Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Arvon and Permissions

I just got back from the most wonderful week tutoring a short story course, together with the fabulous Adam Marek, at the Arvon Foundation's heavenly Totleigh Barton centre! There is always something magical about an Arvon course - after so many years they just have the formula right, the combination of a small group, a focussed five days of workshops and one-to-one meetings, the constant supply of food, including dinner cooked by a different quartet of participants each night, and the remote setting with gorgeous views!

But this time there was an extra special dash of fairy dust - maybe something to do with the group being particularly serene, creative, curious and willing to do any of the crazy things Adam and I asked of them! Many many new stories were begun last week, by the two of us too. And the staff - Claire, Olly, Steph, Eliza, Bridget, Caroline, Huxley - making us feel so at home. And the luminous Helen Dunmore, our special guest, talking to us so candidly about her life and work.


Adam's written a brilliant blow-by-pasty account of our week here, (how did I miss the pasties?) so I won't go over that, but I wanted to talk about one concept that kept coming up during the course: Permission. Permission to write about anything you want, in any style you want. And where does that permission come from? 

I have seen this in my own writing career - I can almost pinpoint other people's work that has opened my eyes and allowed me to try something I'd never tried before. Never thought of before.(All Over, a short story collection by Roy Kesey, was a revalation in 2007).

And it really hit home to me, how important this is - and, thus, how vital it is to read everything you can get hold of - when I was talking to undergraduates at Bath Spa Uni, my old alma mater, recently. I talked, of course, about using science as inspiration for fiction. Someone put their hand up and said, "So, do you think it's okay to use anything as inspiration, science, or maybe history?" I said Yes, I do, I think everything is up for grabs, and it wasn't until afterwards that I realised that perhaps I had just given that questioner permission he might have needed, that he hadn't just taken it as a given that a fiction writer can scavenge from anywhere. That really made me think.

This came up in an article in this weekend's Guardian review, a profile of Gerard Woodward:
At the same time, he was encountering the two authors whose work would mold the tone and temper of his own. "I was reading Updike and Nabokov for the first time. Updike showed me it was possible to write in a realist way, with a poetic approach. I'd never come across his blend of poetic sensibility and prosaic imagination in realist fiction before. Nabokov blew me away for the same reasons; not quite as down to earth, but he has the same qualities of poetry and playfulness. I found reading them both incredibly liberating, and permission-giving for what I wanted to do. They were the presiding spirits when I was writing August [the first novel in the trilogy]. Everything fell into place, after years of struggling both with novels and autobiography in poetry. I thought, at last I've found a way of writing about autobiographical material that works for me."
[Read the full article here.]
What has given you permission in your writing? Care to share? A person? A book? A film? A TV show? I'd love to have a discussion about it! The flipside of permission is taboo, and I planted this thought in our Arvon participants' minds on Day One: What wouldn't you write about, whether it's something that society considers taboo or it's personal? And what might be a taboo for you in how you write? No writing from the opposite sex, for example, or the 3rd person plural?


Anonymous said...

Yes, it's enormously important to get these permissions or keys to show you want, in the first place, you've been wanting to do, perhaps without knowing it and what is possible for you in your fiction. For me, Nabakov, yes and Steinbeck and Bradbury for poetry yet simplicity in fiction, Kevin Barry for the power and beauty of the colloguial, native words and wordplay, Ali Smith for quirky and twitter finds Marc Nash and Penny Goring for getting every ounce out of words and by juxtaposition making them totally new.

Anonymous said...

'what' in the first place was what I meant to say, not want!

Anonymous said...

It sounds a wonderful week.
i suppose we want a lot of people to read what we write (ultimately to be published) but we also second guess what people don't want to read. In trying to produce our strongest work, we close off untried possibilities as too difficult or not appropriate

Avril said...

Really interesting post which made me think about how in my late 40's I met a prison writer in residence, author Wendy Robertson (I was teaching at the time) and began working with her. Up until then I hadn't contemplated writing - it was something I'd done as a teenager and then had closed down for me by lack of privacy and other family issues.
Wendy got me writing, read a piece I wrote as an introduction to a compilation of prisoners' writing we were planning to publish and declared I was a writer. From that moment on the floodgates opened and I've been writing ever since.

Sue Guiney said...

