The first time I taught a residential creative writing course—perhaps the original self-isolation project—my co-tutor gave me some advice. “On Wednesday, someone always leaves. Don’t worry about it. They decide they’ve had enough or they should never have come. Or their case worker advises them to leave.”
“Their case worker?”
“Some of them come as part of their therapy.”
On that unnerving note, we embarked on what turned out to be an enjoyable week teaching a friendly group, one of whose member did, in fact, opt to leave halfway through. And on subsequent courses, over more than a decade, I’ve observed that my friend was right about Wednesdays. Halfway through the week there’s a change in the atmosphere. The accumulated tension leads to a showdown—someone often leaves.
By the time of my most recent course I had become nonchalant about Leavers. After supper one Wednesday night a woman came furiously out of the kitchen, where participants take it in turns to cook and wash up together. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said. “My brother’s coming to get me in a helicopter. I can’t stand the patriarchal atmosphere any more.”
I guessed that Pete, an elderly curmudgeon who refused to buy into the supportive ethos, had started a row in the kitchen. But since there were only two men on the course and 12 women, it seemed unlikely that these two could muster enough patriarchy between them to intimidate the other 12.
“I really hope you don’t leave,” I said, although I was curious to see the helicopter. “I’ve been looking forward to hearing more of the story you wrote this morning. I loved what you read yesterday.”
The woman was instantly mollified. All of us like people praising our work. On Thursday morning she was still eating breakfast at the communal table—no sign of the helicopter—and at the end of the week she proudly read her finished story aloud to applause.
Cooking and eating together is at the heart of any residential experience, but the kitchen is also where arguments tend to start, more often sparked by politics than writing styles. In recent years it has become the focus of a growing food anxiety. An array of different options caters to a range of sensitivities. One year a woman I’ll call Martha went round attaching post-it…