The first of two writing workshop days start in a sleepy Cambridge, with a creamy oat milk coffee and a crumbly cinnamon bun outside Fitzbillies. Following the beautiful brass and bronze flower studs along the pavement (there are 600 of them in the Cambridge Core and Flower trail, designed by Michael Fairfax and inspired by a dig as recently as 2000 which revealed The Magdalene Hoard of medieval coins). Pale winter sun glints through the tall and architecturally diverse buildings. I feel like I am on holiday. I am not, but I savour the feeling. Already feeling inspired.
These workshops help me work out what I do not want to write, as much as what I do. Both tutors are fascinating and knowledgeable, inspiring and informative. Menna, I have known and workshopped with for years. Emily, new to me in person and in her work. One writes fantasy, one crime. Both masterly in their craft having spent years honing and developing their skills.
The second workshop, by which time it is definately winter, is a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) workshop that I recklessly signed up for- writing 50,000 words for a novel in a month. I’m into the second morning session when I get with total clarity that I do not have a novel in me. Also there is still so much here that I can learn to improve my non-fiction writing.
It is a joy to be in an actual room with actual people, writing, talking about writing, learning about writing, listening to others writings, expanding, creating, developing. Interesting people beyond my usual daily reach, writing in a variety of genres, some for radio and television, some just started, some well on the way. Some published, some not. Lunch is a sociable affair, probably the first for me since BC (Before Covid) in a quirky setting with full length glass windows so you can watch the church service happening next door. The only shop we go in is a tiny chocolate shop that is so very special it only opens twice a week.Later I am disappointed that I did not succumb, or invest, depending on how you view it.
Cambridge is a stunning venue that should unleash the masterly creative side of each of us. Authors who graduated from here include such names as Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron Plath, Hughes, AA Milne, and more recently Stephen Fry, Margaret Drabble, Sebastian Faulks, Salmon Rushdie and some favourites of mine Susannah Charleston, Nick Hornby, Joanne Harris. There are many, many more as well as world changing people from all disciplines and educational fields. My working class origins are a world away.
The buildings are stunning, the atmosphere one of historical brilliance and deep learning. We sit in a dark wood panelled room with open fireplaces topped by ancient works of art. Even the biscuits are more than ordinary, the water jugs elegant.
One writing activity is “object as character”. People write about those paintings, fireplaces, wood panels, full of history, exotic subjects, far lands. I write about the radiator. You know the one that is painted brown to become unnoticeable, that people put their backsides on, that people chat across while warming their hands. I feel encouraged that Menna, who studied at Oxford, also felt herself overawed by the Oxford surroundings, experiencing a need to produce something literary, complex, and utterly grand. (her first book was, in the end, called Men, Money and Chocolate, so it seems she went with her heart, anyhow.)
We set writing targets, which I quickly break, and a whatsaapp group ,which people quickly stop contributing to. This feels reassuringly familiar.
This blog is my promise to myself, to introduce some self discipline to writing. To publish once a week.
When we leave the workshops Cambridge is a different city, all frenetic bustle, with walking and cycling crowds, all going in opposite directions, on ridiculously narrow pavements, with steep drop offs enough to easily break an ankle. The brass flowers are a little less shiny, the road leads uphill on the way home. Tiredness kicks in. It rains.
I remind myself that these glimpses of gold, sparks of light, encouragement, new people, fleeting contacts, previously unseen surroundings, different experiences and situations, can be some of my light in the dark of winter.
I remind myself to look outwards, to connect with others rather than always to draw inwards.
Explore opportunities, view things differently, keep searching for the light.
It is not even technically winter yet.
There is a way to go.