The headless goddess: A European account from the Alden Biesen castle

After our III Teachers Training Course celebrated in Alden Biesen (July, 2019), our colleague Rebecca Wilson from ArtEZ (The Netherlands) accounted her experience over our week in Belgium in this brilliant, sensitive, political, head-deposing and heart-piercing testimony from this place of “transformative qualities”. “Would I be transformed in some way as well, after spending a week on these castle grounds? Reader, I would. We all would”

Just before midnight, I walked up the grassy hill overlooking Alden Biesen castle to the little temple of Minerva. Funny that the goddess of wisdom was stuck in a folly, the little decorative buildings that were the height of fashion in eighteenth century English gardens like this one. Right now, this folly felt distinctly creepy. Minerva turned out to be decapitated, the trees surrounding her seemed ancient and forbidding and the castle below was floodlit in lurid purple. It was the first day of the eacwp summer course and I had just experienced a very real fright. I had guilelessly wandered into the church in the second courtyard, only to find it apparently possessed by some sort of demon, whose gigantic green eye had appeared above the altar, as the church walls turned red and hundreds of candles started burning as if by magic.

Standing there alone in the dark, still shaken, I reflected that this place must have some real transformative qualities, its nocturnal haunted house demeanour being such a far cry from the family friendly farmer’s market that had been taking place here in the daytime, with its hairy-hooved horses, petting zoo and tractor displays. Would I be transformed in some way as well, after spending a week on these castle grounds? Reader, I would. We all would. And by ‘all’, I mean the fellow creative writing teachers who were here, like me, to learn more about their craft – the craft in this case being teaching, not writing.

It soon transpired that the spooky lighting and sound effects taking place everywhere were part of Bilzen Mysteries, a nightly ‘tablet walk’ promising to take the participant through ‘800 years of history, from the dark middle ages to a devastating fire’. Some of us took part later that week and learned all about the Teutonic knights who founded Alden Biesen during the crusades. It remained a mystery, however, for which mysteries exactly this tour was named.

The evil demon church was not the only scary thing I had encountered that first evening. There had also been so called ‘icebreaking activities’. Our indomitable leader Lorena had enthusiastically made us perform a number of theatrical warming up exercises, things like screaming our names collectively and climbing over a tightrope. These had involved a little too much physical contact between virtual strangers, I felt, and I was pretty sure everyone who, like me, came from somewhere north of the Pyrenees, would agree. And yet, in six days, when Lorena would make us do a hugging goodbye group ritual, we all threw ourselves into it wholeheartedly, and some of us cried – it was whispered that even the Scandinavians blinked back a few tears.

How did this group crush come into being, when really most of our time that week was spent sitting in a classroom or eating veggie burgers that seemed imported from 1985? That, it seems to me, is the true Bilzen mystery.

Maybe some clues to solving this mystery are in the workshops. Martino Gozzi of Scuola Holden in Torino started off the week by talking to us about the approach to teaching storytelling at his institution, and then discussed the relatively new genre of narrative non-fiction. The most compelling aspect of his workshop, though, was his soft-spoken, concentrated presence, and the openness and vulnerability with which he shared stories from his own life and writing practice. Since we talked about writing on loss, the atmosphere in class was intimate and trusting from the start. Which meant – at least for me – that the free writing exercise Martino had us do brought some deeper truths to the surface. It was an impressive morning.

For the corresponding afternoon session we divided up in groups, exchanged experiences and developed tools for helping students to write narrative non-fiction. It proved a wonderfully creative way to digest everything we had been talking about that day, and it felt good to have a practical result right away. Even if the rest of the week went horribly wrong, we would always have our toolbox.

