Writing courses

I did threaten you with this – the literary version of ‘What I did on my Holidays’! Here it is, five days on an Arvon course for your delectation and delight …

Day 1

I arrived at Moniack Mohr (MM) with the hangovery feeling of somebody who hasn’t slept and the low grade irritability of somebody who feels hungover but has done nothing to deserve it.

Dinner – good. Lots of people though, and names to learn, and then sitting on very soft sofas with other people, all of whom seem to (a) know each other’s names (b) have some idea what they want to get from the week (c) manage their nervousness better than I do. A L (or Alison, as I must learn to call her) Kennedy, leads us in a relaxation exercise which actually works. One of us (not me) falls asleep …

After dinner – not so good. Talking to Gill Dennis who is a nice man from Oregon as well as being a shit-hot screenwriter, I discovered that my screenplay, written in blood in May, revised in June and sent in July, had somehow not got to Alison Kennedy, or Gill, and we are now in September. I went upstairs, thanked whatever intuition told me to bring my laptop, and downloaded the screenplay onto my memory stick. I can’t say any of this made me happy, or boosted my confidence.

At MM we all take it in turns to cook dinner – not individually but in groups of three or four or so. I was supposed to be cooking on Wednesday but swapped to Tuesday so that I can get my cooking session out of the way and hope that by the time I get to sign up for the on-on-one sessions with Alison and Gil they might actually have read some of the screenplay. It’s frowned on to have one-on-one sessions on your cooking day, as it takes you away from your kitchen duties. All this organisation and planning makes me nervous – I’m sure I’ve misunderstood something and will cock things up. I’m also deeply unhappy about the screenplay not having been read: I might as well not have written the thing at all. I came upstairs early – 10pm, although I suspect I should be downstairs socialising and being jolly because I feel a bit demoralised and at the same time despise myself for this preciousness and know that I shouldn’t feel it: lots of people didn’t even send anything in because they didn’t know they could (were supposed to?) and so I am in the same position as them. It doesn’t feel like it though – it feels like I’ve been fucked over somehow.

MM itself, what I’ve seen of it, is sturdy rather than beautiful, in lovely countryside which I hope to explore a little tomorrow. My single room is small, basic and more than adequate.

Day 2

These are better days … as Springsteen had it. I woke at 06:30 and lay as still as possible until I heard somebody else moving about – neurotic or what? But the day was glorious, sunshine and heather, a sheep tang in the air like woolly jumpers hung on the washing line, Angus made porridge for breakfast and it was excellent. Nobody has died at home since I left yesterday morning and generally I feel much more confident about being here. And I went for a walk and met a man with a dog who loved me with the extreme lovingness of dogs who rarely meet new people to wag themselves at. Of course, all that may fade as soon as we assemble for our first session, it usually does.

I was interested when we did our introductions last night to find how many of the participants are already in the fillum world in some way: designing, acting, producing and how all these people want to write – and yet when you talk to screenwriters they tell you they are the lowest and least-considered of the whole production team: interesting then that so many want to take on the role. Also interesting, three of those who work in broadcast media talked about having their idea beaten or knocked out of them by others and wanting to gain confidence through the course. It is obviously as brutal a world as the gossip has it.

The pattern is to be ‘lectury things’ (Alison Kennedy’s phrase) from ten until lunch – free writing time in the afternoon – and ‘something’ in the evening. Gill Dennis kicked off today’s session. He is very nice, with fine features, like Dirk Bogarde: a face not so much mobile as nuanced. At dinner last night I mentioned Angelina Jolie and he said something about her being a much nicer and more genuine person than she comes across in the media. It took a couple of seconds for me to register that I was talking to a man who could comment with some confidence and insight on the Jolie/Pitt home life!

