South Words writing group was established in response to a request by members of the theatre group subsequently known as BoCo which had been meeting and performing at the For All Healthy Living Centre in Weston-super-Mare with the support of Theatre Orchard Project (TOP) since 2008. A few members of BoCo said that they enjoyed creative writing and would welcome the opportunity to develop their skills, so Fiona Matthews, TOP Producer, asked whether I would be able to organise some writing workshops. At the time, I had just started an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, having recently retired from my career as a secondary-school English teacher, my final post being Head of English at Worle Community School in Weston. In the first instance, I offered to run four ninety-minute taster sessions at the For All Healthy Living Centre on Friday mornings in a voluntary capacity and to simply ‘take it from there’.
Although seven or eight had been anticipated, six people – four women and two men – attended the first workshop on 5 November 2010. Vickie and Elaine remained active, enthusiastic members of the group throughout the next twenty months. In the course of time – and the initial four sessions eventually became fifty – the group stabilised into four core members when Lynda and Tina joined at a later stage. Despite the notices posted in the Centre and local shops, coverage in ‘Weston Mercury’ and word-of-mouth communication, only one other person attended but poor health and a spell in hospital prevented her from continuing. While it could be said that four is a small number of people to work with and would not normally be viable as an adult education group, the creative relationship between the four women, as writers and readers, became extremely strong. There was always the time and opportunity to contribute their ideas, questions and feelings; to read out their writing and receive feedback; and to develop skills of sharing encouragement, advice and criticism.
The first round of sessions was given the title ‘Beyond Ourselves’ and the aims agreed:
- to develop their skills and confidence as writers
- to become aware of different ways we can write ‘beyond ourselves’
- to produce completed pieces of writing which they might want to present outside the group.
This title was adopted because I believe that one of the great benefits and sources of excitement provided by writing is the opportunity to step outside the limitations of our own personalities, lives and environments and enter other dimensions of sensibility. This process inevitably draws upon our subjective experience, knowledge and values but it can, in turn, cast them in a new or fresh light through the reflective and refractive processes of creative language and imagining. Many arts-in-the-community projects try to directly reflect the life of the community or the lives of the participants. I’m not sure that I have a theoretical basis for it but I prefer not to dwell too much on the self, so in the first session I used a quotation from that wonderful novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’:
‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’
However, there was nothing especially innovative about the initial meeting. I did not know what interest or experience in writing each member of the group had; nor what kind of writing skills they possessed. We began by talking about the former; and the only way of starting to establish the latter was by doing some writing. I took along a selection of photographs that I had gathered from magazines and newspapers. By some process of consensus, we selected one and invented some details of the person’s life as a group before creating a short oral story with everyone contributing an element of the narrative.
Then I asked each person to choose a picture for themselves and to create a character from it, listing ten random ‘facts’ about the person and four important features of her/his personality. Using an abbreviated strategy suggested by dramatist Simon Stephens at a Bristol Old Vic workshop , I then posed ten further questions for them to build the characters, such as ‘What did s/he have for breakfast today?’ / ‘What song did s/he sing in the shower?’ / ‘Who was the first person s/he spoke to today?’ / ‘What was s/he looking forward to today?’ The final question, intended to set a story going, was: ‘What is her/his secret or problem?’
Since they were imaginatively engaged with their characters, I immediately asked them to start writing a story in which the secret or problem would be concealed at first but would gradually emerge. I was aware that this might well draw yield blank looks so I had a few simple suggestions at the ready (‘describe the setting when s/he leaves home that morning’, or ‘make up that conversation with the first person s/he spoke to’) but it was unnecessary. Over the next fifteen minutes, they focused on writing the opening of a story.
As the session headed towards a close, I invited them to read out what they’d written and two people did. This can be dangerous territory in the early stages of any writing group – or maybe it is at any time – so I suggested that we would listen without giving feedback. I recall that this protocol was in vain, however, because they enjoyed the two pieces so much that they spontaneously expressed their praise and enthusiasm.
