I’ve never really thought writing was much about environment. While I wouldn’t say no to a writer’s garret in a castle or a villa in the South of France, I always maintained that all I really need to get my writing done is a laptop and a deadline.
This was all well and good when I had a deadline: when I had a manuscript to finish before the end of my MA, when I had edits to finish before moving overseas. But, in the three years since I moved to London, I haven’t had that sense of urgency. And as such, novel number two remained largely untouched, month after month, six months after six months, a year then another.
My friend Caitlin had been to an Arvon Foundation course in the past and recommended it. She’d even been inspired to set up a writing group with other course participants on her return, and invited me to join in.
So, this year, as a birthday present to myself, I booked onto a course entitled ‘Work in Progress’. It was going to be held at Totleigh Barton in Devon from October 26 – 31. This was at the end of January. By the 25th of October I’d written perhaps another chapter or two, but the word count remained at around 25,000 and I didn’t know how the novel was going to end.
One week later, I’ve survived train cancellations, giant cows, two nausea-inducing taxi rides and the trauma of reading unfinished work in public. I’ve learned to poach salmon, I’ve got my hiking boots dirty, found the small village Sheepwash. And most importantly, I’ve finished the first draft of my novel.
And some of that has to be down to the environment you find at Totleigh Barton – a pre-Domesday manor house, at the end of a long driveway and miles from anywhere.
There are a lot of places to write at Totleigh Barton: long wooden tables, window seats, libraries and lounges, a shed in the garden, a barn with its own bats, the desk in my room. Despite the fact that my work-in-progress is set in the city and online, being in the country without an internet connection provided the hours and quiet to get the words flowing.
There was also such a productive atmosphere at Totleigh: from the workshops in the morning with Paul Magrs and Stella Duffy which made me re-examine my characters and the choices I make when writing, to the long afternoons when I’d find a spot to write and know that all around the house, the other course participants were writing or cooking or attending individual tutorials as well. When you’re struggling to finish a difficult scene, there’s something immensely comforting – and also motivating – in hearing someone else typing away at the other side of the lounge, working on their own literary endeavours.
There’s also something comforting about a well-stocked kitchen, endless cups of tea and wine in the evenings, the opportunities to talk about writing as if it wasn’t a strange thing to do – but something that is part of a life, something which could even be enjoyed.
Tonight I’m back in London. There’s football on the radio and cars on the street outside. I’m putting words in a box which will become a blog entry. I still love the web, but I’m going to miss Totleigh Barton.
I’m going to have to create a writing environment here.