Last week I completed the final assignment of my creative writing degree. It marked the end of an nine year journey that began when I noticed my sketch books were more full with words than drawings. In that time I've progressed from the vague idea that I might have something to say, to well... what you're reading now.
It was appropriate that I put down my pen - or more accurately, clicked the save key - in the garden of Ty Newydd, the last home of Lloyd George and now of the National Writing Centre, Wales. I first came here shortly after I started writing, having enrolled on a course with the Open College of the Arts but looking for additional support and, in truth, some validation that I had the latent ability to make it worth carrying on.
What I found would have a profound effect, not just on my immediate work but on my confidence and sense of worth as a writer. For Ty Newydd is that sort of place. I remember my first visit, a 'tutored retreat' facilitated by the poet Janice Moore Fuller. I'd sneaked a last minute place and felt entirely out of my depth, especially when she said, 'we'll come together each evening so we can share what we've been working on'. I wasn't sure what I was going to write never mind read it aloud.
But I loved it. I worked from seven till seven, barely stopping to eat; the atmosphere was inspiring, the feedback supportive, the evening get togethers, intelligent, creative and boozy. I was gutted when I learned the centre would soon be closing for a full year's renovation - in fact I squeezed in another course just before it did.
And over the years I've returned time and again. I've attended courses on landscape, short fiction, science and writing, journeys and journals, nature writing; a host of retreats too. I try to come whenever my work is at the stage it needs some real focus and the creative input that a shared commitment seems to bring. In parallel with my degree tutors, it is the support from Ty Newydd that has shaped my writing and brought me to where I am now.
Last week I not only completed my last assignment, I went to visit my soon to be publisher, Cinnamon Press (I can hardly believe I just wrote that). That too has a connection with Ty Newyyd, for the introduction was made by Jim Perrin, a tutor on an early course and whose mentoring and friendship, has encouraged me more than any other.
Other tutors and readers too: John Latham, Mark Cocker, David Constantine, Celia Brayfield, Ruth Padel, Niall Griffiths, Carol Anne Duffy, Christine Evans - where else could I have worked with and learned from writers like these? To be fair, the Arvon Foundation runs similar courses and I've attended a few, but it's Ty Newydd I come back to. Partly that's preference; more objectively I'd argue Ty Newydd is a genuinely special place - the house itself, its connections to Wales and the landscape, history and culture. It's no coincidence that these are recurring themes of my writing.
Places like Ty Newydd need our support. At time when arts funding is tight it's understandable that questions are asked, that the value and efficacy of its output is reviewed. But how do we measure the success of a national writing centre? Should we look the hundreds of school children who come here and measure the difference it makes to their exam results? Should we count the number of published writers, or review the course anthologies and assess the quality of work produced?
Or should we, as in my case, consider too the friends I've made, the help I've received, the wider impact on my motivation, my degree, my book, my blog... and indeed my life.
Post Script - completing the circle, I'll be tutoring a course on Blogging for Writers at Ty Newydd this autumn. My co tutor is the acclaimed travel writer Rory Maclean, and the guest reader, prolific blogger and author, Fiona Robyn.