What happens on an Arvon writing course?

Last week I was co-tutoring a ‘Writing for Children’ course with Malachy Doyle at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon Foundation’s house in Devon.

Totleigh Barton
Totleigh Barton

Arvon courses run from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning and they follow a tried-and-tested format

  • a 3-hour writing workshop every morning
  • individual tutorials in the afternoons
  • talks and readings in the evenings from both the tutors, a visiting guest and on the final night, the course participants
  • free time for writing and socialising

Each participant helps with preparing a meal and washing up once during the week, using simple recipes and ingredients provided by the centre staff.

Meals at Totleigh include delicious local produce and vegetables from the garden
Meals at Totleigh include delicious local produce and vegetables from the garden

That’s the basic formula, but every course is different, depending on the group and the tutors. Ours included lots of things that weren’t in the programme, such as

  • extra tutorials, as the group was small due to people getting snowed in at home
  • long muddy walks in the beautiful surrounding countryside
  • an evening of very funny games and charades
  • a Burns supper with one of the centre’s directors reading ‘fair chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’ and Malachy regaling us at table with some of Rabbie’s songs
  • the reading to the whole group of a picture book written by two of the participants explaining what they had learnt during the week through the medium of story – the tragic, indeed shocking story of Milo the dog and Ben the chick
Malachy Doyle with his big book of Robbie Burns songs
Malachy Doyle with his big book of Robbie Burns songs

You can learn an amazing amount in a single focused week, away from the work and worries of everyday life; you can enjoy conversations about writing with people who feel as passionately about it as you do yourself. You can also have a lot of fun.

If you get a chance to go on an Arvon course, I’d say grab it with both hands. I’ve been on two myself since my first book came out, and I’d recommend it to writers at every stage from complete beginners to published authors.

Have you ever been on an Arvon Foundation course? What were the best and worst things about it?

22 thoughts on “What happens on an Arvon writing course?”

  1. I attended a Novel Writing Course at Totleigh Barton in 2000. It was a fantastic week and really kickstarted my writing following a traumatic divorce. The only bad thing about it was having so little sleep because the lady I shared a room with and I were so full of ideas we didn’t switch off until the early hours of the morning.

  2. Several participants on our course had the same problem, Sue – actually, I did too, thinking of ideas for new workshops and courses I’d like to develop. It sounds like your week was really timely, getting you writing again

    1. Is this in England? That totally cool house plus the name Devon is what has me thinking that you are across the pond. So far, I have only gone to workshops and classes that would allow me to sleep at home. It saves a lot of money and one can still get MOST of the benefit. This past La Jolla Writer’s Conference was my 3rd, and a woman I met at the first one has become my friend so she invited me to stay in her room. I didn’t this year, but will seriously consider it next year IF I get the offer again. I imagine we would do exactly that: stay up ’til wee hours of the morning, talking about our ideas. Sounds great! Besides a little sleepiness can add to the story telling, don’t you think?

      1. Hello Sherrie from this side of the pond! One of the things I love about blogging is you’re chatting across the globe about stuff you’re interested in 🙂 And I do agree about sleepiness – I often get up at 3 in the morning and write for a few hours because it feels pleasantly dreamy when your brain’s a little sleepy

    1. Yes – and everyone there is enjoying the same intense creative concentration – it’s really inspiring

  3. The ones I’ve been on were Mon-Sat, but I believe Arvon also do week-end courses – not sure though. Worth checking their site?

      1. I’ve inserted the link in the first line of this post, danilocolourful – you can just click through. I always try to remember to add the links!

  4. I’m one of those people who can say that a week at Arvon changed my life. I went to Totleigh Barton seven years ago, for a Starting to Write week tutored by Peter Sansom and Trezza Azzopardi. During that week I made some lasting friendships and found the confidence to call myself a writer. Fast forward to 2013 and I’ve done an MA, published my first book and established a new career as a tutor of creative writing and as someone who specialises in using writing as part of bereavement therapy. The calm, supportive and enabling tone set by Arvon is now central to my own approach to encouraging others to write. I remember feeling the nerves and adrenalin as I drove down the long muddy track to the thatched house, but also a feeling that I was in the right place. To anyone thinking ‘should I try it?’ I’d say a great big ‘yes!’

  5. Calm, supportive and enabling – that’s it exactly. I think the format is perfect, and apparently they came up with it at the outset and found it worked so well that they’ve hardly changed it at all. You’ve achieved a huge amount in the seven years since your Arvon experience!

  6. Let me know if it’s Totleigh Barton when that wish comes true Carolyn and I’ll drive over and say hello!

  7. Hello Jenny…my life was transformed too, by my wonderful week at Totleigh almost 3 years ago. I made lasting friendships, gained so much confidence in my writing and found my ‘voice’ too. It was an amazing experience in so many ways and the amount of quality writing our group produced through the week was astounding. Arvon have a very good grant system too. I would urge anyone who is, or aspires to be, a writer to try one of their courses. There is nothing like the experience, in my opinion! Lovely post which brought back happy memories.

  8. I’m so glad it brought back happy memories, Rachel 🙂 I still use some of the techniques I learnt on Arvon courses in my own writing practice, and returning to Totleigh as a tutor a decade later was just amazing

  9. Hi Jenny thanks for this which brought good memories. I attended a course at Todleigh Barton 3 years ago. I was writing short stories then and found the experience very encouraging, inspirational, and full of good humour and camaraderie. The worst moment was being trapped on the concrete track in the dark with a herd of bullocks and singing Onward Christian Soldiers to disperse them and keep my courage up. The best was practising being a writer – in the sense of being a writer.

  10. Hi Caroline – someone else came a cropper on that track last week – she decided not to try to drive any further on the ice, tried to turn her car round and ended up stuck in the mud. tbh, I personally might prefer that to being surrounded by a herd of bullocks!

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