TRAVEL / We're dreaming of a best-seller: Beverley D'Silva surveys courses in the UK

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The Independent Culture
THE RESIDENTIAL writing holiday has come into its own in recent years. 'I want to write a best-seller' has replaced 'I want to win the pools' as the foremost escapist fantasy of our times. And even though 'holiday' is probably a misnomer (there's no gain without pain), established residential writing course are frequently overbooked.

A writing holiday holds out much promise. It could leave your imagination, your career, even your life, refreshed and invigorated. 'A writing course can provide new ideas, new directions,' says the blurb from the Ty Newydd centre in Wales. 'It can help people recognise their strengths and weaknesses. It can give them a new confidence in their writing.'

There is a hit-and-miss element, as with any holiday, because the precise flavour and texture depends on the chemistry of attenders - and, to some extent, the tutor. Some say the unpredictability makes it doubly exciting, or trying. Barry Unsworth, author of Pascali's Island and Sacred Hunger (this was joint winner of the Booker prize last year), has taught novel-writing at the Arvon Foundation, the grandaddy of residential arts centres. 'People invest a lot of time and emotion in their work, irrespective of their talent,' he says. 'The tutor must be sensitive to that, and I ended one course emotionally wrung.' Not so wrung that he's been put off teaching forever, though. 'It can also be an exhilarating experience,' he says.

Being part of a small group - living, breathing, letting blood together for up to five days - can be heady, intense and intimate. Inevitably, bonds are made and illusions shattered. So be prepared for critical feedback as well as support.

Not all attenders want to make writing their career; few expect to be uncovered as the new Joyce or La Plante (if TV is their genre). So what do the majority get out of it? Can it be just a fun break? Is there any danger of being stuck with egotists and frustrated scribblers with no means of escape?

People who go on writing holidays, says one tutor, fall into three categories: 'those with genuine talent who could, with encouragement and time, become professionals; hobby writers who do it for pleasure; and frustrated hopefuls with no hope of being published. The last might find the truths they encounter difficult to deal with.'

What of the debate about whether good writing can be taught? It depends on your chosen genre, says Sally Warboyes of Fen Farm in Suffolk, another centre offering courses: 'Writing for radio and TV is a craft and, like all crafts, it can be learnt.'

According to Barry Unsworth, 'You can't teach people how to write novels: that's down to temperament and simply getting on with it. You can analyse where people are going, maybe even suggest a change of direction, and give constructive advice. Novice writers are often unsure of their strengths and may need help to believe in their writing.'

Novelist Alice Thomas Ellis also aims to fine-tune writers' subject matter. 'Some people's lives are fascinating, but they can't see it,' she says. 'One woman I taught had grown up in South Africa. Yet she had a compulsion to write an English novel in the style of Joanna Trollope. It was a waste of the wealth of material she had within her grasp.'

Most courses cost between pounds 200 and pounds 300 (food, accommodation and tuition included) for four to five days. Grants and bursaries may be available for students, the unemployed, pensioners and those on low incomes. Average course intake is eight or 16 students and pupils must be over 16 years of age. There are usually two tutors, with a 'reader' visiting midweek. All the tutors I spoke to agreed that a desire to write is a most suitable qualification (or reason) for attending a course. And yes, it can be enormous fun.

The main tried-and-tested residential writing courses are those offered by the Arvon Foundation, its Welsh sister Ty Newydd, Fen Farm in Suffolk, and Tre Fechan Arts Centre in North Wales.

THE ARVON FOUNDATION

The Arvon Foundation, now in its 25th year, has been a strong influence in promoting creative writing in the education system. About 1,000 students pass through its doors each year. The Foundation has three centres: Lumb Bank, an 18th-century mill owner's house in Yorkshire; Moniack Mhor, a croft house with views over Inverness; and Totleigh Barton, a thatched manor house in West Country woodland. The courses are fairly evenly split between poetry, fiction and drama (mainly for TV and radio).

David Wilson, 27, from Bristol, has been on four Arvon writing courses. 'Much depends on the mix of people, but I do love the unpredictability of that,' he says.

There are still places on 'Starting to Write Poetry', with Michael Laskey and Carole Satyamurti (Aug 23-28, Totleigh Barton); 'Short Stories' with Will Self and Carlo Gebler (Oct 25-30, Lumb Bank); and 'Murder Mystery' with Simon Brett and Liza Cody (Nov 22-27, Totleigh Barton). The Arvon Foundation course fee, which includes all food, tuition and accommodation, is pounds 220.

The Arvon Foundation: Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF. Tel: 0422 843714. Moniack Mhor, Moniack, Kirkhill, Inverness IV5 7PQ. Tel: 0463 83336. Totleigh Barton, Sheepwash, Beaworthy, Devon EX21 5NS. Tel: 0409 23338.

