People keep telling me how much they enjoy coming to the Library Memory Groups I facilitate for The Reader Organisation in libraries in Wiltshire. They sound surprised, as if they didn’t know or had forgotten that reading could give them pleasure. These groups are weekly, read aloud, shared reading groups for people with dementia or any illness causing memory loss. We read aloud short stories, extracts from novels and poems and chat about how the literature makes us feel or what memories it unearths. But the appreciative comments are also coming from carers, library staff who sometimes join our groups, and volunteers. Their reactions make me wish that there were more reading courses and workshops available for everyone. There are so many writing workshops and courses around but it’s not so easy to find ones centred on reading.
It’s true that, in writing workshops, poems and prose are read and discussed but often the focus will be on how a writer has achieved an effect or an analysis of their writing style – and, of course, if you’ve enrolled on a writing course, you might expect some pointers to help you with your own writing. Similarly, if you sign up for a literature course, you will probably want your tutor to give you at least a little background information about a writer or the period of time they lived so as to understand some context of the writing you’re studying. So, knowing that there’s an agenda to your reading, it’s difficult to remain completely open and responsive to what’s being read but in the kind of “live” reading that takes place in my reading groups, the approach is a more spontaneous engagement with the language and ideas that we read and sometimes surprising and exciting things happen – which might also benefit people interested in writing and literature.
For one thing, it’s incredibly satisfying and enjoyable to create and own meaning rather than to accept meaning which has been given to us by someone with prior knowledge of the text. This comes about by reading the text aloud, several times, and then talking around the table, not just about what the writer might mean, but also about how the writing makes us feel. Sometimes, it’s really possible to delve extremely deeply inside a text if we have no prior knowledge – and it’s necessary, sometimes, to try to forget what we already know about a writer or their work so that we can bring fresh eyes to a story or poem.
I suppose this is the approach that’s usually taken in a writing workshop so there’s nothing unusual about this method – it’s just applying it back to front, as it were. In a writing workshop, the writer usually stays quiet while their piece of work is read and discussed by the group. It is often fascinating, and sometimes alarming, to realise that an entirely different meaning to the one you’d intended has arisen from your work. You are either persuaded to indulge the new meaning further by developing your writing in a way you hadn’t originally intended or you take the axe to the section/word/phrase which has sprouted the confusion and you concentrate on working your original intentions into your writing.
I seem to be drifting away from my point which isn’t a difficult one, it’s just the idea, if you are someone already offering writing courses and workshops, to consider offering reading as well…
… and if you’re someone who takes writing classes and workshops, why not ask your tutor for a reading workshop, to ring the changes and to see what happens. If you’ve already tried it, I’d love to know.