I'm just back from tutoring a week's fiction writing course for the Arvon Foundation at Moniack Mhor in the highlands - a lovely group of people, all intent on making that leap from shorter fiction to writing a full length novel, all working in an inspirational setting. These courses are hard work for the tutors, but when the people 'gel', as this group seemed to, from the outset, there is nothing better for getting the creative juices flowing, for tutors as well as participants.
Partly, it's the setting, which is magical: an old farmhouse and cottage, high on a hillside, with stunning views. There is a huge welcoming kitchen stocked with all kinds of excellent food and a sitting/dining room (warmed by a real fire) where everyone eats together around a long table, where workshops are held each morning, and where people gather each evening to read and listen and pool their ideas.
The way these courses work is that everyone gets his or her own breakfast and lunch, but the students are divided into groups of three and each group cooks one evening meal for the rest during the week. The tutors don't have to cook, but they are kept extremely busy in other ways. Apart from the long morning workshops, there are one to one sessions every afternoon! But even the cooking isn't an imposition, since all the food is bought in, menus are set in advance and detailed cooking instructions supplied. There is also a hefty commercial dishwasher, which takes about 4 minutes to complete a cycle! Add to that the odd glass of wine for the cooks, and the process seemed to go very smoothly. The results were invariably delicious.
In between times students are free to write, read, daydream (an essential part of the writing process and one which is too often neglected) and go for long walks through some of the most stunning countryside in Scotland, in the hills above Loch Ness.
Participants on this occasion ranged from a London based journalist to a retired man living in France, who had flown in specially for the course. The week was warm, friendly and more importantly, produced some excellent writing. There are always two tutors who consult over the course structure in advance - in this instance it was myself, and novelist David Armstrong, with a midweek visit from the incredibly talented Ruth Thomas, who brought her blissful baby Arthur along for the ride (and her friend Jenny Renton to mind him while she did her reading.)
It was, in short, a week full of unexpected epiphanies, and one which I would be delighted to repeat at any time. I think I probably got as much out of it as the students. I drove home through Glencoe, and stopped for a rest at Inveruglas on the shores of Loch Lomond, feeling quite stunned by the sheer beauty of the landscape. A double espresso in the little cafe there gave me the necessary kick to get me home safely. But Moniack, and the ideas it inspired, have been with me ever since.