TRAVEL / In search of the write stuff: Could a writing holiday open the way to a Booker Prize or Jeffrey Archer-hood? Nicole Swengley is tutored by Bernice Rubens on a Greek island

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The Independent Culture
'NO, I DON'T think that works on any level at all]' This remark, coming from the internationally acclaimed author and Booker Prize-winner Bernice Rubens, was a comment our small writing group came to dread. But it was literary criticism, however harsh, which had drawn us to the Greek island of Skyros. And we soon realised that if you can't take the heat, then writing a novel isn't the best way to spend a holiday in the sun.

The Skyros Centre has offered personal development holidays for 15 years. This season, for the first time, it is running a programme of writers' workshops conducted by the likes of Sue Townsend, Alison Lurie, D M Thomas, Wendy Cope and Adrian Henri. As a freelance journalist who recently ventured into fiction writing, I was attracted to Bernice Rubens's two-week course because the brochure promised: 'Theme, structure and plotting - the techniques of novel-writing.'

But it quickly became clear that creative writing is not something that can be taught in the same way as windsurfing or sailing. Guidance and sharing - yes, there was plenty of that. Teaching? Impossible.

I've taken holiday courses before, such as yoga and sailing, but this was the first time I had tried to be creative in temperatures hitting 30C. I had assumed that removing myself from home, work and everyday chores would allow images and dialogue to flow more easily on the page. What better place to free the creative spirit, I thought, than Skyros, where the poet Rupert Brooke lies buried in an olive grove, hot and silent save for the cicadas.

Naively, I had reckoned without the siren voices of sun, sea and Amstel beer seducing me from scribbling. I found it hard to work for more than a couple of hours a day, missed my computer and was unable to think as sharply as I would at home. After all, my brain was as much on holiday as the rest of me.

For others it was different. The escape from home and work offered a leisurely opportunity for some to develop a personal writing style. A civil servant discovered a 'voice' that was a far cry from his habitual press releases. A housewife found space away from husband and children to develop stories with potential for publication.

Our group of six women and three men in their thirties and forties included a medical librarian, a special needs teacher, a retail manager and a computer consultant. The latter, who worked on a hand-held Psion, came in for a torrent of teasing from Bernice (oh, to be on first-name terms with prize-winning novelists), an unreconstructed technophobe. But those of us used to working on personal computers found schoolbook longhand a strain.

During the first week Bernice set a series of exercises designed as much to assess our abilities as stretch our minds. We started with a passage on a funeral written black comedystyle and in the high-flown language of a Victorian diary. After completing this, we sat in the village square drinking iced coffee and commented on each other's pieces. We laughed at the character who apologised to his wife for dying in the surgery and at the 'borrowed mourners' swelling the crowd at a mosque. My character, who roared to church on a motorcycle and adorned it with paper flowers for the death of a hippie friend, failed to translate into Victorian diary-style and drew the dreaded 'No, that doesn't work at all' remark from Bernice.

The next day we exchanged sexes to create characters we might not otherwise have considered. The women in our group were surprised by the ease with which one of the men assumed a female identity, period pains and all, while I felt equally breezy about becoming a bullying TV director on the page. In another exercise we etched out a cliffhanger, then wrote the last three lines of each other's stories. By now we were conversant with Bernice's wicked sense of humour and let imagination rip. A clifftop would-be suicide was saved by the last-minute appearance of a parachute, while an airport reunion was marred when the woman found out that her husband had opened their home to a tramp.

We paired off to construct a

dialogue between two unlikely characters in a ludicrous situation. Scenarios and personalities on scrunched-up bits of paper were picked at random from a bowl. It was unfortunate that mine entailed a model meeting a homeless man aboard the Titanic on Good Friday because they really didn't have a lot to say to each other. But the pair who wrote of an architect meeting a cleaning lady on top of Everest at dawn had us all in stitches.

Reading one's work out to a group of strangers is a nerve-racking experience. Hearing others comment on your writing is instructive and illuminating. The wonderful thing about the group was that everyone was serious - yet unpretentious - about their writing. I suspect, though, that if there had been any airs and graces Bernice would have quashed them on day one.

Breakfast and one meal a day (vegetarian) were provided at the centre. Otherwise we ate in one of the village or waterside tavernas. Afternoons were spent swimming and tanning on the beach, then it was time to hike up the hill for a massage class at the centre run by Joanna Nelson, who also offered earlymorning yoga. These classes were laid on as part of the centre's other courses, which run alongside the writers' workshops and were open to all. They were particularly welcome to us scribblers as a release from all the cerebral activity.

We stayed in traditional rooms belonging to Skyros's friendly villagers, within a stone's throw of the centre. Mine was spacious, with a west-facing balcony, and bedroom and shower room off a simply furnished main room. Not that I spent much time there. Every moment of the day seemed full, and by the time I left I was still reading the book I'd started at Gatwick.

The main problem was trying to focus on writing when there were so many distractions. Skyros is a surprisingly untouristy island - charter flights have not yet been introduced and most visitors arrive by ferry. The original inhabitants were pirates who built houses behind a huge crag to conceal them from anyone approaching by sea. Now the squat white cubes muddle pleasantly down the hillside, linked by narrow namefree cobbled streets.

By the second week, Bernice suggested we should start our own work. Most began novels; a couple tried their hand at short stories. All of us felt guilty when we weren't working. If Bernice spotted us in the village imbibing the local retsina she'd ask to see our notebooks. If she saw us sneaking off to the beach she'd check we were intending to work there.

Poor Bernice. She encouraged us to read some work to her daily, bullying our writing strengths from us and dismissing our weaknesses, but sometimes it seemed that almost everyone was avoiding her. What she didn't seem to grasp - or maybe she did, only too well - is that the first difficulty amateurs encounter with writing is just sitting down and doing it. Even so, it was obvious on our last night, when we each read an extract out loud after dinner, that we had all taken the workshop seriously enough to produce something of our own.

I found it awesome discussing my creative attempts with a celebrated novelist who has more than 20 books to her credit. But as I became enthusiastic about my work so did she, and shyness evaporated in a spirited exchange. Probably the most important thing she gave me was the confidence to continue - and a twist to my plot that I would never have thought of myself.

Come departure, I had completed chapter two; I hope to finish my novel over the next few months. But I wasn't dreaming of literary prizes by the time I left Skyros. In fact I was shocked at how little I had produced - roughly 6,000 words. If I had spent a solid fortnight writing at home, I could have completed about 25,000 words. Nor was anyone else exactly boasting about their output as they stuffed half-empty notebooks into their carry-on luggage.

If I had known beforehand how little I'd achieve, would I still have splashed out nearly pounds 1,000? Probably, although I can't in all honesty say I learnt how to write a novel - which was why I was prepared to spent roughly twice as much as I did on last year's Greek fortnight. But I did enjoy a memorable holiday in a special place with an agreeable bunch of people, some of whom have become good friends. And after all, two chapters is a start . . .

The two-week writers' workshop in July cost pounds 645. For details contact Skyros, 92 Prince of Wales Road, London NW5 3NE (071-267 4424). Dayrise Travel (071-485 6444) offers a London-Athens charter flight at pounds 155 plus airport tax, and a transfer both ways by bus and ferry including a hotel room in Athens for pounds 75.

(Photographs omitted)

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