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Two Milford Reports 2008

Milford Group 2008

Left to right: Jaine Fenn, Wenonah Lyon, Sue Thomason, Mike Lewis, Al Robertson, Jacey Bedford (in front), Mark Harding, Liz Williams, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, Chris Butler, Nick Moulton

Breaking with tradition, for 2008 we have not one but two reports. Two for the price of one!

First report by Mark Harding

So what's it like being a Milford virgin?

There's that first thrill of expectation when you get onto the attendee list. Emails and Yahoo Group invites come through to your computer like little billets-doux. And then you start getting nervous… It's one thing to try and get a date outside your league — but you haven't really thought out what happens if you get a Yes.

Of course, you recognised the BIG NAMES on the attendee list but then you make the mistake of googling the others. She did that?! He's been published there?! I remember reading that story! Oh dear…. Your only hope is that there is at least one other person who writes as badly as you do. And then they start emailing the stories around to read before we meet, and that lady you've never heard of writes prose to die for, and that bloke you've never heard of has written a story that haunts you for days. What a great week this is going to be!

A mad mixture of anticipation and apprehension puts more butterflies in your stomach than get released at a footballer's wedding reception. You start getting clumsy and knocking things over. You resolve that once this is over you'll just stay at home alone and not talk to anybody. Ever.

Of course I needn't have worried. Apart from the fact that it would be hard to find a nicer set of people, the participants are there because they are fans. Everyone there wants to write for themselves, but also wants to see and encourage the writing of others. There was real sense of everyone being 'in it together'.

We had five working days and one daytrip. On the working days the pattern was to have the morning free to prepare (or skive) and the afternoon for the critique sessions themselves. The critique sessions were chaired by the esteemed Liz and were not only friendly and constructive, from a bunch of people who really know what they are talking about, but also extremely thoughtful. Thoughtful reading, good advice and enthusiastic encouragement is a pretty good formula it seems to me!

Catering was provided by Trigonos and (especially for a veggie like me) was delicious. Dinner conversation was, you could say, eclectic. Topics covered included: cannibalism, wand making, drug taking, the model soldier industry, meat pie marketing, the trials of touring with a band in America, Italian proverbs, appearing on 'Loose Ends', the retail practices of charity shops, Easter Island, horse owning, art history in Venice and more.

After dinner, evenings were mainly spent in the library with a beer or wine in hand. It is probably wise to pace yourself not to be on the 'late shift in the library' every night if you are to be in a fit state to prepare your crits. Though I did stay for one session into the early hours where we solved every political problem in Western Europe. (Unfortunately, on the following day, none of us could remember what the solutions were.)

I'm really looking forward to seeing all the stories and novel sections reviewed that week coming out in print.

So what's it like being a Milford virgin? Paradoxically, it's like deciding to have a child. You can't think about it too much or you'd never do it. Just leap, sort it out as you go along and watch the children grow.


Second report by Al Robertson

Before I sat down to write this I read Mark Harding's piece about Milford '08, and that created a very Milford feeling for me; a sense of, 'Wow! He doesn't just write great fiction!', followed quite quickly by — 'Aha. I hope whatever I do matches up.' That was the feeling I had when reading through everyone's stories in advance; it was like sitting down with a rather good anthology, with the added bonus that I knew I'd be meeting, chatting with and learning from everyone in it, and the added worry that they'd be reading and critiquing stories of mine.

So, when I arrived, I was feeling both excited and a little nervous. The excitement, as it turned out, was pretty justified; and I really didn't need to feel worried at all, because — as well as being very rigorous, very knowledgeable, and VERY critically engaged — Milford folk are as supportive, positive and downright fun group of people as you'd ever hope to meet. And, for me, it was that togetherness that was the most important part of the week.

Writing can get very solitary indeed: sitting in whatever private space you've cleared out to work in, going into an even more private space in your head, and — once you're there — spending hours with characters who could never quite be real, and trying to get enough of a sense of them down on paper so that they'll come to vivid life for other people; people who — chances are — you'll never get to meet or engage with. It's easy to wonder if the turns of phrase, the metaphors, the plot twists, the characters you agonise and obsess over are anything more than the deepest self-indulgence.

Milford is an absolute antidote to that kind of anxiety, because it not only gives your writing one of the most generous, acute audiences it will ever have; it plonks them down in front of you, to discuss / debate / bicker / rant about what's working in what you're doing and — more importantly — let you know what isn't, in tactful and constructive ways. And it's that second point that's really wonderful, because no matter what kind of writer you are or want to be, there's never enough learning to be had. Then, once you've been sorted out, you can sit down and help do the same thing for all the other people who've just been helping you — an equal if not greater pleasure.

That's the writerly experience; but there's the physical experience of Trigonos, too. It's just by a lake, nestled in a valley, with Snowdon at one end and (if you climb high enough, and look far enough) the sea at the other. Every day, I went to sleep and woke up listening to silence. Seclusion turned us in on ourselves in the best possible way, filling the week with the renewing excitement of deep obsessions, joyfully shared. And of course all the long, small hours conversations were lubricated with much fine food, and some rather lovely combinations (at least until the next morning) of wine, beer and whisky.

So how to sum up the Milford experience? It's difficult — you really have to be there. As Mark says, the best thing to do is just throw yourself into it, and enjoy. One thing to be sure of, though; you'll have a great week, and when you come away, you'll have all sorts of thoughts on how to make your writing that little bit sharper, and you'll have helped a dozen or so other very cool people make theirs a little sharper, too. And what could be better than that?


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