The next morning, Jenny Tunedal explained and demonstrated the method for giving feedback practised at the Valand Academy in Göteborg, where she teaches. Central to this ‘text conversation’ is equal speaking time for those taking part: everyone gives their personal reading of the text, avoiding terms expressing value and refraining from commenting on previous speakers. When all have had their say, the teacher leads a group discussion. This approach has feminist origins, Jenny explained, guaranteeing speaking time for women, who traditionally may find it hard to claim it. The Swedish approach – for example the practice of establishing classroom rules together with the class – emphasizes fairness and equality as a way to achieve a space for open discussion. Still, Jenny pointed out, she did not promise a ‘safe space’, as is so often demanded by students these days, ‘since the world is not a safe space either’. This last comment is typical of her thoughtful, nuanced outlook.

I was lucky enough to be in Jenny’s afternoon group, where we discussed ways to incorporate the text conversation in our own teaching, but mainly, we made the most of our time and posed teaching problems of various kinds to our resident guru-slash-agony aunt.

And then there was Daniel Billiet, of Creatief Schrijven, the Flemish co-organizers of the course. Daniel dazzled us with the sheer volume and variety of his writing exercises and his infectious enthusiasm. He has often worked with groups who aren’t used to expressing an opinion about a text (like prison inmates), or who don’t speak the local language (like refugees). These experiences have led him to develop non-verbal ways of expressing a reaction to a text, often through movement. I’m pretty sure none of us had expressed our feelings about a poem through a handshake before. It reminded us how many approaches there can be to discussing writing, and also, how important it is to be on your feet, to shake things up and not just sit in a chair talking the whole time. The excitement in the class every time we had to leave our comfort zone for a new kind of exercise was palpable. That afternoon, we all had fun coming up with our own Daniel-esque exercises.

How to find any clues to solve the mystery when these three teachers had such distinct approaches? Maybe that’s just it. A distinct personality and a personal approach is precisely what these three had in common. The main takeaway being that there is no general approach to teaching creative writing, you can’t (paradoxically) learn it from a book. At the risk of sounding like an ad for a phone company, writing is about connecting, with yourself and with other people. It’s the act of writing itself that forges that connection like nothing else can. That’s the beauty of it. That’s probably why most of us do it.

This all means that the attitude of the creative writing teacher is important. For one thing, you need to be able to shape your own approach and believe in it. You have to know that what you feel, think, and want to say is valid and might be of use to your students. This might sound like a given, but for me, it’s something I struggle with regularly. I believe that the week in Alden Biesen has helped me overcome my doubts just a little bit more.

Also: if you want to discuss something as fragile as writing in progress in a group setting, you need to establish an atmosphere of trust in your classroom. This can really only be done when you are open, caring, and accepting of yourself and others. I’m not just talking about the teacher either. The same attitude is necessary from the students for this process to work.

So, to return to our Bilzen mystery of high speed bonding: creative writing teachers, likely already used to putting the above prerequisites into practice, might be the perfect population to form a class of students. Jesús from Spain told us the first day that what he gives his students is love, and indeed proceeded to monitor our group dynamics lovingly all week. Cristina from Portugal and Sigrid from Germany were treasure troves of additional writing prompts and feedback methods. Jennifer from the us and Kari from Finland told us about their lives in Yemen, Bolivia and Oman. Neil from England defied the reticent reputation of his countrymen by being eager to bring up any work dilemma’s he faced. To have people like these as classmates means trusting, connecting, sharing, creating and playing comes very easily indeed.

And then there were Lorena Briedis and Erik Vanhee, respectively of eacwp and Creatief Schrijven, who played essential parts in making this week such an unforgettable experience. Lorena kept our workshops on track, making sure no discussion veered too much off point, our goal was always clear, our schedule known, our secretary appointed, our session notes handed in. She ran a tight shift, but her pervasive lust for life and ping-pong tournaments always came through.

Erik Vanhee was the steady organisational backbone that every course needs. His shining hour came when he led a large part of the group on a cycling tour to Maastricht on our day off. I didn’t witness this though, since I live in Amsterdam and I wasn’t going to spend any part of my one week in nature cycling back to another Dutch town.

