27 Jul 2017 / Lumb Bank
Jenn Ashworth is a Ninja Genius
In 2013 I travelled to Lumb Bank to attend a first Arvon course, called ‘Finish Your Novel’.
Needless to say, I didn’t (finish). Regardless, that week changed the course of my writing. I began swapping work with a fellow coursemate, Carys Bray, whose first novel was published within months and who is now a close friend. And with encouragement from novelist, playwright, and Jerwood/Arvon alumna Julie Mayhew, I applied for the 2014/15 Jerwood/Arvon mentorship scheme to spend a year being mentored by award-winning novelist Jenn Ashworth.
Despite (because of?) being so overexcited during my interview that I wrapped Jenn in an inappropriate hug and then subjected her to a political rant, I was accepted for the scheme.
I went into the introductory masterclass week nervous and prepared to be intimidated, but the other mentees – three poets, three playwrights and three novelists – quickly became family. In my everyday life, writing fits between the cracks – when the shopping’s done, when the kids are fed, when my day job is sorted out – and the luxury of being part of this gang of hilarious, caring, super-smart people because of my writing was more liberating and touching than I think they knew.
We spent a week learning from each other’s disciplines, with classes from poet Clare Pollard and playwright David Eldridge as well as from Jenn. Insights from other writers have stuck with me and inform my writing daily.
The individual mentoring sessions – and Jenn’s extraordinary talent as a mentor – have had a profound and lasting effect. Firstly, and non-trivially, Jenn taught me to take my writing practice seriously, to stop pushing it behind the shopping or the tea.
The second thing involved the craft of writing more than its practice. Six months into our individual sessions, my novel, featuring a woman who dies in a terrible logging accident, was at 50,000 words. But it was clunky, the wrong shape, and nothing was quite working. After our usual niceties (gossip), Jenn leaned forward, elbows on the table.
‘What if,’ she said, ‘…instead of Connie dying, she lived?’
I leaned back in my own chair, as far from her as I could get. ‘Fuck.’
I cried all the way home, three hours on the train. Not because she was wrong, but because she was right. The book lit up with that change of perspective. But I’d been writing this book for two years, and now the whole thing would need entirely rewriting.
So I rewrote the book, all 50,000 words, and then I wrote words that now followed. A few months later, I signed with my literary agent. If I hadn’t had Jenn’s support, her piercing insights, her sheer nerve, there’s no way this book would be out there today. Of this I’m certain. So thank you, Jenn, and thank you, Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme. You made it possible.
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