TY NEWYDD

Ty Newydd, the last home of Lloyd George, has views over Cardigan Bay towards the mounts of Meirionnydd. The centre is a registered charity, which was set up to encourage writing in English and Welsh. Ty Newydd courses run from Monday evening to Saturday morning, and accommodate up to 16 participants with two tutors. Caroline Pitcher, winner of the Independent's Story of the Year competition last month, is among Ty Newydd's alumni. She attended the 'Writing for Children' course run by Jan Mark and Adele Geras before writing Kevin the Blue, her tale for 6- to 9-year-olds.

Forthcoming attractions include 'Poetry' with Wendy Cope and Peter Finch (20-25 Sept); and 'Writing and Re-Writing' with Michele Roberts and Sarah Lefanu (1-6 Nov). Accommodation is shared, with some single rooms. Unsuitable for people permanently in wheelchairs.

Ty Newydd fees, which include all food, tuition and accommodation, are pounds 200. Weekend course (Fri-Sun) is pounds 85 (inc).

Ty Newydd: details from Sally Baker, Taliesin Trust, Ty Newydd, Llanystumdwy, Cricieth, Gwynedd LL52 OLW. Tel: 0766 522811.

TRE FECHAN

Tre Fechan runs Writers Block courses, the brainchild of novelists Alice Thomas Ellis and Shelley Weiner. Alice Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) met Shelley, a former journalist, on a one-day writing workshop in 1989.

'I knew about her journalistic work. Then she wrote a poem which I found very moving. She could clearly do both,' says Anna, speaking from her ivy-hung, bohemian manse in north London. The two became friends and formed a tutoring alliance. Shelley has recently had her third novel published. She is in her mid-forties - the age Anna was when she began writing 'seriously'.

'A lot of people who come to us haven't written before. Men tend to pick a genre and get stuck in. Women particularly lack confidence. Some people try to dominate. It's like chickens,' says Anna, searching for a metaphor. 'When one is injured, the rest take advantage, and will peck it to death if they get the chance. On Writers Block courses, competitive is out. We want people to feel positive. We're in the business of growing writers.'

The courses are conducted at Tre Fechan, a 500-year-old stone farmhouse in the Welsh valley town of Pennant Melangell, home of Anna and her husband, Tom. Anna teaches there about six times a year. (Shelley Weiner, Beryl Bainbridge, Richard Graves and Gladys Mary Coles are all also regular tutors). The emphasis is on the novel as a genre, and groups are restricted to eight participants. One ex-student commented, 'Their teaching is much more personal. You do feel they really care.'

Anna and Shelley are enthusiastic, though the cynical might put this down to the newness of the venture. 'We are still so baby. We feel we're much more like hostesses than teachers,' says Haycraft, who takes turns preparing supper for all house guests, serving up and joining tale-telling sessions round the refectory table which have gone on long into the night. 'We have discovered some real talent through this work, which makes it worthwhile.'

Tre Fechan offers courses in poetry, short stories, biography, getting published and writing for TV. There is no selection procedure, but applicants are asked to submit 1,000 words to give an indication of style. Courses run from Thursday morning to Sunday lunchtime, although guests are welcomed on Wednesday evening for dinner. Tre Fechan fees, including food, tuition and accommodation, are pounds 325.

Tre Fechan: Details from Tom and Michelle Haycraft, Tre Fechan Arts Centre, Pennant Melangell, Nr Llangynog, Powys, North Wales SY10 OEU. Tel: 0691 74346. For details on London courses telephone 081-455 9368.

FEN FARM

At Fen Farm the founder, Sally Warboyes is a testament to the fact that successful writing need not depend on formal education. She describes herself proudly as 'an Eastender who left school at 14'. She began writing 10 years ago, in her late thirties, after her family had grown up, and set up the Fen Farm centre four years ago. Her serial Wild Hops was recently broadcast on Radio 4, to excellent reviews.

Fen Farm is renowned for its fun, ambience and informality. Emphasis is on more commercial forms of writing, less on poetry. They tend to have one big-name tutor, rather than two, and Sally takes over on Friday mornings. Forthcoming courses include: 'Novels, Fantasy' by David Gemmell (6-11 Sept); 'Travel Writing' by Mike Gerrard (8-13 Nov); and 'Writing to Perform' by Nick Toczek (29 Nov-4 Dec). Fen Farm full fees are pounds 235.

Fen Farm: Details from Sally Warboyes, 10 Angel Hill, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 1UZ. Tel: 0284 753110 or 0379 898741.

(Photograph omitted)

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