The prose, the pose, the passion

Britain, it seems, is full of wannabe novelists. So can a residential writing course release the creative genius, or is it just an excuse for a break in the country?

Somewhere in Britain there is a middle-aged man who has become addicted to taking writing classes. He does this so that he will never have to sit down and actually write. His story (if only he could put it into words) would go like this.

Successful businessman takes early retirement and decides that writing is to be his next career. So he goes on a course, and then another and another. "He was procrastinating," says the historical novelist Sue Hicks, who found herself teaching him on an East Midlands Arts residential writing weekend. "He admitted it to me. He told me, 'I'll do anything to avoid sitting down and writing. I'm afraid of failure because I've always been a success.' "

This story may be extreme but the theme is less so. "That's it, I'm not going to take any more writing courses until I actually write something," declared a friend, not for the first time. The kindest thing, is to let such outbursts pass without comment but even if this threat were carried out, another writer (or wannabe) would soon take her place. For writing courses - especially the residential ones that come with Agas, angst and scenery to die for - have never been so popular in Britain.

"Arvon's are booming but then we've been in the business for 28 years," says David Pease, national director of the Arvon Foundation, whose 61 courses this year are already 85 per cent booked. One in three people in Britain say they want to write a novel: more and more of us have decided the best way to start is to go on a course.

But why? Sue Lawley asked Hanif Kureishi, the author of The Buddha of Suburbia, much the same thing on Desert Island Discs. He had called teaching writing courses "a bit of a racket". What did he mean? "You can't give other people talent and you can't give other people discipline. And in the end those are the two things that make people into writers."

Both Kureishi and Lawley assume that these courses are mainly about learning how to write. And yet this may not be so. Richard Bell, editor of Writers News, has a better idea: "These courses aren't necessarily about learning how to put the commas in the right place but about the fact that you come out refreshed."

Others say these courses are more about putting down a marker, about taking writing seriously. "It is a statement of intent and a commitment of time and money," says Helen Dunmore, an Orange Prize winner and course tutor.

And you do not have to be Roland Barthes to figure out from the brochures that one of the reasons people choose to spend a week with some 15 strangers is the stunningly beautiful settings. The Arvon Foundation has three centres: Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, is an 18th-century mill owner's house set in 20 acres of steep pasture land; Totleigh Barton is a manor house (pre-Domesday and thatched) in Devon, while Moniack Mhor in Scotland is a converted croft house with beautiful views. These are the kinds of houses that host Agatha Christie mysteries - and inspire them.

"People come here from all over the world," says Elinor Wyn Reynolds, of the Taliesin Trust at Ty Newydd, near Llanystumdwy in Wales. "It's in Lloyd George's last home, parts of which date from around the 16th century. It's wonderful and higgledy-piggledy." Some advertisements in Writing magazine spend more space describing the location (and in some cases the food) than they do the courses.

The second indispensable ingredient is atmosphere. This is what everyone talks about when they return. The business of writing becomes almost a footnote in a recitation that revolves around communal cooking, wine and discussions on the meaning of life. This is the sort of intensity perhaps last experienced during student days and it is a kind of togetherness that is the opposite of a writer's normally lonely life.

"There are the extras that happen - intense discussions that last late into the night. There is a sort of wonderful freedom about it," says the novelist Michelle Roberts.

As the writer Maureen Freely notes: "A lot of people just don't get to have these kinds of experiences in normal life when you're watching TV every night."

Couch potatoes, or even commandos, need not even bother to apply. Instead of watching the box, there is discussion - hours and hours of it - but first there is dinner and a nightly study schedule that allows little room for slackers.

Here is Freely's description of an evening at Lumb Bank: "The students made, served and cleaned up dinner. I then read from 8.15 to 10pm. There were questions until 12 and a lot of people were still talking when I left - talking about writing, talking about something that maybe nobody else they know would want to talk about."

The other main ingredients of these successful writing courses are some respected tutors and a random selection of students. The tutors can cover all genres - poetry, novels, crime, even erotica - and the randomness comes by virtue that many of the courses are open to all and booked on a first come, first served basis. "There is a huge age range. This week it is early twenties to 60-ish; last week though it was ages 18 to 87," says Amanda Dalton, of Lumb Bank.

In such a hothouse atmosphere it is not surprising that friendships are formed, some of which last a lifetime. "People are looking for a connection with one another," says Elinor Wyn Reynolds. "Maybe their husband or family doesn't allow any time for literature. They are looking for a soulmate, a cerebral experience. It's a meeting, of minds."

Some, of course, might be looking for something else, a sort of Mr Goodbard, but would hardly admit it. But while a few throw doubt on the very idea of trysts - "When would they manage to be alone?" one veteran asked - hearts have been known to pound.

"Oh there have been some Arvon weddings," says Dalton. "Then there have also been some Arvon divorces."

"Lots of single people who have some degree of expertise with writing come and also because they want a holiday," says Tony Dawkins, who runs courses at the old Rectory in Fittleworth, West Sussex. "Otherwise they'd go get a hotel alone - and nobody would speak to them."

This is not the sort of problem one has on these retreats. "People often go to these courses when life hasn't quite turned out according to plan A, so they just might have started to ask a few questions," says Freely. "Sounds terrible to say but you often find people who have been through some horrible trauma recently. The typical person there will be on their second marriage, not their first. They may have just lost a partner, or a child, or have an illness. This is not a bad reason to go into writing. I would say that writing is thinking, and that is what these people want to do."

"Most of the people who come here never get published but that's not why they come," says Elinor Wyn Reynolds. On the other hand, there are those who come for the table tips: which editor to write to, which publisher to call.

When Leslie Williamson, of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, decided to take up writing at the age of 55, he went on a course. "It's not just what you get from the instructor," he says. "Over the dinner table you will find out about vanity publishing, editors who will read your stuff. What have you got to lose?"

Leslie had only to gain: at 73, he has published six whodunnits.

Michelle Roberts was never a writing student but there is a fierce note in her voice when she says: "Musicians take it for granted that they have to go to school. People just don't accept that you have to learn to write. I don't use the word talent. There is a desire to learn and a desire to write. Talent is not what it is about."

Keith Taylor, of the Nottingham Writers' Contact, has never been on a course. "I once saw an editor and she said, 'Don't go on a course. It can take away your character.' "

But not all editors know what they are talking about. Look at Pat Barker: ex-writing course student and now a Booker Prize winner.

WHERE TO GO IN SEARCH OF THE MUSE

Many guides, such as The Writer's Handbook, carry a comprehensive list of courses. It is also worth contacting your nearest university. Others include:

Arvon Foundation. Founded by two poets in 1968, Arvon runs courses at its three centres in Devon, West Yorkshire and Scotland from Monday to Saturday. There are 16 students and two professional writers for every one. Booking is first come, first served. Costs are pounds 275 inclusive (bursaries are available). Contact Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF.

Taliesin Trust is supported by the Arts Council of Wales. Like Arvon, courses run from Monday to Saturday with 16 students and two tutors. Also holds weekend courses on writing in Welsh. Fees are pounds 250 inclusive; bursaries available. Contact the Trust at Ty Newydd, Llanystumdwy, Cricieth, Gwynedd LL52 OLW.

Swanwick Writer's Summer School is 48 years old and still going strong. About 400 people attend the week-long event in August at the Hayes in Swanwick, Derbyshire. It costs from pounds 185 and includes seven course topics, nine speakers and many discussion groups. Contact Brenda Courtie at the New Vicarage, Parson's Street, Woodford Halse, Daventry, Northamptonshire NN11 3RE.

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