What's the Greek for `inspiration'?

John Harrison had never written a word of fiction. So he attended a writers' workshop on the Greek island of Skyros
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The Independent Travel
"HERE'S a piece of Plasticine. Just play with it with your fingers. You'll soon find it starts to take on the shape of a creature." We were beginning a two-week Writers' Workshop course - three hours each morning - at the Skyros Centre, a British-run "alternative holiday" centre on the Greek island of Skyros.

The speaker was our "facilitator" for the first week, Andrew Davies, renowned adaptor of TV serials like Pride and Prejudice and House of Cards and creator of my own all-time favourite, A Very Peculiar Practice.

We were sitting - two men, eight women - around him on a horseshoe of divans in one of the centre's light airy rooms. The Plasticine was an unexpected start. Beforehand I had assumed we might have deep discussions about TV drama or famous novels, but - to my relief - I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead Andrew put the emphasis very firmly on fun. Indeed it was a word he constantly used.

Most - like me - had never written a word of fiction before though one woman had scripted several episodes for TV drama series. She had come because she felt she had lost confidence. Another had written a couple of radio plays.

Two were social workers who said they constantly came across interesting human stories and wanted a chance to write imaginatively about them instead of just compiling factual reports. One wanted to be able to keep a "vivid" diary to leave to her new grandchild and another hoped to write a filmscript based on her experience of being duped by a confidence trickster. Ages ranged from mid-30s to 60; jobs from hat designer to art historian. Apart from one married couple, we had all come on our own.

Suddenly I realised that my Plasticine seemed to be turning into a rabbit's ears and face. "Give your creatures each a name," said Andrew. "Then write down what it thinks of its face and body, how it's feeling, what it wants from life and, most important, its opinion of you. And don't be embarrassed. Remember it's doing the writing, not you!"

Later he asked us to write a 50-word story about our creatures. "Decide first whether it's a hero or the person a hero meets. And there's just one rule: `Then she woke up,' is absolutely banned!"

Clearly his aim was to get our imaginations into overdrive and pour words onto the page. It was a highly enjoyable formula as he led us through a succession of exercises. "See if you can think of 50 uses for a stone," he challenged us one morning. We managed it encouragingly quickly, feeling especially proud of "Having it as a quiet friend" and "To give a pebble an inferiority complex."

Faced with only a short time - usually no more than 20 minutes - to complete each piece, we soon threw caution, anxiety and inhibitions to the wind. Best of all, there was no time to worry about individual words, let alone try to better them. Without a word processor, shifting paragraphs or even phrases around was much too laborious and we were encouraged to find that our results seemed no worse for that.

Each time Andrew, who had started his working life as a teacher, got us to read out our pieces in turn - a process which felt excruciating at first. However as we rapidly gelled into a relaxed friendly group, we soon got used to it, especially as he was always encouraging, offering quick perceptive comments and seeing the funny side of every situation.

Our second week's teacher was Cherry Potter, a former head of screenwriting at the National Film & TV School. She began by getting us to analyse a scene in an avant-garde Italian film. Then she asked us to write - by next morning - a sequence of scenes based on something in our past lives. "Minimum four pages A4," she instructed, "and then make photocopies for everyone."

With the sun blazing down outside, the idea of homework came as a considerable shock but we all buckled down and the sole shopkeeper in the village to boast a photocopier beamed with delight when we all trooped in early next morning.

After distributing copies to each other, we had to cast our various characters and then hear them read the scenes. This often proved very moving as everyone had inevitably chosen something particularly significant to them.

There was an Irish country funeral, the reading of a will in a stern Scottish family, a child being sent off to boarding school and, from one of those who had never done any writing before, a simple but engrossing scene of a couple waiting for a train in Siena.

After each reading, Cherry asked us to comment in turn, but without discussion. Did the scene ring true? Were the relationships clear? Did the dialogue sound natural? Then she gave her view.

When we had been through them all, she asked us to do the same again, but this time including a memory, dream or fantasy and how it affected a situation. The process certainly taught us a lot but, as one of the class put it over a late-night drink, she was a "slow burn" whereas Andrew had been a "firecracker".

The Skyros Centre itself is a large modern villa with a wide shaded terrace facing down a hillside to the sea, about half a mile away. We shared it for our fortnight with two other courses: a painting group who all, both professionals and novices, said they had a "brilliant" time and a psychodrama group of pleasant but somewhat intense people who were seeking "personal development" by acting out painful moments in their lives. An early morning rhythm class and an early evening song-writing session were also on offer.

Everyone was billeted in local houses, each within a couple of minutes' walk. I had a simply furnished room with its own shower/loo in the house of a family who were friendly but spoke no English.

Most mornings I was woken by the village sounds - church bells, dogs, cockerels and spluttering mopeds - and the sky was always deep blue. Breakfast and lunch (mainly vegetarian) were served on the centre's terrace. Everyone was expected to help with the chores to help foster the community spirit which is an important part of the centre's ethos.

In the afternoons, some people had siestas and others went for walks in the quiet countryside but most lazed on the sandy beach. Once we all walked across the island (nine miles) to visit Atsitsa, a remote outdoor centre (run by the same company) which provides holidays for "mind, body and spirit". Another day the staff organised a boat trip to an isolated beach and its lonely taverns.

In the evenings, everyone drifted into Skyros Town for long leisurely meals in the tavernas along its sloping main street. A cluster of cube- like white houses with wooden balconies that blaze with bougainvillaea and geraniums, the town straggles over a hillside beneath the remains of an old fort. Most of its flagstone alleys are too narrow and steep for any traffic other than pedestrians and donkeys. An inspiring setting - or at least that's what we hoped it would prove by the time we found ourselves, pens poised once again, the following morning.

skyros fact file

This year Skyros has two-week writing courses running from 30 May to 16 October. These cost from pounds 804 to pounds 1,084 including half-board accommodation, flights from Gatwick and transfers. Single-room supplement is pounds 105. Teachers include Andrew Davies, Rachel Billington, Nell Dunn, D M Thomas and Sue Townsend. For further details contact Skyros, 92 Prince of Wales Road, London NW5 3NE (0171 267 4424).

Getting there

Though well supplied with bars and tavernas, the island is delightfully untouristy. To get to it, you either fly from Athens or - much more romantic - cross by ferry (21/2-hours) from Kimi on the mainland.

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