Today, while cycling through Hackney, I had a wave of joy at a recent achievement. I think it’s called happiness. Not just the fulfilment of a personal pleasure – finishing a short story, or novel, even; getting through the day without losing my temper at my two children! – but the recognition that that personal pleasure will also contribute to the greater good.
For the past three months, I’ve been teaching creative writing, on a voluntary basis, to a group of people who are in recovery for drugs and alcohol at the Hackney Recovery Service. The course was hugely enjoyable, with a core group attending each week and writing some exceptionally good poetry and prose. I led each session with a mix of challenging skills, analysis of text and free writing, and encouraged my students to delve deep into their memory and history, as well as tap into their imagination, under the premise that they must write the stories that bubble up and that there is no such thing as bad writing.
I teased them that they had to pay me £5 every time they apologised for their work.
We had laughter, tears, and much discussion, of a literary nature, as well how to deal with pesky personal ghosts and self-destructive tendencies. The hour and a half flew by.
My students started writing more – ‘got the bug’, one of them said – and began sending me their poetry and prose, and I was surprised by its quality. It wasn’t necessarily about writing properly – this was not only a lesson about rules – but more importantly, it seemed, about writing from the heart, about being in touch with what mattered to them on a personal level. I had touched on something: by taking away the self-consciousness that stops so many of us from putting that first word onto the blank page, I was giving my students permission to tap into a true part of themselves. And they were ready for it. They’d been through various recovery programmes and were used to thinking about their lives and writing their stories. I was struck by their softness in the face of what came up, and willingness to explore their vulnerability. Introducing writing at this point felt like an important extension to their recovery.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t continue this work without pay, so I decided to jump head first into an Arts Council application. It was arduous, yes, but it also forced me to think about what I felt this group was capable of, and to value my work in helping them get there. I received various advice from others in the field, which was hugely helpful, but also realistic, and prepared myself for the Arts Council to come back and be pernickety. But just before Christmas I received an email telling me that I’d been successful. I was awarded enough to pay me to continue on with my work with the group, and to extend out to others, and to mentor their work to publishable standard.
So. The project begins. We have the brilliant Zoe Gilbert on board http://mindandlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/, my co-founder of London Lit Lab http://www.londonlitlab.co.uk/. She’ll be teaching some of the workshops and helping me mentor the writers, and will be my co-editor when we come to publishing an anthology. Tom Mallender of Write London http://write-london.com/ will be teaching a couple of workshops, with his experience of inspiring poetry within marginalised groups. Stephanie Hutton, will talk of her journey to winning prizes for her subtle and nuanced flash fiction http://stephaniehutton.com/. We’ll also have a visit from Eva Lewin from Spread the Word https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/ who will guide our group through the opportunities open to writers. I also want to thank the brilliant Alex Gostwick, my supervisor at St Mungo’s, who has been a rock and guide throughout this whole process, and Vicky Creyton for her help with the application. Also, Dominique de Light of Creative Future https://www.creativefuture.org.uk/ who gave me excellent support and advice.
Oh, and if you want to donate to this cause, please do so. The more money we receive the more opportunities there are for our writers. Here’s our crowdfunding page: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/unheard-voices-1
I’ll be blogging about our progress, so watch out for us!