So session one. Gill took us through a series of questions that illuminate character: what was the most terrifying, the most shameful and the most joyous thing that happened to you? Two brave participants actually sat and answered a series of these questions (email me at kay(at)klsexton-adsl(dot)demon(dot)co(dot)uk if you’d like the list in full) from their own lives. It was at times harrowing to listen and empathise but when we were asked to pull out the significant inessentials the whole exercise became revelatory – themes, linked events, even apparent coincidences ran through true stories told by people who hadn’t even seen those connections for themselves. And that, Gill told us, is how you go to the heart of a character: their shame and terror make the audience empathise with them and their pursuit of joy gives the audience something to hope for. Brilliant stuff which I have expressed appallingly badly, but you had to be there to see how Gill made it work.

Today, instead of having any tutorials, I was part of Team Tuesday, doing the cooking: moussaka, vegetarian moussaka and fruit salad. I think I was quite content not to have to sit down with Alison and Gill and talk about my screenplay and so when the list went up for tomorrow I made sure I put my name down for a tut with each of them before my nerve could go. Pathetic. Why travel to Scotland for five days to sit at the feet of such luminaries and then avoid the chance to have their critical insight on my work? Why indeed? Not because I can’t take criticism – simply because I am embarrassed and panic about things like having to knock on doors and introduce myself. And yes, I can hear every student I’ve ever taught laughing derisively at the idea that I’m shy and retiring, but it’s true – I would walk ten miles rather than knock on a door.

Day 3

Something decisive happened today – I talked to Gill and decided that writing screenplays is not going to be a big part of my future. This, which was already an intuition I’ve expressed to several people, crystallised around the reality of the accounts he and Alison have been giving of the way screen-writing works – and it’s definitely a process that I would find consuming, frustrating and in the longer term impossible to sustain. So that’s the meta-picture. The micro-picture is some good advice from Alison about the screenplay I’ve already written and how to make it work better (jettison 50%, change location, keep one character alive who dies half-way through) all of which makes me feel energised about the craft of getting that one nailed, even if I never write another in my life.

Terrible confession time – instead of doing screenplay things, I have spent the afternoon taking the lessons Gill and Alison have been teaching and converting them to lessons about novels – and they are equally golden applied that way, particularly if you’re not a visual writer. I also went for a walk and refreshed my memory about the landscape of the region, which is spectacular and comes at you in several dimensions: there’s the view, and then the wind which forces itself on your attention by equal amounts of pushing you sideways and invading your sinuses with the scent of heather and wet grass and pine, and the sounds – an osprey way in the distance like a bratty kid dropping its ice-cream and blaming its little brother, the air in the pines and the sound of frogs who, for reasons mysterious, were crossing the road in their numbers, with a sort of tiny hot-water-bottle flopping sound. I ended up standing beside one frog as a Land Rover screeched up the hill and had to swerve round me, because I couldn’t let it run over the poor creature and if I bent down to pick up the frog it might have run over me instead through not seeing me in time. The driver is probably used to batty writers in the road though: for all I know, there’s a sign about us in Gaelic ‘beware – writers ahead’.

Dinner was fantastic, especially as I played no part in the cooking of it, the wind howled round the cottage in a satisfyingly Heathcliffian fashion during the evening, and Gill took us through significant scenes in Walk the Line, a film already good and made more so by his inside information.

Day 4

We started the day by examining opening scenes and wrote as faithful a version as we each could of the first 15 scenes of No Country for Old Men – tomorrow we’ll get feedback on it. Ugh. Tut with Gill who said something nice about my screenplay and then told me how, should I choose to, I could make it a much better screenplay. He was right and I’m going to do it, just to prove to myself that I can. In the afternoon I sat and looked at the current novel under revision and the new novel being drafted and saw that there was not enough immediacy to the opening of any of the chapters and got down to editing and revising with a happy heart.

In the evening, after a walk that was more like a fight against the elements one way and a being blown, kite-like all the way back at disturbing speed, and a dinner that was wonderful (and full of ballast; I should have walked after it, the wind would not have shifted me an inch on the return journey) John Byrne came to talk to us. Actually he showed us The Slab Boys and then sat and chatted – no ‘talking to us’ went on because he’s far too nice a man and I was transported to the gorgeous but dark world he created for the Channel 4 version of his stage play and loved everything about it. But then, everything he said afterwards (including that it took eight years for the production to get off the ground) reminded me that I’m happy to have crossed this business off my list of potential future activities. John was so dry-humoured and yet so utterly without pretension that we kept him talking probably much longer than we should have done. I hope he got home safely.

