Sue Purkiss visited Tŷ Newydd in August 2019 for our Nature Writing course with Mark Cocker and Kathleen Jamie. She recently published this blog on her own platform which you can find here.
Last week, I was on a writing course in North Wales, at Tŷ Newydd, not far from Criccieth. People in the writing world will have heard of it; it’s the Welsh equivalent of the Arvon writing centres in England, and Moniack Mhor in Scotland. The centres all provide courses with a similar structure on a variety of writing forms – script-writing, memoir, fiction, children’s writing and so on.
|Ty Newydd, once the home of Lloyd George, now the Welsh Writing Centre.|
|Workshop session with Mark in the garden…|
|…and with Kathleen inside.|
|Horatio Clare – a brilliant speaker – and rather a lot of feet.|
The course was on nature writing, and the tutors were Scottish poet and prose writer Kathleen Jamie, and naturalist, broadcaster and writer Mark Cocker. The mid-week speaker was Horatio Clare, journalist, writer and lecturer in creative writing. (I wrote about one of his books in the post before this one.) I’ve probably missed out some of the things they do: they are all fizzing with talent, energy and enthusiasm for the craft of writing in a variety of different forms, and they were generous with their time, their expertise and their encouragement – Mark, incredibly knowledgeable about nature and passionate about how special and unique this planet of ours is: Kathleen, quiet, intensely focused not only on poetry, but on how writers should react to the current climate emergency. This was not about lyrical descriptions of beautiful views – though that certainly came into it: although everyone really wanted a break from politics, they were inescapable: dark shadows massing around the castle walls.
I write for children, so why, you may ask, was I on a course in nature writing? (To be fair, I think that was something the tutors wondered too, and probably some of the other participants – who were mainly poets, and it seemed to me wonderfully good ones.)
Well, I can only say that when I was browsing through the courses on offer earlier on in the summer, there was something about this one that just sounded right. It was as if a light came on, or a trumpet sounded, or a signpost appeared. I wasn’t entirely certain why, but I knew that this was something I really wanted to do.
I do not have a burning desire to become a nature writer – whatever that is – or a poet. I write the occasional poem, when a thought comes to me that won’t work any other way, but to be honest, my poems are more like prose that’s just been chopped about a bit. But place is very important to me. My books have often been inspired and I think enriched by the landscapes in which they are set. The Willow Man is set in Bridgwater, but suffused by the atmosphere of the nearby Somerset levels; and a climactic scene takes place on – and was shaped by – Brean Down, the spur of the Mendips which juts out into the chocolatey waters of the Bristol Channel. Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, had for its birthplace Athelney, also on the levels, once the island surrounded by marshes where Alfred took shelter from the Danes – and not so very different now, over a thousand years later. I visited the places where Alfred fought – near Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire and above Eddington, which used to be Ethandun, in Wiltshire. In all these places, it was so easy to imagine the events that took place there so long ago: they all had in common a powerful sense of the distant past – and of something very close to magic, which also found its way into the book.
|The river. Now how, exactly, do you convey in words what you see here?|
|The sea, looking towards Criccieth.|
But there was something else, too. It’s always good to hone your craft, whatever that craft is. And listening to the poets and the tutors focusing closely on language, on finding exactly the right word or image, was really humbling. If you get a group of children’s writers together, the discussion will be fascinating. But I think it’s fair to say that it will in general centre on story, voice and character, rather than on the nuts and bolts of language. Please note: I am NOT AT ALL saying that children’s writers are not good writers or stylists – just that they tend to have different priorities. If you’re writing for children, you need to make them want to turn the page: too much description will make them scowl, though you certainly need enough to set the scene, to create the world.
Anyway, from the exercises we did, and the way the poets and non-fiction writers talked about their craft, I gradually realised that I have sometimes been coasting: that sometimes I reach for the easy word instead of the right word, even – horrors! – for a seductively available cliché. (Though, resistant to the last, I would still tentatively suggest that sometimes the first thought and the easy word is the right one.)
It became obvious during the week and particularly during my tutorial with Mark that even when I was trying specifically to write about nature, a story or a character would come pushing its way through. Accepting this, and following up on a suggestion of Mark’s, I wrote the beginning of a new story. In fact it almost wrote itself, and it’s such a joy when that happens.
|Hydrangeas in the garden. You can see a tiny bit of sea, if you look very hard!|
On top of all that, I had the pleasure of being in a very special place with a very interesting group of writers. The garden was filled with bees humming among the lavender, and it was a twenty minute walk down to the sea, or a ten minute walk down to the River Dwyfor. The team who run the centre are efficient, friendly and welcoming.