Monday, 13 March 2017

Pop-Up Magic by Sheena Wilkinson

In the wake of International Women’s Day, I can’t help thinking about how many fantastic women there are in literature – not just the writers, but the people who make things happen, especially those who nurture and support other writers. When I was asked to tutor a course at The Story House Ireland, with fellow YA writer E.R. Murray, I was thrilled. I’ve tutored regularly for Arvon, on whose model the Story House is based, and I love the intensity of the five-day residential course. And the Story House was new and exciting.

I hadn’t realised how new. I hadn’t realised how exciting.

As a writer, I meet all sorts of people and am often struck by the energy and devotion of those who work in literature development. Even so, Margaret O’Brien and Nollaig Brennan, who set up and run The Story House, are exceptional. I had gathered from their correspondence that this wasn’t their full-time job and I knew the SH didn’t have a permanent centre, unlike Arvon with its three houses in England, or Moniack Mhor in Scotland or Wales’s Ty Newydd.

Like me, Margaret had gone to Arvon as a student some years ago and been so impressed by its magic that she had conceived a dream to bring something of that back home to Ireland. Arvon believes that everyone has the right to write and its courses provide the balance of nurture and challenge to make that possible. Ireland is full of stories and writers, and there are retreats and writing groups and courses, but there was, until recently, nothing remotely like Arvon. When Nollaig read Margaret’s open letter to President Higgins 
( she contacted her, and together they made the Story House happen. I won’t try to tell the story – the Story House is all about letting people tell their own – but do have a read of it here.

Margaret and Nollaig 

I’ve been to Arvon many times and I have, like many people, a deep affection for all three of its houses. There is a wonderful sense, when you arrive at Totleigh Barton, or Lumb Bank or the Hurst, of both history and the future. These houses have been there for centuries; they have welcomed thousands of writers, and will continue to welcome thousands more. When you know them well, you notice the small changes and improvements – new mugs here, new curtains there – in the way you do when visiting a good friend, but essentially they are comfortingly the same.

But it’s not just about bricks and mortar. My week at the Story House taught me that. Writing For Young People took place in a beautiful old house in County Carlow, which, if anything, was slightly grander than an Arvon house, being a popular wedding venvue. Margaret and Nollaig had leased the house for the week, as they have to do for every course. 
I was impressed, all week, by how brilliantly they worked to create the Arvon atmosphere. It helped that the house was delightful, comfortable and spacious, and the participants lively and enthusiastic. 

Lisnavagh House, Co. Carlow
It helped that both Elizabeth and I, and mid-week guest Patricia Forde, had all had our own writing transformed at Arvon. But the real credit must go to Margaret and Nollaig: but even so, it takes real skill to make such a week run smoothly. Skill, vision, and determination. I was amazed at how these two women, both with their own busy lives, could create and sustain this magic.

I’m so proud to have been invited into the Story House family, and look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength. One day, I hope in the not-too-distant future, there will be a permanent Story House in Ireland, and then those of us who have been involved at this pop-up stage will be able to get together and say, Ah yes, we remember back in the early days…

posh workshop space!

1 comment:

Helen Larder said...

Really good to read this. I've been on a lot of brilliant Arvon courses. It's great that this kind of writing space is spreading! xx