Perhaps because the members of the group knew each other, they were relaxed in their discussion, although it became evident that they never considered themselves to be writers. When I said it was clear that they were writers and they should start to think of themselves as ‘writers’. When one person responded with, ‘That sounds better than “unemployed” anyway,’ I understood the value being placed upon their expectations and the potential for writing to find a place of significance in their lives. It was clear, too, that a momentum was under way which would not stop at four sessions. The taste for developing their writing had already been acquired.
However, over the next few sessions, there were some changes in the numbers of people attending. It is difficult to know exactly why but when one of the men dropped out because he felt himself to be more of a performer than a writer, the other quickly followed despite being involved in writing a script. Voluntary groups take time to settle. My experience of many such situations suggests that there’s always someone who turns up to the first session and never appears again. And vice-versa, the late joiner becomes a mainstay. Loyalties, dependencies, friendships come into play, as do lifestyle issues, pressures and changes. One person’s absence easily leads to another’s. Or one person’s absence makes another decide to remain. The important element in setting up a group seems to be that the facilitator or leader must maintain a sense of consistency and purpose so that those who want to, or are able to, know that their investment of time, effort and emotion will not be in vain.
2. DEVELOPING WRITING
As it became clear that this was a small writing-group in which the members’ wish was to continue to meet regularly, several issues emerged in terms of the group’s approach to writing: recognising how important it is to give stories shape through selection of perspective, time and detail; developing awareness of the significance of word-choice and concision; understanding the processes of editing and proof-reading. My strategy was straightforward: to introduce a different activity each week, to keep the agenda moving along quickly, but to make constant reference back to previous activities and writing.
I introduced the notion of flash-fiction or micro-fiction as it is alternatively called. Using David Mamet’s maxim, ‘Get in late, get out early’ . Hemingway’s ‘For Sale: Baby’s Shoes, Never Worn’ served as a starting point for them to expand upon with a word-limit of 250 words. This was a new concept but the idea was grasped instantly and forevermore: they surprised themselves and each other with the power of concise storytelling. We went on to activities changing narrative perspective: write a short paragraph in the first person, then re-write it in the second and third person (although second person is rarely used, it can provide an interesting, unexpected perspective, often as a more impersonal form of ‘I’, especially in speech). We played word-association games to explore the powers of association, adjective-activities to expand ways of describing, and unexpected connections (think of an object and pass it on, choose a place and pass it on – now make a story connecting the object and place you’ve been allocated).
In the course of these writing activities, some elements of grammar and punctuation were introduced. How inevitable it is that when anyone, in any situation, shows a piece of writing to someone else, it will be accompanied by an apology for the spelling, punctuation or handwriting. At the end of each session, I asked the group to take their writing home to complete it if necessary and to type it up. When I received the typed-up versions, I took note of issues that needed to be explained or clarified, such as the use of commas, the punctuation of direct speech, homophones, colons, apostrophes, etc. There were no serious problems in any of these areas but the group was very keen to learn and to ensure that their final pieces were grammatically correct. Further refinements were introduced by, for example, looking at the first word in each sentence to avoid non-deliberate repetition and to ensure variety of sentence structures; while word-counting of sentences to become aware of sentence-length was also carried requiring the writers to consider the frequency of longer or shorter sentences. Both of these exercises affect grammatical features of writing, raise writers’ awareness of their own stylistic habits and put them in control of decisions.
Over time, they started to ask me to look at additional pieces of writing that they had produced. They wanted feedback but they also wanted help with accuracy. I had not anticipated this, even though I had once attended a course where the leader had made it clear that common practice is to only offer feedback on writing that emerges directly from the workshops. Sometimes it became a considerable task but I decided to give the support requested because my aim was to encourage and to build confidence. It is an issue that needs to be taken into account, however, and the adopted approach needs to be communicated at an early stage.
