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 notes to different items in the kitchen, “Meat is Murder” on the fridge—where words magnets are provided to encourage poem-writing—and “This kills trees” on the kitchen towel. People who go on writing courses are by nature generous, liberal and likeable. Martha was one of the few unpleasant people I’ve ever taught. From the start she decided that she didn’t like the way my co-tutor and I had structured the course. On Wednesday she made a formal complaint. I wish she’d just left.
The group dynamics on a writing course are not so different from those of a playground. It’s both fascinating and poignant to see how people arrive on the first day ready to reinvent themselves and how, by midweek, all our usual character traits are reasserted, for better or worse. People settle into groups—the popular ones, the quieter ones, the odd trouble-maker or outlier, the Marthas and Petes. On one course the whole group—16 of them—seemed to fall in love with each other. Martha was determined to undermine us. Luckily, the rest of the group had our backs.
That was just as well because Monday and Tuesday had already been stressful enough. One of the other participants—let’s call him Nick—had brought his unpublished novel to show me and it was 400 pages of gibberish. Violently pornographic gibberish. As I sat leafing through it in our private session, trying to extract some sense from the endless, filthy paragraphs, I felt a chill run through me reminiscent of the moment Shelley Duvall finds Jack Nicholson writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in The Shining. The main character in Nick’s tome was another writer my fellow tutor and I knew, who had taught him on a previous course and appeared under her real name—though Nick agreed it would be wise to change it. He said he liked writing novels about writing courses, which suggested he had perhaps got the wrong end of the stick about them. His next novel would be about this course, and there would be a double murder.
That evening we had a crisis meeting with the centre director. It seemed unfair to take any action against Nick, who had committed no crime, other than against literature. But there were no lockable doors between our sleeping quarters and his, and a kitchen richly stocked with carving knives. We called the writer who had taught Nick before and she remembered him clearly. “He’s barking,” she said, “but harmless.”
Nick stayed on the course, then, and it was heartening to see how the others rallied around him, despite the oddness. On the last day he said that it had been the best week of his life. He couldn’t wait to sign up for another course, and write a novel based on that one, too.
The same, sad to say, was not true for Martha, who continued to scowl at us in workshops and leave caustic post-it notes around the house. At supper on the last evening I found myself sitting next to her. She looked at me and said, with unmistakeable malice, “Are you pleased with how you’ve managed things this week?”
I took a sip of wine and looked straight back. “All things considered,” I said, “I think it’s gone pretty well.”