I don’t like my feet. The toes are gnarled, and I have extra bones in my ankles. This pedi-hatred has yet to be problematic due to the chilly and wet nature of Britain, thus allowing my malformed feet to be continuously engulfed by trainers, boots, and ballet-flats. No sandals, sling backs or open-toed shoes for me. But, I was leaving a damp Britain behind for the Shortbread in Spain course, and the possibility of lounging in the sun loomed – not an activity enhanced by wearing trainers. So, in an attempt to disguise my ugly piggies, I slapped a bit of hand lotion on the soles and hoped for the best.
We arrived at the villa just as the sun set; four of us met on the flight, and one brave woman — who made the week an adventure by taking the train from Peterborough to Seville — was waiting for us when we arrived. It was a warm evening, we were called to super, we ate in an outdoor terrace of red brick and vine, the group clicked instantly, and I kicked off my shoes. It felt like the most natural of actions, my feet were cooled against the stone tiles, and, as I hid my toes beneath the dining table, I wondered how long I would be able to keep them naked.
I now would like to write about each day of our Shortbread in Spain experience. No, actually, I’d like to write about each moment individually: the laughs, the discussions, the conjectures, the epiphanies, the catch-phrases, the food, the light, the breeze, the sun, the villa, the camaraderie, the wine, the stories, the sounds, the starbursts, the wisdom, the magic of eight people feeling like a family in less than a week. But that is a novel in itself, and, in hindsight, the memories have begun to blend together. So, instead, I will condense it all.
There were four ‘students’ on the course (I only place the phrase in quotations for classification purposes; however, in truth, Al, Erica, Deanna and Sam were hardly students sitting at the feet of the master. These writers provided collective wisdom to every discussion and guidance to every task.), with Al and Eric living in Edinburgh, Deanna staying in Lincolnshire, and Sam a resident of Spain. They all came from different backgrounds had three different countries of birth amongst them. Yet, despite the fact that Shortbread had no requirements for taking the course, these students’ abilities matched. No one student working ahead or behind the other.
They all wanted to focus on something longer, perhaps weaving shorter pieces into a novel — working on structure and character in an extended narrative. So, that’s what we did. We began with narrative, character and idea, and that developed into individual projects. They all had their own writing hurdles to overcome, and they each had their own strengths. But they worked as a team through encouragement. By the end of the course, each student either had a solid foundation and an opening chapter for a novel, or learned to experiment with voice and tone in order to perfect an already existing project.
Yet, this blog is not just about these ‘students’ alone. On the course was myself, Fiona and our hosts – Robin and Kirsty Pilcher. Fiona (Shortbreadstories Editor) may have come along in a holiday rep capacity, helping to organise, but her role became diluted and before she could stop the momentum, she was one of the ‘students’. She was the calm and pensive force in the group, who provided invaluable ‘truths’ about writing and editing. Additionally, by the end of the course, she had written and edited a short story – not an easy task for a woman who spends 8-12 hours a day editing the work of others. Fiona, with the encouragement of the group, learned to put away the self-rewriting daemons and get the story on the page. The story is powerful yet quiet, and she has experimented with a voice, character and POV that she previously felt uncomfortable using.
I, on the other hand, flitted back and forth. Offering a hand and throwing spanners in the works. I dipped in and out of the projects, and did the best I could to be everywhere at all times. Yet, towards the end, after a session in which each student read their most recent piece aloud, it dawned on me: this group was exactly what I needed. I had a story, sitting for two years, earmarked for Shortbreadstories. The story was complete, but the voice didn’t work. Erica read my piece aloud. The feedback came fast and furious. They were all supportive but firm with necessary changes, and because of their help I have since completed the final edits on the story.
There are two more people to include in this wonderful experience: Robin and Kirsty Pilcher. Robin was generous with his time and life experience; he lent us his knowledge of the publishing industry and life as a seasoned author. But he did not play the Great and Powerful Oz. Instead, he sat in on several classes and participated in some of the exercises. He gave advice and took advice. He was our anchor.
And, I cannot forget Kirsty. She provided us with fresh local dishes, participated in our silly games and held the group together with the loving touch of a gentle matriarch. Without her kindness and encouragement we would have given up on the first day.
Our routine of writing in the sun — toes naked and pointed to a cloudless sky — became the norm, and we could not remember a time when this group did not exist. The Andalusia country side and the white washed villa were the final additions to the group. It provided the inspiration and peace for us to create. It gave us not a room of our own, but a space of our own to be the writers we knew we were.
After a day of travel and four full days of classes, it came to an end, but instead of mourning, we lived. We investigated a city, ate with abandon, and recorded our creativity.* By the morning of the sixth day, our shoes were back on and we were each returning home, but, while we do not live in the same part of the world, we will keep in contact, and the wisdom of that course will stick with us eternally.
As I slipped my flats over my dusty toes, it occurred to me that without much thought I had remained barefoot for four days. Shoes may have been slipped on momentarily when treading across prickly landscape — or for formalities such as drinks away from the villa — but these moments can be recorded in minutes not in hours or days. My toes, heels, ankles and soles had remained uncovered, unashamed of their gnarled crookedness. And when naked and allowed to act freely, they were not an embarrassment. My little toes, my curved feet and cracked heels, like my strengths and weaknesses in writing, like individual writers coexisting, are something to be uncovered and utalised. My toes, my soles, my ankles and my heels all work together to make my feet, something that carries me through life, and without them I would be immobile. I am grateful for the opportunity to run barefoot for four days, and from now on my little gnarled toes will never stay covered for too long.
Click here for photos from Shortbread in Spain
*On the last day of the course we scripted and shot a short film in five hours. This was not originally a part of the course, but something that occurred as a spur of the moment burst of creativity.