Six weeks ago I took a leave of unspecified duration from this blog – but weeks before that I began an interview with Margaret O’Brien and Nollaig Brennan of The Story House, now completed – So here it is.
NB: read to the end for news of the first Story House Residency (May 2017)
Lia: What is The Story House and how did it come about?
Margaret and Nollaig: The Story House is unique in that it provides taught residential writing courses here in Ireland, open to anyone who wishes to write. At The Story House we believe that writing matters and that writers need support at all stages but maybe particularly so at the beginning. It has seemed obvious to both of us for a number of years that there was a significant gap in the way writers were supported here in Ireland. There were of course lots of writing workshops around the country but beyond that there was little to bring the novice writer to the next level. Although there are residencies available, the focus is often on solitary writing and not everyone is ready to work without guidance, nor do they have the required body of work behind them in order to gain admittance. There are also wonderful day courses that are offered by the various literature festivals and writers centres, for example, but by definition these are not residential and it is the lack of this immersive, taught experience which we want to address with the introduction of The Story House.
Lia: Can you explain its links to the Arvon Foundation?
M & N: The Arvon Foundation is the inspiration for the model we use at The Story House. For those unfamiliar with the organisation, Arvon has been running taught residential courses in the UK for almost half a century, and it has been shown that their deceptively simple approach works. We have received some moral support from them, and are delighted to have been approached by past tutors at Arvon about the opportunity to teach with us, but otherwise there is no direct link with Arvon.
It might be helpful if we could jump back a few years here. It was Margaret’s experiences of Arvon courses in Devon and Scotland, and her meeting with its founder John Moat at Totleigh Barton, that started the thought processes that ultimately led to the founding of The Story House. Margaret realised while there that there was no equivalent structure here in Ireland, and the subsequent big questions, ‘Why? Why not?’, refused to go away. Then in 2014, some weeks after we first met, we arranged a meeting in London with Ruth Borthwick, CEO of the Arvon Foundation. She was very generous with her time that day, and supportive of the project, but warned that it might take over our lives!
Lia: Who is behind it? How is it funded?
M & N: It’s just the two of us, and please note that we laughed at the mention of funding! TSH has received no funding to date, none. We both work on this in a voluntary capacity, in addition to our day jobs. We think very highly of the writers who teach on our courses, and they are paid an appropriate professional fee, but the two of us do pretty much everything else, from planning and publicising the courses to devising the menus (and the meals at TSH are becoming legendary!). At the moment we rely on local Arts Officers to offer bursaries to writers to help with course fees and so far several counties have offered repeat bursaries. Right now we are more concerned that people can access our courses, that finance should not be a barrier – the whole thrust of TSH is that writing be regarded as an acceptable thing to do and we would hope ultimately that TSH would be in a position to offer at least some partial bursaries.
Lia: Can you tell us how the courses work?
M & N: The overriding atmosphere at The Story House is one of respect and mutual support. Spending the week together, supported by professional writers and by each other, creates an environment of trust and it is in this safe space that people really begin to gain confidence in themselves as writers and become free to take creative risks. Strong friendships often form and this helps each participant to become part of a growing community of writers. We encourage past participants to keep in touch and we’ve held follow up gatherings after each course for what is usually a very convivial debriefing.
For someone considering a course at The Story House an outline of the shape of the week might be useful. Each course runs from Monday afternoon through to Saturday morning. On the first evening we come together for a meal and a relaxed few hours of introductions and chat. There are workshops every morning until lunchtime and the afternoons are for one to one tutorials and free time to write, take a walk, nap or do whatever is needed. From Tuesday through to Friday the evening meals are prepared by a different team of three participants. We suspect that much of the transformative power of the week happens informally, over communal meals, casual conversations and the sharing of writing fears, hopes and experiences. After dinner each evening the schedule is very social. On Tuesdays, the tutors give readings from and talk about their own work. A Guest Writer joins the group for the evening meal on the Wednesday and later reads from their work, followed by a discussion. On Thursday evening everyone reads or shares from some of their own favourite writers. On the Friday night, which seems to come much too soon, we all celebrate each other’s writing and enjoy the sense of achievement. On that evening there is a sense of giddy disbelief at all that has been accomplished. Then on Saturday morning breakfast and farewells bring the week to a close.
Lia: Can anyone take the courses? Is there a screening or selection process?
M & N: Yes, anyone can take the courses. The Story House has no screening or selection process, it’s enough that you wish to write. However, some local authorities do run competitions for bursaries which does impose a certain level of screening. But there is no screening by The Story House, it would go against our core beliefs, and it’s top of our wish list to have funding to provide at least partial bursaries for participants.
Lia: Why do courses have to be residential?