A number of protocols were introduced. Once we started writing, there would be no interruptions. Anyone who ‘finished’ early would spend the time remaining to proof-read and edit. Although I would make set a writing task or direction, these could always be changed or interpreted in whatever way the writers wished. We always made time to read out the writing done in class but I insisted that it should never be preceded by apologies (‘It’s not very good, mind’ or ‘I didn’t really get very far with this). Verbal feedback always had to start with a positive note of appreciation and, if doubts, confusions or criticisms should, if possible, be phrased in the form of questions.
Over the course of time, as their confidence and range of experience increased, it seemed important for the group to give and receive critiques from each other, so I set up occasional workshopping situations in which a piece of writing would be circulated by email to be read in advance with a view to providing some detailed, constructive feedback. This would create less dependency on my responses, advice or judgements; would promote the importance of attentive reading as a feature of writing development; and would provide writers with alternative viewpoints to consider before making final decisions.
On my MA course I was participating in weekly workshops and was aware that there are some different models for the procedures, particularly with regard to the role of the writer while feedback is being given: should he or she listen in silence with a right to respond at the end, or should there be the opportunity for dialogue? I opted for the latter, believing that it allows both reader and writer to participate in an exchange of responses and that questions can be addressed more effectively through a shared articulation of thoughts. I also felt confident that should a criticism appear too negative or a response too defensive, I could intervene to modify the tone or qualify the contribution. As it happened, this intervention was not necessary. While there were some organisational difficulties in getting writing circulated in advance or getting it printed off, these sessions gradually gained greater importance as the quality and quantity of feedback increased.
4. LITERARY SOURCES
In the course of the fifty workshops, a wide range of stimuli were drawn upon to set the process of writing under way. Although all members of the group were readers, I did not use a huge number of literary materials. Amongst others, extracts from novels by Ernest Hemingway, Tessa Hadley, John Steinbeck, Roald Dahl and Cormac McCarthy, short stories by lesser-known authors Rebecca Lloyd, Valerie O’Riordan, Hilary King and Sarah Hilary, and poetry by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Pascale Petit were drawn upon to introduce and illustrate stylistic techniques and subject-matter. More than once it was remarked upon that I often did not bring the kind of literary material that they would usually read. As I explained above, I take the view that to write we need to reach ‘beyond ourselves’: to find new ideas and ways of expressing ourselves, we must reach towards ‘the other’. In retrospect, I think I might have drawn upon more examples of literary texts from a wider range of sources. It might have been useful to examine more short stories or to give the group more short stories to read at home because there is an indissoluble link between reading and writing. On the other hand, talk its various forms – discussion, questioning, articulation of uncertainties, explanation, debate, reading aloud – is also vital to group and individual development, to securing understanding, and to interpretation of the shades of meaning vital to the craft of writing.
5. DRAMATIC WRITING
A number of my dramatic monologues have been performed by Show of Strength Theatre Company in Bristol over the past five or six years. It is a form that I enjoy writing and one in which I have become confident about my understanding of the techniques. Since the members of South Words were also members of BoCo and actively involved in theatrical productions, I decided to introduce them to dramatic monologues as a form of story-telling.
Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ is, of course, the outstanding example of dramatic monologues from recent times. Unfortunately I had lost my copy of the text and it was not possible to show the dvd because our meeting-room did not have the facility. While I have heard it said that writing workshop leaders should not use their own writing as a stimulus or model, on this occasion I took the plunge. Using one of my scripts, we explored the features of a dramatic monologue. Writing in the first person is not enough. There has to be a sense of place, of physical immediacy, and of audience; the voice needs to be distinctly conversational, true to character and sustained in every turn of phrase; there is scope for a degree of non-verbal action (although I prefer this to be implied through the monologue rather than by stage directions if possible).
As had become the custom by now, the group seized upon the opportunity. A simple scenario was chosen. The For All Healthy Living Centre is a multi-purpose community building which includes a health centre, library, café, church, children’s centre and meeting-rooms as well as, externally, a car-park, playpark, community-green and garden. Let’s imagine a promenade performance taking place at the Centre with the audience encountering a different monologue at each location visited. The group’s task was to select their location, invent a character at the site and write the monologue that would be delivered. While Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ monologues are about 45 minutes long, I gave a 1000-1200 word guideline which would probably take 8-10 minutes in performance. The pieces that emerged were workshopped and re-drafted and, at a later date, several of them were actually performed. My view is that these were some of the best pieces that the group produced because they combined the narrative with the dramatic.
