Feedback sessions in a writing group.

Can enough ever be said about the value of thoughtful feedback?

The feedback that generally happens in my writing classes is based on the heard story.  The author reads their work and the group respond.  That’s pretty standard, and it’s a lovely, if initially scary, experience.

dog-paintingI hope I will always remember my own early experiences, when I rushed through the words that I had sweated over – usually the night before it was due to be read.  Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, I set off reading at such a pace that my tutor needed to pause me at the end of the first page, and remind me to breathe.

I credit my good friends Ruth and Lynda, who between them coached me through the ‘Story-telling’ module at University, with the fact that I can now read at a more measured pace (thanks pals).  But that’s another story altogether.

Crimson and gasping as I invariably was at the end of those early reading slots, I went back for more, week after week.  What drew me?  Well, aside from the joy of finding other people creating stories and poems in their spare time, and the stretching of my creative horizons that happened during writing exercises, I had an audience for writing that until then, I had mostly been doing in secret.

This was not family or best-friend feedback.  My fellow scribblers responded with constructive, impartial support.  I began to see where my writing worked, and how it could be improved, which both encouraged and challenged me to work harder.  I became more confident about my ability to put words together, and critical of what I was doing.

The next level of feedback is to look at the story, rather than listen.  That way, what happens on the page is the story.

Sounds obvious?  Well think about how much the ‘telling’ style directs us.  Delivery (the pauses, accents and intonations), plays a part in how we respond to the events being described.  It is one speaker’s interpretation of what those marks on the page mean.

So this week the aim is for no reading out-loud in my class.  Each writer will have a papertwo-diaries copy of the homework-writings to study and respond to.

This is a big step to take, but an interesting one.  To sit quietly and hear what someone else understands you to have said can be challenging, particularly if they’ve seen something you didn’t intend.  Does that mean they’ve missed the point, or, have you?

Perhaps you’ve not written that scene clearly enough: or is it that depths have made their way instinctively into the construction of your writing?  Sometimes, it takes a reader to see the writing road that you’ve side-stepped, and what better reader than another writer?

 

Photo from, 1952 film, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood.

Where did you find out about that?

As you may know, quite a few of my classes are organised by the WEA.  ‘Who are they?’ people tend to ask, when I tell them who I work for.

‘Workers’ Educational Association,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ they say.  ‘Where’s your college?’

‘There’s no campus,’ I say.  ‘Classes are organised within the community, by volunteers who run the local branch.  There could be some taking place just around the corner from where you live.’

‘Really?’

weaI’ve taught in community centres, out-of-hours schools, village halls, church and chapel halls, library meeting rooms and pub-lounges.  These are all places where people pass through and might see the posters, even if they don’t sign up.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, Saturday I went to the WEA Area Meeting, where delegates from four of the local branches gathered to exchange news and share ideas.  Publicity was one of the items on the agenda, and despite the fact that this year there have been some popular courses put on, there was still a general feeling that the WEA needs a higher public profile.

pitmen_paintersThis is an organisation with a one hundred and thirteen year pedigree: that’s created a healthy alumni and alumnae.  Yet apart from the wonderful, Pitman Painters play by Lee Hall, there’s not much mention of WEA in the national or local press.

Some branches post on social media, and most put up posters and leaflets.  Finding spaces for paper publicity is tricky.  Many of the places with ‘What’s On’ displays are managed by commercial organisations, and often that limits the room left for others.

Our local newspaper used to produce a supplement that contained all of the adult education courses on offer in the county.  That’s how I came to sign up for my first creative writing class.  I remember that I browsed the list, and then took out the page I was tempted by, folded it to the relevant section and kept it on the side for a couple of days as I psyched myself up to phone and enrol.

What I’m wondering is, how can we do that with social media?  The posts on twitter and face-book move rapidly down the page, it’s no wonder that people using it for publicity put out so much duplication.