Instead, I wandered through secluded valleys full of overgrown orchards, cornfields and marshes all afternoon. Then I spotted Valerie from Belgium at the gasthuis next to the lower castle gate. In this building, the Teutonic Order fulfilled its Christian duties of feeding and healing pilgrims and the local poor. There was free bread to be had each Sunday after mass. Right now it offers a great selection of local beers (not free, alas). I joined Valerie to sample it, as did one after the other of our fellow stay at homers. We were in prime position to see our own pilgrims return from Maastricht – and thank Minerva no healing was needed, everyone was still in one, exhausted piece.

Actually, bonding with strangers isn’t such a mysterious process in the end, is it? Just share a beer, a bike ride or even a veggie burger, that’s all it takes. Maybe hurry things along and scare people from the north with some fun icebreaking activities. How to survive a week like this (or life in general): take enough time for yourself, be loving and present in the classroom, dare to share. It’s all pretty obvious stuff, to be sure, but it’s good to remind ourselves of these things sometimes. And if those rules are not to your liking, just devise some new ones, together with your students, like they do in Sweden.

Jenny shared with us the classroom rules she herself had established with her students. One of them is: ‘We are always political.’ So let me, in the spirit of that rule, end on a political note.

In my country, the Netherlands, a new extreme right political leader has been gaining a lot of traction in the past few years. This guy, his name is Thierry Baudet, is young and handsome and knows how to mobilize the internet, so he has fully eclipsed our former populist threat Geert Wilders. Thierry fancies himself an intellectual and a novelist, and a kind of Teutonic knight on a homeground crusade to save ‘our Judeo-Christian culture’ from its many onslaughts, now that the infidels are all coming to our continent rather than the other way around.

Thierry, much like his fellow European populists, is extremely anti-Europe, and loves referring to the Greek and Roman classics – he held his maiden speech in parliament in Latin, which gives you a good idea of his charming personality.

Earlier this year, when Dutch provincial elections were held, his party, the Forum for Democracy, which had been fairly marginal, received more votes than all the other political parties. Just before midnight, he gave a victory speech, hailing the dawn of a new era, started with the following sentence: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.’ This is a Hegel-quotation, it roughly means that we can’t fully understand a historical situation until (almost) after the fact. In this case, Thierry went on to explain, he meant that we as a society hadn’t realized we needed to save ‘the most beautiful civilization the world has ever seen’ that had, moreover ‘stretched to all corners of the world’, until it was almost fully destroyed. But now we had him, our Teutonic knight in shining armour.

On our last evening, with the falling of the dusk, we walked up to the grassy hill overlooking Alden Biesen castle to the little temple of Minerva. I didn’t see any owls spreading their wings, but I did see twenty-odd Europeans who had been able to transform themselves in six days from complete strangers to a tightly-knit pack, and I was one of them.

Thierry would love Alden Biesen. What could be more symbolic of the kind of civilization he wants to protect than a crusaders’ castle with a roman temple to the Goddess of wisdom in the garden? He is a misogynist, so he would likely even love the fact that the Minerva in this temple has no head.

But let’s be honest: the crusades weren’t really our finest hour, were they? People who talk about the beauty of our Judeo-Christian culture usually don’t mean all the bloodshed done in its name.

And what is wisdom, really? Some learned men can quote Hegel till the sun fully sets and still be utter fools.

We took Alden Biesen back, that evening, from populists and religious fanatics alike, as we held our pan-European open mic at Minerva’s feet. We mostly didn’t understand each other’s language, but we always got the sentiment, and we listened, in the spirit of openness, exchange and understanding, to each other’s literature and each other’s songs. And then we sang together, beneath those purple castle walls, till it was long past midnight and the guard came to lock the gates, rejoicing in the fact that we had gotten to know the real Minerva just a little bit better too that week. She is indeed a wise woman, that goddess, and she may have lost her head on purpose, to show us that wisdom doesn’t stem from there at all. Rather, it resides in her heart.