A fascinating idea, and one that I continue to grapple with no matter how many things get published. I remember asking you for permission once when we were discussing flash fiction. I have asked other writers, and even my publisher once (thought that was scarier). It's ultimately a confidence issue, though, isn't it?

Tania Hershman said...

Alison, that's a great list, so varied! Thanks for sharing that. I think, yes, the essence might be not knowing what you want to do until you see it in someone else's writing.

Pete - very nicely put, market pressures, or trying to be "publishable" or "winning" can definitely put a lid on creative expression, can't they? Hard to fight against it. That's another kind of permission, the permission to write something unpublishable.

Avril, how wonderful to have someone else declare you a writer! I had a similar experience myself, I wonder if these amazing people like Wendy realise what an effect they had on us? Thank goodness for them.

Sue - funny, I remember asking you for permission re poetry. A good thing, when we can "permit" each other, eh? It definitely is partly confidence, and partly, as Alison mentioned above, sometimes not even knowing what you might want to do until you see someone else's writing and think, Wow, I didn't realise that was even possible!

Oscar Windsor-Smith said...

What an interesting angle, Tania. You've set us all thinking, analysing. Thank you so much because now I've remembered a couple of my 'permissions': The first was from a tutor on a distance learning course, who said – whilst also being appropriately critical of my first tottering steps into creative writing – that she thought I had talent, and to which she added that she didn't say that to all her students. I eventually flunked out of the course, partly due to business pressure, and partly because the non-fiction parts didn't inspire me. The second, and more significant permission, came from a playwright I was doing electrical work for, who read a handful of my very first short story efforts. She made similar noises to my erstwhile tutor, but then made the observation that changed my attitude to writing and gave me a rare insight into myself. She said I idealised women in my writing. That was a tectonic bombshell. Eureka. One thing led to another and I took that – rightly or wrongly – as a challenge to write something from a realistic female viewpoint. Stupidly, a novel, well 1/2 a novel… Don't ask, but the point is that I learned that I could – or perhaps I gained permission to – write as anything I pleased. As someone else observed you don't (necessarily) have to be an axe murderer to write about being one.

Mm. I have a lot more thinking to do on this subject.

Thanks again, Tania.

Tania Hershman said...

Oscar, thanks so much for sharing all that with us, how interesting that one permission came from within a kind of creative writing structure and one came from something else entirely, through your "day job"! Amazing how just one seemingly small comment can release so much. It's an interesting topic to think about, isn't it? And yes, thank goodness research into axe-murdering isn't necessary!

RichardS said...

Interesting thoughts, and something that resonates with me.

A few years ago I was struggling while writing short stories. Just finding ideas was proving difficult. I then read the short story collection 'Everyday' by Lee Rourke and it proved enormously inspiring. It made me realise that there are no limits to what you can write. Everything is fair game; characters, events, brief scenes - they all can provide inspiration.

It was wonderfully freeing. Sometimes I have to remind myself, but it doesn't take long.

Margaret said...

Hi Tania,thank you for such an interesting post. I remember being in Totleigh Barton (isn't it a wonderful spot?)in August 2007 being tutored by John Moat & Peter Please. I had an afternoon meeting with John in the goose house and we chatted about my writing and he then sent me off to write the first page of a novel. Outwardly composed, inwardly I reeled in shock. I mean I'd said I wanted to write but here was someone taking me seriously! Not just anyone, but John Moat himself, the very modest and lovely man who founded Arvon. I felt that my bluff had been seriously called. It was a transformative moment.

It would be wonderful if we had an Irish Arvon - it is such an inspirational organisation that believes that 'anyone can be a writer' and follows through on that belief by creating the conditions to help it come about.

Tania (or anyone else reading this), if you know of a way to get it going in Ireland I'd love to hear from you.

All best wishes,

Margaret said...

For some reason the gremlins wouldn't allow me link to Wordpress with my earlier post. My blog is www.margaretaobrien.com

Tania Hershman said...

Richard, how wonderful, I'm sure Lee will be thrilled to know he was your "permission"!

Margaret, it is just that, isn't it, with Arvon. I've had that experience myself. They take you seriously, you've turned up on a writing course and they tell you to write, then they tell you you're a writer. It's some kind of miracle! As for Ireland, I love going to this place, as a retreat, and they also have courses: Anam Cara Writers Retreat