By Anthony Wilson, Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter
‘I’ve been at the field.’ This, spoken by one of the teachers on last week’s writing residential at Totleigh Barton in the depths of Devon. As a line of dialogue it does not say much. But in other ways it says everything about the ‘Arvon experience’, including how hard it is to capture it in words for those who were not there. There is the silent nodding of heads. An anorak is shaken out, a cup of tea poured. ‘How were they?’ says a colleague. ‘Coping?’
‘The field’ refers to a ten-foot stretch of grass beyond the garden hedge where someone has discovered a phone signal. Energy and weather permitting, figures have been making pilgrimage to it, mostly to remind themselves that the world they left behind mere days ago is carrying on without them. That is the power of Arvon. It creates the very powerful sense that the so-called ‘real world’, out there, has somehow become less solid than the one behind these book and art-lined walls, incidental almost, to the extent that checking is required to confirm it still exists. We might call it ‘magic’ or ‘mystery’, but now we possess a shared, private language with which to describe it: ‘I’ve been at the field.’
How does this happen? In the workshops? Absolutely. In the one-to-one tutorials? Definitely. But I would go further. To paraphrase the well-known creative writing dictum to ‘show, not tell’, Arvon immerses individuals in writing, both showing and telling them that they can write. In practice this occurs in the expectation of sharing and publishing their work; in talking about it when they are eating or preparing the evening meal; in being able to ask anyone (tutors, colleagues, the guest writer) anything and not feel it is irrelevant, or that they are stupid.
Even further still, I would liken the ‘Arvon experience’ to a merging of what Les Murray calls the ‘daylight and dreaming mind’: when they went for walks, teachers found themselves literally bumping into characters they had been searching for, yet felt they had known their whole lives. As one of them put it: ‘Now I’ve found him, I’m going to finish his story. Even if no one reads it.’
University of Exeter