Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Fifteen Steps to Writers' Heaven at Whitworth Hall.

I often say that the only thing writers have in common is that they write. They are wonderfully various – committed, funny, serious, Whitworth 012 obsessive, original, bitter, manic in turn.

I spent last week-end surrounded by them at our first Room To Write conference at Whitworth Hall, a gorgeous small hotel in the middle of a deer park. The RoomToWrite idea was inspired by our own experience and that of a the number of writers we’ve met who say if only I had the time… or if only I had the space…

What, said Avril, Gillian and I , if we provided the place and inspired the writers to clear the time? Then we could provide something that might just change an aspiring writer’s life.

So we –and these fourteen writers – had two (very) full days thinking, talking, reflecting on writing - particularly long original writing. We talked about observation, about engaging the senses in one’s writing, about developing characters, about the daunting task of Whitworth 015 conceiving and tackling the architecture of the novel. We talked about how we need to change our reading habits and begin to read as a writer, admiring the skills of good writers and incorporating some of them into our own writer’s skill-set.

The setting was beautiful and the Saturday morning was Whitworth 009brilliant – flat autumn sunshine catching raindrops of the recent rain; fallen leaves soaking to darker brown in the grass. So the Fifteen Steps Exercise, invented by Avril and myself proved to be inspirational.

This was the Fifteen Steps brief:

Walk for half an hour and every fifteen steps stop, make a close observation and add to a list in your notebook(no sentences – words and very short phrases please). Move close in where necessary. You can note a tiny detail like the trembling of a leaf, or a large event - like deer cantering towards you or the sweep of the clouds in the sky. Whitworth 011 Remember to use all five senses. You may wish to take the opportunity to use metaphor and simile. Come back and write for half an hour, a piece of prose based on your list, perhaps with some allusions to your current big writing project.

The writing that emerged was exceptional – particularly so with people who were writing outside their normal comfort zone. And we remarked that the Fifteen Step Method could be used to great effect in a city market, in a factory, at a railway station, on a wild estate. It is not confined to a beautiful deer park.

And the writers were spoiled! The Whitworth people were splendid - the working lunches, afternoon teas, the breakfasts and the dinner were extra special. The highlight was the Saturday evening where four eminent authors dined with us, and shared their insights and experiences with these new writers. The beautiful room buzzed with talk and laughter.

They say the bedrooms were lovely too. But I ran home to my own bed late on Saturday night only to get up again at the crack of dawn recharged, energised for another great day.

One of many good bi-products of the week-end was the sense that friendships were being made here, that mutual support was being fostered in this good atmosphere – the breaking down of that sense of isolation that many of our writers mentioned in their first notes to us.

And they are so kind! A sample from Monday morning’s mail…

Dear Wendy, Avril and Gillian… What can I say? The weekend was wow!! Thank you all so much for your wisdom, imagination and attention to detail….It is Monday morning now and I wish I was still with you all in that lovely room! Jackie x Whitworth 014

Whitworth 020

Dear Gillian …Just a short email to convey my great appreciation to you, Wendy and Avril for running such an inspirational and well organised week-end; it was incredibly informative, yet great fun for everyone who attended. Michael

Whitworth 021 Dear Wendy, Avril, Gillian, RoomtoWrite proved spacious - capacious, palatial, expansive,open. And every other meaning of the word…Thank you for a really memorable weekend. All the expectation boxes ticked and all due to your hard work and commitment and plain willingness to not spare yourselves to make it a success….It was good to meet other like-minded folk in such a lovely place and learn from the interaction. I like hearing other people read their work - Can't wait for March. Thank you all very much … Erica

Whitworth 018They say organising writers is like herding cats. So I thought you might like to see Gillian, who organised us all with subtle elegance throughout this fascinating weekend.

What more is there to say?


Just – as Anne urged – that there will be a RoomToWrite ‘booster charge’ in March 2010, and another full conference in November 2010.

Everyone out there is welcome as long as the list holds out …

Post Scriptum: This came from Erica Yeoman who was there…

Whitworth Hall Fifteen Steps

Hazel brown nutcase open

Seed gone

Rock hard protection obsolete now.

Green lichen softens the fallen branch

Cold ,damp whiff of decay

But lingering sweetness.

Steps, leaf-strewn, Like thick rug waiting to trip


Down to cupola' Elegant relict.

Wrought iron swirls

Pattern the sky

Capping the tapered columns.

A cold stone bench

Holds crinolines and jean-covered legs.

A low November sun filters

Seen and not felt

Unlike the figures that tread

As light as the deer

Poised and arrogant.

A sudden sound breaks their nonchalance.

When it has passed

The animals strut again.

Disturbance is but season change

Summer yellow rose

Protests its permanence.

Yet the petals will fall into place

Optimism, inbred knows

Come next year it will flower again.


  1. sounds simply heavenly.
    Herding cats, I love that metaphor, so apt.

  2. Thanks so much to you all- the weekend surpassed all expectations and was really inspirational, informative and wonderful fun! Can't wait for the next instalment!
    Love and best wishes



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