This week I attended a Networking Day organised by Cyprus Well, the Literature Development Agency for the South West of England. My thanks to David Woolley and Kate Wilson for arranging this day for writers wanting to expand their experience of working in community settings.
Four writers, Phil Bowen, Ann Gray, Clive Hopwood and Cliff Yates, shared their stories and observations of working in schools, prisons, and with sufferers of dementia and the bereaved. In addition, Ann and Cliff read from their own, recently published work, Phil read poems he uses in his work with schools and Clive read extracts from prisoners’ writing.
In between the talks, readings and discussions, everyone mingled in a side room, around a table laid with sandwiches, cakes and fruit, drinking tea and coffee to our hearts’ content. I realise now that this was the networking part and that perhaps I should have drank less tea, eaten less triangle-shaped sandwiches, and generally been more dynamic. Luckily there is another Cyprus Well Networking Day, in Bournemouth, on 27th October, so I can try again then.
Nevertheless it was a very interesting and helpful day, with each speaker giving the group much to contemplate.
Working with the bereaved or with people with dementia isn’t something that I’ve thought about doing but Ann Gray’s thought-provoking insights apply to all sorts of situations and I will be mindful of many of her comments when I am next working on a writing project. For example: “See who people (with dementia) are, not who they aren’t” ; “You shouldn’t have any expectation of the people to take part (in writing activities). You have to go with whatever it is that’s going on.” Ann’s observations reminded me that a writer, when not producing their own work, is primarily a facilitator of other’s writing. It was fascinating to hear about Ann’s work and a privilege to hear her read her own, award-winning and deeply moving poetry.
Next, Cliff Yates and Phil Bowen talked about running writing workshops in schools. Cliff said that he never forces participants to read back their work, so that they know they’re writing for themselves. He finds that young writers feel safer, more confident and are more productive this way, learning and developing from the process of writing, rather than focusing solely on the end product, the finished piece. He stressed the value of asking teachers and support staff to write alongside the children (rather than marking or observing him, making notes, for example!) and how this feeds into their own understanding of the writing process. Cliff also talked about how creative writing in the classroom benefits not only a student’s writing but also their ability to analyse texts and to be critical and insightful readers.
Phil Bowen’s background in theatre and drama was very much in evidence in his presentation and it comes as no surprise that he is extremely successful and in demand as a visiting writer to schools. I found his comment that, as a young man, he became more interested in poetry when he read poets he felt were “talking to him” very relevant when considering which poets to select to provide the backbone of a writing workshop. The group discussed the importance of introducing a wide variety of poetry to children, not only work perceived to be “children’s poetry.” As visiting writers, there is an opportunity to introduce children and school staff to a wider range of poetry and writing than is usually found on the classroom bookshelves.
The final speaker was writer Clive Hopwood, Co-Director of the Writers in Prison Network. An experienced storyteller and engaging speaker, Clive’s talk was passionate, moving and often hilariously funny. Considerations for writers working in prisons include respectfulness of different levels of literacy, self-confidence and backgrounds; a willingness to facilitate collaborations between prisoners, with some acting as scribes for example, and the need to be flexible, in terms of approaches to writing, fluctuating numbers of participants, and available facilities.
Clive talked passionately about the life-changing and transformational power of creative arts on a person’s life. His readings from prisoners’ writing were intensely moving.
To summarise, this was an extremely well-organised and stimulating day. I was delighted to learn that Cyprus Well has secured three years of funding to develop further opportunities for writers to work in community settings and I look forward to be included in their database of writers working in the South West.