Are writers born with talent, or can storytelling skills be taught?
It’s a question that would-be wordsmiths have pondered, long and hard.
If it’s down to innate genius, every author would be forced to rely on the lottery of the gene pool.
But if hard work, perseverance and the right training are key factors, anyone with determination and drive has a chance of making it.
Those working with the Arvon Foundation don’t believe in the gene pool.
They’re more interested in the ponds, rivers and babbling brooks that border the picturesque retreats where they teach creative writing.
Arvon, set up more than 40 years ago, supports authors throughout their working life.
Ruth Borthwick, National Director of the organisation, will be extolling its merits at The Writers’ Toolkit in Birmingham on Saturday.
The Toolkit is an annual writer networking conference, run by Writing West Midlands.
Authors, editors, agents and many others will also be giving advice at the event.
But does Borthwick really believe writing can be taught?
“Well, if you think about it as a craft, then, yes, it can be,” she says. “Just like painting, or how to act. At Arvon we think that everybody has a creative voice. What we like to do is give people the opportunity to try out different ways of approaching writing, so they can get in touch with their creativity and imagination. Our view is that there are all kinds of different sorts of talent. And we think everyone can benefit by having the opportunity to try writing out.”
Does Arvon attract every age group, or are older people less inclined to return to education?
“We work with kids from secondary schools, but people also come on our courses in their 70s and 80s.
“I don’t think you can make any rules about it. For young people, they obviously have an advantage, in as much as they don’t come with any preconceptions about what writing is.
“Or any self-censorship to stop them trying new things out.
“But equally, for older people, they’ve got more experience of life. And often they’ve got fantastic stories to tell, that are completely astounding.
“If they have an opportunity to get a bit of time and space to think about how they might tell these stories, they can produce amazing things as well.”
Arvon guides writers in various directions. Even towards opera, with a detour across the football pitch.
“We work with a lot of young people, who may not have thought writing was for them.
“For example, we run a project called Writing The Game, where we are connecting with young people who have a love of football, and through that love of the sport, they have an opportunity to write.
“They go to their local club, and interview the players, and make a newspaper. Then they come to Arvon, and they might write a football opera with the poet Ian McMillan, who’s the poet in residence at Barnsley Football Club. He’s a great supporter of this project.
“Those young people go away with a huge feeling of confidence that they can write creatively. Before, they aren’t interested, and don’t think it’s for them.”
Adults, meanwhile, can book into backbone courses called Starting To Write, of which 19 run throughout the year.
A group of students arrive at one of Arvon’s country retreats on the Monday, staying until the Saturday. In that time they live and work intensively with two professional writers.
It’s a distraction-free zone, which means no televisions or mobile phone signals.
Borthwick says: “Over that period, they have a chance to join workshops in the morning, where they are given exercises to encourage them to write.
“They have private time to write in the afternoon. And then, critically, they get feedback in a one-to-one situation with the published writer.
“And that is the thing which is the gold dust.
“To have a professional look at your story, poem, play or screenplay, and discuss it, makes all the difference.”
Arvon own country houses in remote locations in Yorkshire, Shropshire and Devon.
They also run courses in a centre near Loch Ness. The closest location for Birmingham scribblers is Clun, where the home of playwright John Osborne has been turned into a workshop.
The tutors are all major players in their field.
Comedy courses have been taught by Lenny Henry and Alexei Sayle. And top screenwriters, including Jez Butterworth and Patrick Marber, have shed light on their craft.
In more traditional literary forms, the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist, Hilary Mantel, has given a class.
But it’s not just about words. When students arrive at an Arvon retreat, they are expected to help cook meals. But is this such a smart idea?
There must be many writers who are glad of the opportunity to hone their craft, but are terrified of tackling anything more complicated than a Pot Noodle in the kitchen.
Won’t they be put off matriculating for courses?
“The cooking is very important, because Arvon centres are very cut-off places. In order to make the most of the experience, we encourage four different people to cook the meal every night. And through that, people really bond as a team.
“We provide all the food and the recipes, and it’s really good fun.
“Some of the young people haven’t cooked a meal in their lives, so there is a real sense of achievement.
“People are learning the craft of writing, and cooking skills. Plus they get some fresh air. Not bad going for a week.”