Thursday, 8 October 2009

Workshop at Clarkston Library

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is running till 22 October. It's a super event, now in its third year, and already it's grown to be a significant cultural event with activities across the country. The aim is to transform attitudes to mental health and it's about time too. With headlines in the last two weeks about a vulnerable mother commiting suicide and taking her daughter with her because of constant derision and abuse by local bad boys, and two fourteen and fifteen year old care-home residents leaping, hand in hand, 180 feet to their death from the Erskine Bridge, it's clear that mental health issues often go unseen and that those suffering loss of hope or emotional pain often feel unsupported.

The thing that struck me when I was browsing the Festival brochure, though, was how up-beat the events are. The accent is on the positive: about self-expression through the arts and about having fun with it.

I was invited to run a creative writing workshop at Clarkston Library as part of East Renfrewshire Council's contribution to the Festival. What an experience! All good, from my point of view. Nineteen people turned up to the workshop, whose age ranged from Teenage to Third Age. Nineteen people is a massive turnout in creative writing workshop terms and with the workshop scheduled for one hour, an intensive - and I think entertaining - session followed.

Favourite of the evening was probably my collaborative writing exercise. This simple ice-breaking exercise has gone down well wherever I've run it, in university settings, Ladies Who Lunch writing groups and even among Spanish school children learning English language at the British Council School in Madrid. The principle is this: group the participants into threes or fours; give each person in the group a sheet of A4 paper with a different single line of prose on it, e.g. 'I jumped out of bed. Who was banging on the door?' or 'The smell hit me first.' (Although ' "My dear Lucinda," James said, tilting my chin ever so gently up towards the light' is also surprisingly popular!); tell everyone to read what's written and add the next sentence, then pass the sheet of paper to the person on their left; after about four or five sentences have been added, (depending on the time scale) announce that the next person to write on each sheet has to bring the story to an end.

After this, the group should read all the stories produced by their group and the facilitator can either ask each group to choose one favourite to be read aloud to the whole workshop, or if time permits, all the stories can be read out, e.g. all the 'smell' stories written by the different groups can be read one after the other.

This exercise works well as an ice-breaker because people are forced to engage with the others at the table. It works well in creative writing terms because it shows that stories can be generated out of nowhere, from random prompts. It also counters any reserve people have about showing their writing to others, and any fears of rejection, because these stories are all collaborative - so everyone in the group has played a part in any weak ones, but they've also all played a part in creating the strong ones, too.

At Clarkston Library, this exercise lasted almost twenty-five minutes but it was definitely the favourite of the night. After this, we looked at individual writing. I asked the participants to look at their hand and to write about it for a few minutes. This writing wasn't for sharing (I told them at the beginning). We discussed the kind of things they'd written about - i.e. how much was about observation of the physical 'object', looking for fine details, and how much the prompt made them delve into memories. Several actually looked forward through the generations, taking the connection of 'my hand' and linking it with the hand of a grandchild. In a workshop specifically geared towards mental well-being, this kind of exercise begins to open up the idea of discovery of 'self'. The short duration of the exercise (and the fact that it's followed a fun, collaborative one) keeps the introspection light.

After some discussion of observation and of sensory perception, I distributed a few signs of autumn to each table (wild rose twig with ripe hips, opened beech nut pods and fallen leaves, hawthorn, twig of elder berries) and introduced the group to Japanese haiku. Again, they were told that this next piece of writing wouldn't be shared, though time did allow a few volunteers to read aloud.

Writing about one's hand and writing haiku seem to me to work particularly well in writing groups where mental well-being is the theme. It's important, always, to gently warn against delving deeply into harmful memories. Writers are generally not qualified counsellors. However, it's clear that introspection can be a significant part of the desire to write. And part of the healing process. Writing helps us process our life experience and helps us come to terms with the past. It doesn't work when people become bogged down in going over and over old wounds and writing group facilitators should always warn against this. As the old song says, 'You've gotta accentuate the positive.' Keeping a writer's notebook can help with this because in it all the fleeting impressions of each new day can be jotted down. And the little observations of the natural world that are recorded there can be developed into haiku: an art form that encapsulates a moment of serenity and change. Of course, adhering to the strict form (17 syllables over three lines of 5, 7 and 5) and the care over word choice in such a restricted poem allow an opportunity to struggle to express an idea, an image, an emotion - in a vessel which is ultimately polished and beautiful: a little piece of perfection created by the writer alone.

My thanks to Gillian Hamilton and East Renfrewshire for inviting me to give the workshop. Thanks to her colleague Alison who helped out on the night. Thanks, too, to all the participants, whom I hope enjoyed the whirlwind tour we took of creative writing. And finally, thanks to Live Literature Funding, operated through the Scottish Book Trust, which operates a subsidy which enables local authorities and community groups to engage writers like me to take part in events like this with a professional level of remuneration.

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs till 22 October.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The academic year begins again

It's always such a buzz when the list of names arrives. Eighteen strangers, all with their individual histories, horror stories, happy times and hopes. The course I teach is managed online and there's a lot of technical 'stuff' to get through before the real studying can begin. Sometimes, students can be put off by this, yet, year after year, these same students look back with satisfaction not only for having passed the course but for having passed the ICT initiation, too!

Creative writing. Navel gazing? A way of making millions? A desire to express the thing that hurts the most (and maybe expunge it)? With creative writing courses so widespread now, the odds of all these students achieving fame are remote yet some will reach it. For the others, creative writing won't pay any bills but it will bring rewards and riches. The non-financial kind. The most important kind. The 'human' kind. Like all creative pursuits, writing should first and foremost be a way for all of us as individuals to explore this experience of being alive and being human, here, now, in this place and time. No other person has the same experience or the same view of the world and that makes each of those eighteen people whose names are on my list of new A215 students unique. I'm looking forward to reading about their life, experience and imagination over the next eight or nine months and to helping them take a step nearer achieving their writing dream.