bad about leaving a young child in the hands of some of the other people he loved? Or about taking time off my job, when someone else could so easily fill in for me? Why was I so ready to suspect that it would all be waste of time because neither I nor my writing were worth it? The French have a wonderful expression “péter plus haut que son cul”( literally, to fart higher than your arse) to describe the act of being above oneself. Perhaps that’s what nagged at me: Who did I think I was?

But thankfully, the bad mother, the work-shy employee and the woman who farted higher than her arse won out. I made it to Lumb Bank.

What I remember: being late for the first session because I got lost in the house, which seemed to be designed by MC Escher on magic mushrooms; the exercise in which we had to write poison pen letters from the “missing student” who didn’t show up but had been spying on all of us; the nerves and the slightly hysterical laughter that went with it; the tears on Day Three (why is it so often on Day Three?); the way we partied hard and drank like fish while our tutors stayed up half the night reading far more work than was good for them; the unlikely Beauty and the Beast liaison that developed between two students. (And I’ve always wondered how that one worked out…)  

My “Arvon Moment” came on Day Four in the long narrow kitchen where the tutors Brian Thomson and Elizabeth North were having morning coffee.

Brian said: “I read your first chapter last night, and you’re a writer.”

Elizabeth said, “I read it too. It’s good. And your outline is coherent.”

Good. A writer. Coherent. That was all I needed to finish the novel: praise and support from two professionals. I never looked back.

A couple of years later I was back at Lumb Bank – this time as a tutor. My biggest joy as a teacher, then and since, has been seeing the “Arvon Moment” happening for others – be it from some spot-on feedback, an inspiring exercise, the right kind of encouragement, or from a simple, sudden insight in a class. I could say that all the tutoring I’ve done at Arvon in the last two decades has given me the chance to pay back some of the debt I owe. And it would be true. But there’s another more selfish reason: the teaching teaches me. When I come to an Arvon, I am a teacher – but also a student again. A circle is completed.

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. This piece is by Liz Jensen.

-Liz Jensen


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