I have recently interviewed a number of adults (not teachers), who belong to a few of the writing groups in Bedford. What did their group mean to them?
They repeatedly returned to three satisfactions:
1. the companionship of a trusted forum where their voice can be heard – by reading their work aloud, they discover how authentically and effectively they have written
2. a stiffening of resolve to submit to the discipline of shaping experience and ideas in words, through being regularly challenged and encouraged to write and share
3. a privileged perspective into other writers’ insights and voices, and the chance to respond and encourage others
For many there had been a transforming event around the age of 15 or 16 which had turned them on to writing for life. Often it was suddenly recognising their teacher as “someone who thinks and feels about words the way I do.” Sometimes an inspirational teacher had introduced them to the words of a poet: “I was bowled away by (hearing Ted Hughes’ style) - a means of expression that I would want to use in some way ... this seemed to be a way I could talk about experience (whereas other poets spoke in distant voices.)"
Some mentioned discovering the benefits of solitary journalling as they moved through the crises of a more independent life: “ ... a journal was somewhere I could work important things out, where I could be present and private, reveal myself to myself in a forum in which I dared - holding events which were momentous and distilling understandings that were important. Writing was a way of taking care of that.”
Although the pressures of work and family reduced the possibility of writing, many were grateful for teachers who had helped them wrestle with writing, and had cultivated in them a habit of ‘discovery writing’ to which they returned on their own or with their group whenever they could:
“You can discover who you are through writing.”
“Faced with a blank piece of paper, everyone is equal back at square zero.”
“The more opportunities for creativity, the more people can find themselves.”
“(Poetry) is good for the soul ... you become better at understanding the world and yourself.”
One of the group organisers is a prize-winning, published poet who stressed the importance of hearing how your words sounded aloud, and that writing was too often seen rather than heard in schools:
“Things start to gel when you get a kind of sound in your head and it takes you forward. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself; it’s a kind of deafness ... a poem is not finished until you’ve road-tested it on an audience – can this live for somebody else?” He recommended asking someone else to read your poem aloud as ‘ a helpful way of reflecting and giving distance.’
Of course, these benefits characterise teachers writing groups too, and teachers have found the following ways of translating their own classroom practice as a result:
1. Regularly read aloud and enthuse about poetry, plays and prose
2. Encourage regular experimentation in writing notebooks and reflection in journals
3. Write alongside your pupils and be prepared to share difficulties and ask for advice
4. Foster writing partnerships in which pupils read their own work aloud, and read aloud the writing of their partners
5. Join a writing group.
NWP outreach director