There's the life we plan to lead, and then there are the unexpected turns which determine our futures. So it goes. And in writing too, one of the pleasures of any group or class is the happy accident of someone else's ideas reacting with one's own.
I've witnessed this phenomenon in a number of different writing groups recently. Surrendering to the writing process, a group of parents riffed on 'excuses' and surprised themselves with the memories they unearthed and delighted each other with the stories they created. NWP teachers, gathering in the Wellcome Collection, undertook the 'postcard conversations', exchanged messages in pairs and suddenly discovered a range of characters, relationships, back stories, dreams and voices. Student teachers, drowning under a welter of writing advice in schools, were revived by 'putting themselves in their pupils' shoes' and made unexpected headway when they wrote alongside their pupils and stepped aside from their own worries. Secondary students spoke passionately about the value of collaborative writing and writing in role for deepening memory, for broadening understanding and for strengthening independence. And some of the most imaginative writing and rewarding writing experiences emerged when pupils themselves wrote from 'random words' and phrases given to them by others. Maybe these things are like the external 'buffetings' that Seamus Heaney describes in his poem 'Postcript' - 'that catch the heart off-guard and blow it open.'
Karen Lockney in her NATE workshop (28.6.2014) talked about the value of 'negative capability - being comfortable in uncertainty'. So much of the time, we worry away, feeling that if only we try harder things will all come right; and the high-stakes testing system makes us almost afraid not to think like that. Yet we must keep faith: all the time, in some parallel universe of the imagination, answers are approaching us sideways. Writing can be as much about 'letting go' as about 'holding on'.
Anthony Wilson, in his address to NATE, The Power of Poetry, quoted Seamus Heaney's 'The Government of the tongue' (1988): '... poetry functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.' Anthony celebrated the value of contemplating life rather than just acquiring knowledge, and, in particular, advocated a 'pedagogy of permission'. He cited the words of Pete, a spoken word poet from London about the transformative effects of poetry in classrooms 'writing into the silence - writing your insides out'. And there was reassurance from Andrew Motion too, in his 'Poetry by Heart' address in which he talked of the complexity of poetry which made it 'something which you don't/can't fully understand or appreciate at first reading', yet is worth committing to memory so that its sounds and ideas can percolate into the consciousness over time.
However much we know, there will always be more that we don't. Equally, we need to remember that whatever lies within children will always be greater than what lies outside and beyond them. This means that some time every week should be given to allowing young writers to explore their own natures and identities through writing. It is not only a proper study but a fascinating one - motivating and improving.
NWP outreach director