The Writing Group: Big Re-Launch

The writing group: big re-launch at Doorway

It feels about time although some people may be saying, ‘but why??’ After many months of deep silence surely it would be kinder to let it slip away, but no, the cry goes round the byways of Chippenham—the Doorway writing group will come again!
But I have to be honest it is not easy to find people who want to write. And I think I may have reflected on this before, no doubt in that wistful fashion that comes naturally to me. But I’ve spent time doing research and thinking deep and gratifying thoughts and I’m sure Doorway can support and sustain a writing group.
It might be easier to set up a writing group in an urban setting as cities usually have thriving street cultures where self-expression of all kinds is allowed (or in the US where ‘creative writing’ seems a perfectly respectable thing for everyone to do and is encouraged) but I’m determined to make this venture a success.

Why set up a writing group?
Personal gratification? Well, yes of course, no one does something for nothing and I know that if the writing group revived and was as successful as it was before I would feel a warm glow from my cock-eyed halo. But I think the main reason for my wanting the writing group to flourish is that I know from experience that writing can work positively for people. It is a good form of self-expression that can act as a release from the often grinding stress or emptiness of everyday life—letting the imagination out on its own for awhile can be liberating. It can also have a practical value in that stress and boredom can be fictionalised and ways of dealing with them explored. By reflecting on what has been written it may be possible to notice patterns of behaviour, or strategies for coping, or challenges that need to be faced. Such self-awareness might be the first step in someone realising that change is possible and that they can move forward. It is also a way of giving a voice to people who are often unheard or mis-heard and, for me, this is equally important.

I know writing won’t be for everybody and for those whose literacy skills are poor the last thing they want is to have someone coming along and asking if they want to do some writing. They might even feel angry to be asked because they associate writing with school where their illiteracy might not have been adequately addressed and where they first felt humiliated and ridiculed for this failure. I try to emphasise that the writing group isn’t school. I’m not teaching writing and I’m not judging anything that is written. I’m an average speller and don’t remember being formally taught grammar at either primary or secondary school, so I have no real expertise in these. But I have been writing since I was a teenager and it has become part of my survival strategy.

Some thoughts about how the group functions (probably a bit boring—it’s been a long day—can be skipped if in a hurry)

I feel it’s important to have a welcoming and safe space in which the guests can write or share writing, whilst also having an informal but respectful and non-judgemental atmosphere. The group needs very little ‘equipment’ just pens, paper, coffee/tea (and cookies??) but I bring along a few other things (see below). I am the facilitator and whilst I might recoil in horror from the title I suppose it does describe what I do quite accurately. I also think that regular sessions are important as the guests are often used to being let down and messed about. Of course Doorway is a very regular sort of set-up but the writing group has never been a weekly feature; this could be something worth considering so that people know that Thursday is writing day and the space is there regardless of numbers.

And who says that everyone who comes has to write? Attendees might want to draw a story or speak into a Dictaphone (I have one that I use sometimes to listen back to my own stories/poems—very cringe-worthy) or use a computer with a spell-checker (or why not voice-activated software—one for the future) or have an amanuensis, or start a conversation that may spark off an idea. Ideally I would like guests to share writing that they have done but if someone wanted to bring another author’s work that they find special or helpful that would be ok, too. I would see this sort of sharing as a very important component of such a group because it can be easier to say something through prose or a poem than saying it directly.

I hope the things I bring to the group will stimulate ideas or initiate discussion. I don’t really plan what these will be. Very often I just pick books randomly off the bookshelf. And I don’t always bring books; I keep shoeboxes and fill them with odds and ends. I’ve been known to call them memory boxes but I’m not sure that they are that well adjusted. But they can serve to stimulate the imagination. I’ve often thought we could do something like this at Doorway—everyone brings something to put in the box and see what happens. It could be wonderfully eclectic (but we might need a big box) and more interesting than my shells, string and plastic duck.

When I held the writing group a few weeks ago I brought some books of poems by (the now late) Seamus Heaney, Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop; a book of paintings by Manet; a book of photographs by Roger Mayne; a contemporary poetry magazine; a note/workbook that I’m still using and my journal. Although the writing group isn’t a poetry group I do emphasise poetry because poems are shorter than books and often being compressed they can say a lot in not many words. Heaney, Bishop and O’Hara are contrasting poets. Heaney, the very well respected Nobel Laureate from Northern Ireland whose poems can be rich and visceral as well as accessible; Bishop, an American post-war poet whose work is observant and beautifully detailed but often with an ironic twist; and O’Hara, who’s not so well known but who I would really like to introduce to the uninitiated. 1950’s Manhattan was O’Hara’s backyard and walking about the city in his lunch-hour prompted him to write some of his most popular poems. Often referred to as ‘I-do-this-I-do-that’ poems they chronicle his day-to-day and his favourite pastimes—art, cinema, music, talking (bitching), falling in love and having lunch. He was a street poet, often funny and camp but poetry was sometimes only a side-line for him because he had a proper job, and so he’d write a poem and stick it in a box or behind the clock and forget all about it or give it to a friend. It wasn’t until after he died (1964) that his work became more widely known and appreciated. And he had a wonderful nose (Google to see it).

Apologies- I had some nice examples of their poetry in my original that haven’t come over in the paste. I did paste them separately but them the blog page disappeared and I had to start over again from the beginning and to be honest I haven’t time to do it all again.

I use art and photography books as I find guests often respond immediately to images and they can be helpful in prompting memories and stories. In this visual age when everyone can be a photographer/video-maker we are much more image conscious but great portraits, whether painted, sculpted or photographed will get behind the image or mask and show us something else. Manet may not be everyone’s idea of a great portrait painter but I like his strong and sometimes troubled-looking portraits—sometimes done in quite severe colours. Some of his work (especially his nudes) was/is controversial so that endears him to me too. Roger Mayne’s black and white photography of post-war London slums, still pocked with bomb craters and their streets full of scallywag children, have a very strong sense of place and time as well as being sharply observed and lively.

More apologies! I had a Manet portrait in my original that like the poems hasn’t turned up. It was his quite famous one of Berthe Morisot.

Bringing my own notebook is not something I have done before but it shows others (and myself):
• I write
• it often starts off as a few words or an idea
• how a story, idea or poem develops and
• how messy it all is with pages torn out and other bits of paper shoved in—but feeling quite fertile too.

But I won’t be bringing my journal again. Far too dangerous.

Original Writing from Doorway

As usual the best bits come at the end. Writing has happened and L has written the following pieces.

took what wasn’t yours,
left me crying in shame,
it shut all the doors,
suffering from blame,
self destruction and self hate
overwhelming cries,
was this my fate?
looking up at the skies
blood boiled in every vein,
like a flicker in every flame,
tears streaming from my eyes,
sat alone wondering how no one can hear my cries.

The pain behind your eyes,
The sadness in your heart,
There is not any way to disguise,
It hurts to see you fall apart.

I’m tired of being your support,
I’m exhausted of being strong,
It leaves me feeling distraught.
The saddest song.

I wish you would find happiness,
And learn to let go,
Find some sort of peacefulness.
So your soul can grow.

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