Two weekends ago I travelled to Co. Clare in Ireland to participate in a creative writing workshop run by Booker nominated writer, Niall Williams. It was a wonderful weekend in so many ways. The sun shone, a rare occurrence in this part of Ireland, as you will know if you read his book 'History of the Rain'; the company was good; my B&B was excellent and Niall was an inspirational teacher.
I've been looking at writing courses like this for years and have always been too busy, too reluctant to spend money on a holiday just for me or too scared to actually go ahead, thinking everyone would be much cleverer, better read and confident than I am. There were 13 of us, 12 women of varying ages and backgrounds and one youngish Australian man. The group worked well together even though no one knew each other beforehand. I'd resolved in advance not to read out anything I'd written in front of the group but in fact it was fine and I did share my work because Niall treated everyone the same and the focus was always on the writing itself not on the writer. In creative writing classes I've attended before there has always been a competitive feel to the proceedings. Here it was collaborative. We completed an exercise: some of us read our work while the rest of the group and Niall listened attentively. Then he asked questions. For example could we see the character introduced in the writing? He doesn't go in for vague faint praise but specific advice - 'That works'; 'Take that sentence out - it isn't needed'; 'Use that piece of dialogue later in the piece'.
The course was held in the primary school near the village of Kilmihil in Co Clare. Niall Williams lives near here in the townland of Kiltumper with his American wife Christine in a lovely house and garden. We returned there each day for lunch: delicious soup, homemade bread and salads and she provided us with cakes - brownies and lemon drizzle for afternoon tea break.
I stayed in B&B, the Blue Ivy, Spanish Point (named after the ships of the Spanish Armada which were wrecked here) on the coast 20 minutes or so from Kilmihil with a friendly family in a house with amazing sea views and fantastic breakfasts. On the Saturday evening I went for a walk on the beach with some of the other women on the course. I've never visited this part of Ireland before so that was also part of the pleasure of the weekend, though I never did get to the Cliffs of Moher, the main tourist attraction in the area. It was a fine evening; the tide was out and the beach was quiet and beautiful, framed by cliff tops dotted with primroses, a clean wide damp stretch of sand with an occasional stream running through it. One deep one blocked our path but we crossed it precariously on wobbly stepping stones worn smooth by the sea which comes right up to the cliffs when the tide is in. I enjoyed finding out about my companions on the walk and why they'd chosen to do the course. Two were like me, mothers of teenagers, interested in writing but also making time for themselves for a change. Others were more serious about writing and had had work published. I got to know one of them a bit better as I'd given her a lift to Kilmihil each day in my hire car; she is a really talented writer and has given me lots of advice. We've exchanged email addresses and hope to keep in touch.
Now, two weeks later, I'm immersed in coursework marking and exam preparation as usual. But it was a great weekend which I enjoyed very much. And I may even put some of Niall's good advice into practice over the summer holidays this year.