M & N: When a course is residential it allows participants a perhaps rare opportunity to fully immerse themselves in their writing. They become part of a writing community for the week and, crucially, their creativity is supported by the way the week is structured. The late John Moat, one of the founders of Arvon, believed in the value of the apprenticeship model and that living with professional writers for a week and being guided by them would deepen the novice writer’s understanding of what it means to be a writer.
Lia: Do the courses move around the country?
M & N: As we’ve mentioned above The Story House has no financial backing, so therefore no permanent home as yet. For now we lease a suitable property for the week, which becomes the home for everyone for the duration of the course. We do see the potential for The Story House to become at some point in the future the National Residential Writing Centre for Ireland. However at the moment we are more interested in demonstrating the benefits of the model and making it as accessible as possible.
Lia: Margaret, what caused you to write an Open Letter to President Higgins?
M: My Open Letter to President Higgins was written out of a sense of frustration and not a little anger on my part. I had been putting forward the need for such a centre for some years without any meaningful response. I could see the benefits of creative writing from my own past experience of teaching adult literacy educators in Waterford Institute of Technology, my involvement with Pat Schneider’s organisation, Amherst Writers and Artists, and my own workshops, Writing Changes Lives. It seemed totally obvious to me that something like the model of Arvon, a residential centre with an emphasis on the process of writing, was needed here. Over the years I had continued to be in correspondence with John Moat, since our first meeting at Arvon’s Totleigh Barton centre, and he had always been supportive of my ‘campaign’ to start something in Ireland that followed the Arvon model. When Michael D. Higgins was elected President, John commented in an email to me that if I didn’t succeed now that we had a poet-President it might never happen. I used the occasion of President Higgins’ state visit to the UK to write the Open Letter, outlining what I saw as the need for this and also the benefits that would flow from it, and suggested that he include a visit to an Arvon centre as part of his visit. But unfortunately that wasn’t on his schedule.
Lia: Did you get a response?
M: Yes, I got a reply from Áras an Uachtaráin but it turned out not to be the most important response! I had shared the letter through social media and it was brought to Nollaig’s attention by Susie (Maguire) a mutual friend and author. Nollaig got in touch with me, we met up for lunch in Waterford the following day and that was the real beginning of The Story House. So you could say that I wrote to President Higgins but it was Nollaig Brennan’s response that brought The Story House into being. Since then we’ve been thrilled that Sabina Coyne Higgins accepted our invitation to join Jack Harte as Patron of The Story House. We feel that it’s a great endorsement of our work to have two such strong arts activists as patrons.
Lia: Nollaig, I’m very curious about your response to that Open Letter. Would you like to explain a little about that?
N: “It’s about writing, but it’s always about more than writing…” this was the line in Margaret’s letter which grabbed me. There was something about that line which resonated with me on such a personal level – being able to write is very important to my overall wellbeing. I felt that Margaret was someone I needed to meet and within moments of doing so, I understood that here was someone who had the same conviction as me of the importance of making the arts, especially the process of writing, more widely available and who shared my discomfort at the somewhat elitist nature of literature in Ireland. Would you believe that we later had a meeting with a very senior arts administrator who ACTUALLY ROLLED HER EYES at the idea that everyone should be given the opportunity to be creative? This sort of nonsense really needs to stop. This attitude does not a better society make.
I also felt that I had certain skills which might be useful in progressing a project such as TSH. Margaret and I bring very different things to the table and it’s a really good partnership.
Lia: What future do you see for The Story House?
M & N: We are busy right now promoting our next course, ‘Writing for Young People’, with the fabulous team of Sheena Wilkinson, E.R. Murray and midweek guest Patricia Forde. This will take place at Lisnavagh House, Co. Carlow from Monday, 20th to Saturday, 25th February 2017. [Now wouldn’t that be a super Christmas gift in someone’s stocking?]
We have also recently announced the first Story House Residency, a very generous gift to TSH by a past participant. This will offer one week in May 2017, at a lovely cottage in the west of Ireland, to a writer who has attended a course at TSH – giving them a wonderful opportunity to focus on a writing project. This will be an annual award and details of how to apply for this can be read on our website here.
With regard to the more long-term future, the effect of The Story House on its past participants has convinced us of what we already knew – that this model is filling a gap in the writing landscape of the country. Now that we have a proven track record in delivering quality courses, we hope to be able to run our courses more frequently and be in a stronger position to attract some outside funding. We want The Story House to continue to break down the barriers of literary elitism and to bring the benefits of the process of writing to a wider and more diverse population. We know how important it is that the appropriate supports are put in place and we want there to be less and less socio-economic or socio-cultural restrictions preventing people benefitting from the transformative power of writing. We are taking the long view with this.