Tales of sex and death in deepest Devon: After conducting a week-long creative writing course, Alexander Stuart has learnt something about passion

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MONDAY 'I have a gun and I'm not afraid to use it,' I tell my co-tutor, the novelist and poet Deborah Levy, as the English countryside flashes past our InterCity carriage and we face up to the prospect of a week in Devon teaching a writer's workshop titled 'Fiction and Passion'. 'Sixteen students? A little judicious culling may be required.'

'They'll take one look at us,' Deborah says, drawing my attention to her rather fine fake leopard-skin brothel creepers, 'and they'll say, 'Oh, the Bonnie and Clyde of the literary set'.'

Now seems as good a time as any to plan this course for the Arvon Foundation, so over a British Rail bacon and tomato sandwich we try to determine precisely what the participants might expect from a title plucked from the air when agreeing to the assignment 12 months ago.

'How does passion transform into fiction?' asks the prospectus. 'How do enthusiasms, desires, drives, translate to the page? How do you fictionalise truth, yet remain truthful?'

'How do we structure the next four and a half days?' might be more to the point, but by the time the train pulls into Exeter, we have some sort of clue.

From Exeter to the farmhouse at Totleigh Barton, where the workshop is based, takes almost as long as the train ride from Paddington. We examine our students on the bus. They seem a quiet lot, no obvious psychopaths, but who can tell?

TUESDAY We start in the barn with a general discussion of structure and departure points. Deborah and I are keen to stress a sense of place, so I mention that my novel The War Zone began as much from a desire to write powerfully about Devon as to explore family and incest. The sense of place at Totleigh Barton is strong: a thatched manor house listed in the Domesday Book, lost amid primal hills. Stuart Delves, the course director, warned us about the bullocks: 'If they charge, take a step forward. Don't run, if only to avoid a loss of dignity.'

We move on to an exercise Deborah sets, creating a kind of haiku by juxtaposing three elements - a world event, sounds in the barn and what we see when we look at our palms. These 'poems' have surprising resonance. 'A door slams/The death of Marlene/ A deep line to the heart,' reads Geraldine Brennan, a freelance journalist from Brighton. We talk about how small observation illuminates a larger picture. And Geraldine, who wants to get beyond the humour she uses so effectively in conversation, here reveals more direct emotion.

Next we announce an exercise for the week: to write a six-page love story, two pages per day, the results to be read out each evening after supper. Deborah and I have devised the rules for this on the train. Two names, Beagle and Ross, whose gender may vary and who should play a central role in the narrative. It should involve a sense of place, a sense of threat and an accident. Moreover, wanting the group to tackle material they might otherwise shy away from, they must write about sex - but not comfortable, lyrical sex. Instead, masturbation. Work should begin this afternoon, while we start individual tutorials.

WEDNESDAY We begin to feel we're holding a doctor's surgery. In more ways than one. Already, themes are emerging. The fact that I have written about the death of my son in Five and a Half Times Three: The Short Life and Death of Joe Buffalo Stuart has drawn some people to the workshop and prompts them to talk intimately about the death of partners and parents. One woman says she feels she didn't know her husband any better the day he died than the day she married him. Another , having asked whether Deborah and I are squeamish, describes in blunt detail the discovery of her mother's body, already dead 10 days, in the heatwave of 1990.

But it is not death itself, rather the impulse and the liberty to explore what's left, that seems a prime concern. Several of the students are in their twenties, but many are in their late fifties and early sixties and want to find in their writing a shape to their lives. There are only three men on the course, but one, Bob Menzies, is 72 and wants to write about his varied life so that his seven-year-old son will know who his father is and was.

By the end of the day Deborah and I know some of the occupational hazards a psychotherapist faces, and we are ready for the evening's readings. Last night's set a high standard and showed how very differently 17 people (Stuart Delves has chosen to sit in) interpret a fairly specific brief.

So we have a poetic tale of passion, fruit and a river from Laura Martin and a sensual unfolding of frigidity from Harriet Kline. Annabel Heseltine has written about an aeroplane and the faith in a lover which crash together, and Judy Sadgrove about a man's unfulfilled longing for a lonely hearts box number respondee. And Stuart, who seemed such a nice, quiet man, now reveals himself as a very unusual individual. His story is set on a slave galleon and involves a glass-eyed captain, a painted, androgynous dwarf and punishments too lurid to recount. Mixed with its accomplished, outlandish humour is a useful thread of social comment.

THURSDAY By the end of today I'm thinking about using my shotgun on myself. I talk for three hours in the morning about the problems of shaping a narrative, and read from Henry and the Sea, the children's book I wrote with my son, to illustrate how specific elements - location, lines of dialogue, a sense of love and loss - can be turned into fiction. In the afternoon Deborah and I hold the last of the individual tutorials, then go for a long walk, having loudly proclaimed, 'We're free]'

The workshop has been exhausting, the days not ending till around midnight, with the readings. The effort of trying to focus on 17 people's lives and concerns has led to a tendency to zone out from time to time and stare into space. Tomorrow we will listen to the completed love stories, although Deborah must leave at lunchtime. She has to catch a plane on Saturday, to spend the evening as a judge of the Gibralter Song Contest. It seems the mayor is a fan of hers.

FRIDAY What's exciting about hearing the completed stories is the sense of progress. Everyone wishes there had been more time and scope for individual attention (although at pounds 200, including food and accommodation, the workshop hardly seems overpriced), but the general conclusion is that a lot of specific problems have been addressed and some new directions found.

The 'passion' of the course title is perhaps the hardest element to identify, but in a sense that's the point. Passion comes from an ability to open up to emotions and face them honestly, and that is precisely what good writing demands. Deborah and I are certainly passionate about the work of one of our students. John Carlile has, we believe, a distinctive voice, a totally original and wryly humorous take on life. 'He's a genius,' Deborah observes. We hope to help find a publisher for the novel he is writing, its first part titled A Short Biography of Sleep.

After lunch I am on my own. I must focus even more acutely on each story. We break at 4pm for the students on today's rota to prepare supper (I am getting to like the bustle of a communal kitchen) and I go for a walk through bullock territory with a few of the others.

After the last of the readings, I try to find what in America is called a sense of closure. Culling has not been required, I point out, though I now know who the psychopaths are and would not accompany them down a deserted Devon road at night. I say that the full impact of the week will not be felt until later - although already several people have said these few days have provided a turning point. And masturbation, a theme for which I have been criticised by some, has in fact stretched everyone as writers. Because many were uncomfortable to approach it, they have been forced to find new solutions in their work and have discovered passionate, emotional material.

I, too, have learnt much in terms of the texture of people's lives. Everyone here has their own narrative, their own dramas and dilemmas, more complex than any fiction. Oh yes, and I fell in love.

'Tribes', Chatto & Windus, pounds 13.99. 'The War Zone', paperback: Vintage, pounds 4.99; clothback: pounds 14.99, Hamish Hamilton. 'Five and a Half Times Three' (with Ann Totterdell) Vintage, pounds 5.99.

For workshops contact Stuart Delves, the Arvon Foundation, Totleigh Barton, Sheepwash, Beaworthy, Devon EX21 5NS, telephone 040923 338.