Retreat to move forward!
Fifty undergraduate students, two days, and (supposedly) one of the most haunted houses in Britain… but the only ghosts to be found on our recent Aberystwyth English Department reading week retreat were those of literary predecessors: writers and critics whose work serves to point our third year English and Creative Writing students in fruitful directions as they begin their final dissertations and long-form creative writing projects.
With students and staff bussed to Gregynog Hall, a stunning country mansion four miles outside Newtown, the retreat began with a trio of talks on process: Luke Thurston discussed how he had recently gone about assembling an edited collection, Beth Rodgers showed the students how she had researched an academic essay for the same volume, and finally I walked the students through the research I have been conducting for a story I’m currently working on.
That, I admit, was dangerous! But I think I side-stepped the major risk here (never tell anyone your story before you’ve written it because then you mightn’t want to write it!) by not discussing the plot or characters in any great detail. Instead I covered my approach to online research, best practice for interviews, the pros and cons of sourcing details and insights from photographs (mostly pros… but beware the cropped image), as well as the value of visiting the place that one is writing about (or visiting a similar place; for instance, I thought Gregynog’s magical Dell – let alone the estate’s Tolkienesque sculpture of a giant hand reaching out of the ground – offered ideal inspiration for any students writing about fantasy landscapes).
Later that afternoon, and again on the second day, students and staff alike became ghosts of a fashion in our own lives during a series of “Shut-Up-and-Write/Read” sessions (though, as Beth put it, “writing is permitted at all times”!). We switched off our smartphones (uhh, sure we did…) and sat quietly, haunting the rooms of Gregynog with the sounds of our keyboards and scribbles and our pages turning. It seemed appropriate to the wood-panelled surroundings and, by all accounts, these sessions were highly productive for the students (for some of us, of course, it was more like “Shut-Up-and-Mark-Papers”!).
On day two, as everyone grew more comfortable with Gregynog, it was interesting to watch how the students began to inhabit both the physical and imaginative spaces of the venue. Most clustered together in the library or the seminar rooms in a manner which reflected the core, recognisable interests of any English and Creative Writing cohort. Though naturally there were always a few students to be found wandering the grounds – probing the outer edges of discourse, if you will, or seeking inspiration from less mainstream writers – and one got the feeling that the contemplative atmosphere was having a real effect on them.
For the rest of us there was Gregynog’s basement bar, site of giant Jenga (our students are really good at that!), an insanely difficult staff Vs students quiz courtesy of Mike Smith, as well as some end-of-night ghost-themed storytelling. Indeed, I think it was the combination of these casual activities with the formal benefit on student projects which helped make the retreat (brainchild of our brilliant Department Head Louise Marshall) such a great success. Taking the work of our undergraduates out of the four walls of the classroom setting and into the twisty-turny nooks of Gregynog hopefully helped them to see their projects from new and less rigid perspectives. For staff members too it offered a chance to indulge in our enthusiasms and, perhaps more importantly, the conversations we had there served as valuable reminders that all of us remain students at heart.
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