Barely ten weeks into 2016 and I’ve already experienced what I am sure will be a high point in my writing year. Last week I was fortunate enough to be co-tutor, alongside the brilliant Malika Booker, on the First Story Prize Winner’s Arvon residential at Lumb Bank, the 18th-century mill-owner’s house in West Yorkshire, which once belonged to Ted Hughes. The Arvon brochure description of Lumb Bank describes the centre thusly: ‘The house stands in 20 acres of steep woodland and has a breathtaking view to the valley below – a Pennine landscape of woods and rivers, weavers’ cottages, packhorse trails and ruins of old mills. It is half a mile from the historic village of Heptonstall and two miles from Hebden Bridge.’ It really is a wonderful place to stay and to write, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to be asked to co-tutor there.
Working with Malika Booker was a great experience, and I learnt a great deal from attending her sessions with the group. It is fair to say that we are very different types of writers but our respective expertise in poetry and prose proved a good contrast of styles that, over the week of workshops and one-to-ones, provided the young writers working with us a breadth of experience that ensured they all left with an array of approaches and strategies to employ in their future writing.
The group was made up of the winners in the three key stage categories of the first ever First Story National Writing Competition, with each winner bringing along three friends and one of their teachers. This all female group was an absolute pleasure to work with. Though comprised of varying ages, the all-female group bonded right from the first night’s activities, where they made a list of objects to place in a magic box in their school groups before splitting off into mixed groups to make wish lists of what they hoped to achieve during the week.
As I sat in the barn at the end of the residential, looking at these lists blu-tacked up on the wall, the vast number of ticks surrounding each of the wishes provided a clear reminder of how the students embraced the opportunities and events of the week, from my initial workshop, where they engaged in writing games to get them started on filling the blank page before writing in response to picture stimulus, crafting characters and stories from unusual and striking images, through Malika’s first workshop involving responding to physical stimulus for poetry, imagining the physicality of a character and writing in the shape of a hand.
By the time we reached the final two workshops of the week, mine on crafting ultra-short stories or flash fiction, where I challenged the students to fit a full formed narrative into a small space on the page, and Malika’s name and object activity which saw us miming the placing of objects important to us into a shared space from which we could pluck symbols to craft our poetry, and her final exercise of rewriting fairytales as villanelles, it was clear that the young writers and their teachers were an imaginative and committed bunch, willing and able to deal with whatever creative challenge we threw at them. Over the various workshops and one-to-ones, the students and teachers shared their work, and the pieces read provided clear evidence that they were all pushing themselves and working well outside their comfort zone at times. The enthusiasm and energy of the group was a real joy to be part of during the week.
Arvon weeks are well known for their evening events and it was great to read to the students alongside Malika and to answer their questions on the work we read and our writing process. It was also a great pleasure to meet fellow MMU Creative Writing MA alumni Eileen Pun and hear her read her work on the Wednesday evening. But I will never forget the genre game we played on Thursday, where we split the students and teachers into five groups and each group was assigned a genre and told to prepare a book cover, a blurb and short scene from the film adaptation of the book. Prizes were to be awarded to the groups whose presentations contained the most genre cliches. They presented their books with great humour, while also showing a brilliant understanding of the tropes of their genre, and I laughed more that evening than I have in a long time. It was great fun playing publishing executive alongside Malika and Steph from First Story, and all the groups received a prize in the end for producing such wonderful presentations.
The final evening’s readings from the students were the real high point of the week though. It was so wonderful to hear so many original stories and poems, all of them crafted during our week at Lumb Bank. I would love to describe the brilliance of that evening of readings but, ironically, words fall short whenever I attempt to describe the wonderful work shared by the teachers and students. Suffice to say it was another wonderful First Story reading, a very special night. Which just leaves me to thank the students and teachers who attended, Malika, Steph and all at Lumb Bank and First Story for making my first experience as an Arvon tutor such a wonderful one.