Day 5

I have had enough. Too much. Not that everybody isn’t lovely – because they are. I’m just overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance and vitality of everybody around me, and the more clearly they come into focus, the more fragmented I feel myself becoming and certainly my ‘work’ (how very pretentious that sounds) is strained by being surrounded by others – it becomes little reflections of things that have gone on around me the past few days. Okay, that makes no sense at all. I don’t mean I’m writing vignettes of the course (although actually I am taking a story told by one participant and building it into my novel!) but that moods and thoughts and even the expressions on the faces of the people around me are turning up in the current bout of writing without me consciously intending them to.

Gill’s unpicking of the first 15 scenes of No Country for Old Men was masterly. Alison gave us an exercise on getting into a character’s skin which was disturbingly successful. The whole day was fantastic and I am completely wiped out, struggling even to put one word in front of another when somebody asks me something.

Most people read something of their work in progress in the evening, after a venison dinner that topped all other dinners and a piper to pipe us to table. It was impressive to hear the range of work that we’d all been undertaking during the five days. It’s been a really fascinating and rewarding week – and I am so, so glad that tomorrow I’m going home.


  1. Sara
    14th September 2008

    That sounds very intense, but useful and important too. I saw A.L Kennedy speaking at Chareston earlier in the year, and thought she was fabulous.

  2. Lou
    14th September 2008

    what an amazing experience with lots of ups and downs, but I think the main thing was you came to some kind of realization about screenplay and at the same time got inspiration for your novel … (just change the name of your fellow writers if you put them in the book ;=)

  3. Charles Lambert
    14th September 2008

    This is fascinating, Kay. I feel as though I’ve been there with you. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something like this quite a lot recently and I’m not sure whether your description makes me think I should or not, which indicates how typically nuanced and precise your account is. I’m not sure I’d like having to cook with others though. Some people can be SO difficult in the kitchen.

  4. Vanessa Gebbie
    15th September 2008

    Great honest account – I wonder whether some of the influences will take a while to sink through into the creative layers?

    I had a week at Arvon last oct in Shropshire (first and last). It was too good to do another.

    But it was working on what I know I love -fiction- so different to (from?) your experience. We had one to ones ev ery day, not built into the schedule but because the tutors (Maggie gee and Jacob Ross) just did them.

    Cooking was a blast, recipes handed out by the Arvon people, too much wine too early, and a lot of laughs.

    But you will have made good contacts, and learned loads, even if it doesnt seem like it, Im sure.

    Brilliant writeup. I felt I was there… sounds a beautiful place.

  5. Kip de Moll
    15th September 2008

    Sounds like a great experience, a proper ledge from which to review yourself, your habits and aspirations. Total immersion is a frightening thing, even for a few days. Sounds like the walks may have been some of the best part–even though the wind was blowing, your thoughts must have been keeping ahead.

  6. Mary McCluskey
    17th September 2008

    Fascinating stuff, Kay. An intense experience, and not an easy one. I would hate it, of course, I am shyer than you are, but I think you have clearly learned a lot. Some of that will show up in your novels and short stories, even when you’re not aware of it.

    A super honest account. Thanks for posting it.

  7. Dave King
    17th September 2008

    Absolutely fascinating. I have long wondered exactly what went on at an Arvon course. You have answered many of my queries, at least in part. Thanks for that.

  8. Kay Sexton
    18th September 2008

    Thanks all.

    perhaps this is the place to say that Alison Kennedy was just wonderful. I don’t want to gush but really, really, really wonderful.

    Did I say she was wonderful? She was!

  9. Annie Wicking
    21st September 2008

    I always wondered what went on, on one of these writing courses, so was very pleased to have read your blog.

    Good luck with your writing.

    Best wishes,


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