Like flash-fiction, the dramatic monologue became a favoured form that the group often referred to. At a later date, I brought in another of my scripts that was going to be performed by Show of Strength in a family Christmas show. The story of a chavvy reindeer wanting to supplant Rudolph as Santa’s favourite captured the group’s imagination and sense of humour. They instantly took to the exercise of taking a traditional Christmas figure (from a fairy on the tree to Joseph in the stable) and telling the story from a surprising point of view. The performance skills acquired through involvement in BoCo enabled their reading of their scripts to be fine-tuned to details of tone and phrasing. The beauty of the dramatic monologue is that it draws upon our everyday knowledge as experts in speech, so that we can more confidently detect the word or expression that doesn’t ring true.
We were asked to produce some writing to accompany some photographs that had been taken in connection with some BoCo productions. Two members of the group had written poetry in the past, two had not, but poetry felt the appropriate form to use to capture concise, powerful responses to the photographs. I decided to introduce three features: free-verse, variety of perspective, patterns or refrains and a number of exercises were conducted over four or five weeks, using a different photograph each week. To demonstrate free-verse, a 150 word-limit flash-fiction piece was collectively chopped into lines and reduced to about 100 words by contracting its prose features. For each photograph, we would each take a different point of view, writing in first, second or third person. Patterns were introduced by starting lines with the same word, or each line containing a specific feature such as a colour or a movement, or by selecting a line or two to repeat or use as a refrain. While the majority of our writing classes had focused on narrative forms, the introduction of poetry brought some excellent, enthusiastic responses and extended the repertoire of styles and genres used by the group.
7. COMPETITION AND PUBLICATION
One of my early missions had been to encourage the group to think of themselves as ‘writers’. Not in any grand, magisterial manner; not in any glamorous, glorified way; but to take themselves seriously and confidently as members of a community of people who write – in the same way as someone who wears leathers and tinkers with the intricacies of a Triumph or Yamaha engine before hitting the highway would have no worries describing her or himself as a ‘biker’; or someone who pricks out seedlings, prepares compost and prunes back the branches would proudly call her/himself a ‘gardener’. Words can be problematic. And the term ‘writer’ seems to have acquired connotations of special expertise, though for me it is the biker, gardener or D-I-Y buff who possesses the magic touch.
To recognise themselves as members of a writing community, it seemed essential to persuade the group to put themselves out into the wider world. As members of BoCo, they were presenting themselves to a bigger audience, though it was essentially the larger community. Members of South Words had no difficulty telling friends and acquaintances at the Centre that they were in a writing group. The first target was to get them to submit stories to a writing competition. This would mean re-drafting their work until they were sure they could do no more with it, but also to feel confident enough to present it for ‘judgement’ by someone who didn’t know them, and to commit some money to the process in the form of entry-fee. We almost managed it for a small competition in the summer of 2011 but not quite: not quite ready, forgot the deadline, printer didn’t work … It was important that they actually managed the entire process of submission themselves, but it seemed to be one small step too far.
However, from the autumn of 2011, the Bristol Short Story Prize 2012 was fixed firmly in our sights. We read some previous winning stories, interrogated and discussed their strengths and weaknesses – and it was pleasing that the group felt confident enough to identify some weaknesses in winning entries to a prestigious award. Later, I asked them to identify a couple of stories each that might be suitable for entry to the 2012 competition and we gave these further reading and workshop review. Eventually three members of the group submitted stories to the competition, and they did so without me having to urge them into action. None of the stories were short-listed but neither were thousands of others. The point was that significant time, care and talent were invested in the writing and that the process of submission became a point of self-recognition in which they felt ready to put their work out into the wider world to be judged.
