…was the title Simon and I gave to the first workshop we ran together at the NATE conference. I still remember writing shared amongst that group, the metaphors for writing that made us weep with laughter: ‘It occurs to me that writing is, in many ways, like a Six Way Party Moustache….’; an exposition on a plastic parrot’s beak dangling from elastic; an airing cupboard; origins; openings; a calendar of grief, quietly spoken.
The silence of a room of one’s own is a treasure. I write this, sitting in a quiet hotel room with a view of sunshine on beaded grass. However, the experience of writing together afforded by teachers’ writing groups is rich and joyous. Our three days at Belsey Bridge gave us rooms of our own. It gave us, also, room to be together in and around writing in ways that are mind-expanding; life-affirming.
Looking back over other people’s reflections, I see how the ‘living breathing space’ of a community of teacher writers reverberates far beyond any outline plan, however carefully imagined. From the very first activity, the words of individuals tap against each other; a circle of surprise and resonance. The circle is one of trust, appreciation, learning. Writers begin, alone, jotting down the words that come to them. Once shared, the words take on another life. And conversation follows: we discover words in Polish and Gujerati, the pleasure of an alliterative run, the stories that lie behind this word or that, the place names and brand names, the words that have a personal meaning and which resonate for others: Marmite, Luton, barm cake. We are spurred by the audacity and adventure of others; recognise the power of simplicity and the exhilaration of invention. These elements run through any teachers’ writing group, so that as writers and teachers we find the conditions for growth.
The company of writing teachers gathered at Belsey wrote alone and together. We heard our own and each other’s writing voiced. As we read, we experienced the hush, the laughter, the intake of breath, that our writing provoked. We heard that important word, ‘thank you’, in response to what we had written. Through sharing our thinking about writing, and through writing together, we brought out into the open some of the strategies we use when we are writing alone. We expanded our repertoire. We took risks. We thought, together, about the ways in which our past experiences, our reading, our talk, inform our writing and our approaches to writing. The poet learned from the novelist; strangers negotiated word choices, wrangled over punctuation, sat back with a satisfied sigh; the legendary Black Dog ran through Suffolk lanes and into our poetry and prose.
The trusted audience, the shared enterprise, a generosity and openness towards the other and towards writing itself: these are conditions of a teachers’ writing group and they are nurtured there. At Belsey, we had the additional luxury of time. At Belsey, we saw that time is not so much a luxury as essential for personal and professional growth. The space for oneself in the company of others makes possible thinking, invention and resolve. It allows for the exchange of ideas and ways of being and the safe space first to try these out and then to see how one might take them forward.
Looking back, over the last seven blogs, seven very small fragments of the whole, I am struck by the richness and complexity of writing - and of writing within a group. Writing can, like Heineken, reach those parts … It can make a difference to how we feel - and how and what we think. We learn, deeply, about and from others. Writing together has the potential to help us inhabit a rich and nuanced understanding of writing itself; and of the part that writing can play in our lives. That understanding, then, that ‘orientation’ underpins who we are and the choices we make in teaching writing. I am not denying the need for technical skill. But technical skill is only of use, only powerful, when set within this bigger understanding. And that bigger, more generous understanding, is nurtured by teachers’ writing groups.