BLOG Gabrielle van Welie

NWR Issue 108

About the Time I Hid in Between Hills

If Wales is the hidden gem of Britain, then the Dylan Thomas Summer School is the hidden gem of academia. When a student considers a study abroad opportunity, the criteria for judging the programme has a lot to do with the place where it’s being held and the university who is hosting it. University of Wales sounded good enough to me, and Wales as a country sounded like the perfect place to relive a writing workshop I had experienced in Massachusetts: all about being in a quiet space, surrounded by nature, where a lot of writing gets done. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the actual outcome.

There was nature, and many a hike including a walk up and down Devil’s Bridge that my shoes weren’t prepared for. There was writing, and inspiring workshops led by Pam Petro and Menna Elfyn who succeeded in making me oblivious to the dimension of the classroom, and completely alive to my creative landscape. But as amazing as all of this was, the Summer School was really driven by what I can only describe as positive energy and a pinch of serendipity. Gathered around and huddled in buses by Dominic Williams, our coordinator, we saw every side of Wales through anything but a tourist’s perspective.

Everyone was eager to share their personal experiences, whether it was from extensive previous visits or from growing up in these hills. These accounts, and the people that we met, both on purpose and by accident, were what helped me transcend landscape and evoked what I now understand as place. Horatio Clare, who came to talk to us about his writing process, would dismiss segments from his writing that included too many metaphors or similes for his taste. At first, I interpreted this as a self-deprecating behavior, but as he carried on favoring the rawer portions of his memoirs, I understood that it was the truth he was after. They say good fiction is the truth within the lie, and from Horatio I gathered that good writing is truthful writing.

So this recounting of the Dylan Thomas Summer School is nothing but the absolute truth. If like Hemingway I was to start with one true sentence, then my sentence would read like this: The Summer School has changed my life, as writer and as a person. I’m not one for sappy stories, but I am one for reality and it just so happens that this sappy story has been my real experience. Waking up every morning for breakfast at 8:30am, workshop from 9:30am to noon, trips in the afternoon, and readings with and about the community around us and the ones we’ve left back home worked like a charm. I never wanted to go to bed, which was hard to resist with so many sheep to count around us.

For me, the definite highlight of the trip was our stay at Gregynog Hall near Newtown. It was here that we engaged in nightly readings, sharing our writings and our impressions of the landscape around us. Gregynog served as a space separate from the classroom that allowed us to discover how much we had changed as writers in only the few days we had been in Wales. I believe that, more than teaching us craft and technique, the course showed us a way to unlock a side of our minds and of our writing that we were unaware of. Thanks to the expansive grounds and the history of the mansion very little was needed to bring about inspiration.

In short, the Dylan Thomas Summer School should become a tradition. I believe it to be the best way to get to know a place, to grow intimate with it, and to learn in such a natural way that you don’t feel the effort your brain is making. Thankfully, within the small range of Welsh vocabulary we picked up over the past ten days, hiraeth, an intense kind of homesickness for those who are not familiar with the term, is one of them. As a writer, labeling the lump in my throat as I head to the airport might help ease the tension. Perhaps only joyful tears will do.

Gabrielle van Welie is going into her senior year as a Creative and Professional Writing major at Manhattanville in Purchase, New York. She blogs about her travels and everything in between at her blog

Photo courtesy of the author, University of Wales Trinity Saint David campus at Lampeter, HQ for the Summer School


previous blog: Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts
next blog: Dark Movements, exhibition by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Aberystwyth Arts Centre


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