At this same time, I explained that I would not be able to continue beyond the end of June 2012 because I had committed myself to a PhD research project at Cardiff University and would have to focus on that. With the end in sight, we began to consider a publication. Theatre Orchard identified funds and arranged the design, photography and printing of a booklet in which the writing of each of the four members would be represented. They self-selected their material, which again seemed important, and over several months the booklet was organised and rigorously proof-read. Titles can be troublesome. The initial request for suggestions drew a blank. Because of the community-green outside the Centre, I suggested using the title of William Blake’s poem, ‘The Echoing Green’, for its connotations of imagination, creativity, freedom and joyful voices. We had reached the stage where everything was subject to scrutiny and no, it did not receive overwhelming approval – perhaps those connotations were literary, and a little academic, rather than shared with the group. However, a seed had been sown and a fresh title emerged from the brainstorming: ‘Echoes and Shadows’ felt and sounded instantly right when it popped out of someone’s mouth to win consensus.
Finally, a launch for ‘Echoes and Shadows’ was planned. It would have been easy, perhaps, to do so in the Centre or the library but the urge was to step outside the comfort zone. An event was programmed to be held in Weston Arts Gallery as part of the Weston Fringe Festival in September 2012. Even if there were not a large number of people in attendance, it symbolised involvement in the wider artistic community of Weston-super-Mare and North Somerset, a readiness to voice their ideas beyond local parameters, and to put their creative writing out for other people to read and enjoy.
8. SOME CONCLUSIONS
The most encouraging outcome of this process was to hear that the group was planning to continue meeting independently. They felt confident enough in their ability to support each other’s writing and interested enough to want to continue developing their talents. The suggestion that had been tentatively put forward to Theatre Orchard in mid-2010 had become a strong collective and creative force.
Although the initial sessions, took the form of a pilot project, the three aims established at the start seem to have been appropriate and, in many respects, fulfilled. It was important to have some aims, though they needed to be longer-term.
The small number of participants was not a problem. Doubtless some would ask whether it was efficient to invest such a large amount of time and effort in so few participants. At times, I admit, I asked the same question myself, and I imagine that if significant amounts of money had been involved, higher expectations would have been made. But it was not a secret group; it was not exclusive; it was publicised formally and members of the group often recommended it to others at the Centre. However, the creative relationships that developed between the four participants were powerful and their commitment was never in doubt (on a number of occasions, they arrived with children in tow and we had to create a space for the children to be occupied while the group carried on with its writing activities). There was always time to discuss matters in detail, to hear each other’s work, and for everyone to actively participate, all of which contributed to the growth of confidence in their creative, reflective and analytical skills.
It was important to develop positive feedback protocols. For people who have not experienced workshopping, it can be an anxious experience, in terms of both giving and receiving feedback. Responding, reflecting issues back to a writer is a skill which takes time to acquire. The workshop leader has a considerable responsibility to undertake in this sphere, ensuring that the tone, quality and nature of responses are in tune.
I have not been able to list all the types of activities undertaken but it seems to be a balance between allowing time for ideas and techniques to take root and providing sufficient range of activities to keep challenging the writers to extend their skills.
Reading aloud, however, is an essential activity, as much for the writer as for the audience. It requires the writer to find the voice, both the voice of the particular piece and their own inner-critical voice which senses when a phrase, a sentence, an image is not working. Again, this is a skill which is learnt over time by practice and supportive listening. Few of us are trained readers-aloud. Few feel confident about doing so. As part of the creative writing process, it is worth giving consideration to and requiring writers to take care with when they read to an audience, however small.
Finally, it is important to keep publication in view – whether it is by way of entry to a competition, on the Net, self-publication or presentation to an audience. It can be a daunting experience and many writers choose not to put their work out. So much personal investment goes into creative writing that rejection or criticism can be painful. But the point when a writer feels ready to submit her or his work to scrutiny is a signal of confidence, composure and readiness to put the work, and the response, into perspective. The members of South Words made that act of progression and I feel some sense of assurance that, in doing so, their lives have changed – in some small way maybe, but probably forever.