Is this chatter the best way to attract the attention of a tentative first-timer?

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‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

workers_educational-association-wea-adult-learning-course-reuben-internet_main

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

Making a writing space

I’m still buzzing following a new venture for me, a writing day at a local art museum.  Working with a group of writers in a museum is something special.  I did a half day last year.

Last autumn though, I began to notice how often people in my groups were saying that they found it difficult to make time to write.  The problem?  Those displacement activities that I may have mentioned once or twice before in previous blogs…Check out Writing Blocks, for some further thoughts on them.

Then, early in December, as the last of my classes closed up for Christmas, several students commented on the long gap before our re-start in January.  I decided the time was ripe for something a little different.  I would structure a day for writers who wanted space to write.

DSCF6058 Now in theory, this could have happened anywhere that had tables, chairs, heat and the basic facilities, but, I thought, wouldn’t it be perfect if there was an inspiring backdrop?  After all, that’s part of the key to how the writing residentials have worked.   So, I phoned up Nature in Art and explained my plan.   They said yes.

What could be better?  A lovely historic house, lots of artifacts, an education room we could use as a base, a coffee shop where we could buy lunches.

Some of the group came with projects in mind, others were looking for inspiration.  The group included people who come to my classes now, or had done in the past, and people I’d never met before.  No one knew everyone in the room, but we soon got chatting.

What I provided, apart from some optional writing triggers, was time management & discipline.  I interspersed set writing periods with a variety of complimentary and contrasting activities.

And it worked: we wrote, we took breaks, we wrote.  We wandered through the galleries, we wrote more.  It was more than just a space to write, it was a place to meet others sharing our journey and compare notes, listen to new ideas, refresh old connections and make new ones.

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At the end of the day we got together and discussed our writing: we read bits out.  Everyone had pages to show for their day, including me.

 

Reading for writers

This week I’ll be starting the first of my Autumn reading groups.  Lined up are two seven week courses and a day school, that means I’ll be discussing one novel and two short story collections.  So alongside the writing groups that are already up and running, I shall be kept on my toes until Christmas.

I’m not complaining.  What I’ve found is that these two strands compliment each other. At the first pass, I read purely as a reader, sometimes racing, at others, taking my time, getting involved with the characters: enjoying the story.  It’s only after that my work starts.

I see my role as being to help a group get the most from what we’ve read.  Book coverSo I re-read the set piece again, and again.  I delve into the writing, asking myself questions about what the author was doing.  I construct a series of feasible theories, suggestions, questions and ideas that I can take in to intrigue and challenge my class with.

The interesting and intriguing thing about this process is that no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve investigated a story, when we get into a group discussion, we always find at least one more way to read it.  Everyone brings their own understanding of the world to a story, and sharing our ideas opens up our perspectives.  I learn loads.  

book coverReading groups seem to me a perfect place to investigate how skillful writing can be. I take my discoveries not only into my own writing, but also to my writing classes.

Now’s the time to stand up and shout that, ‘Learning Lasts for Life.’

Do you know that the British Chancellor is suggesting that funds for adult education should be cut by 25% and 40%?

I’ve no head for figures, so I’m going to give you what the WEA have to say about it:

Less than 6% of Government spending on education and training is devoted to adult further education and skills. Further cuts, on top of the 24% and 3.9% per cent cuts to the Adult Skills Budget already announced this year, will have a devastating impact on a service that is life-changing for many people.

Putting that in context, over the next 10 years there will be 13.5 million more jobs but only 7 million young people coming into the workforce. At the same time employer investment in skills and training has declined by 2.5 billion since 2011. Apprenticeships alone will not fill the gaps. In addition, the research shows that adult education improves health and wellbeing, develops confidence and builds better communities.

I’m standing up here to say that I have a vested interest in Adult Education.  Not only doWEA Tate_Liverpool I teach adults through the WEA, I became a mature student when I was in my twenties, and I still like to go along to other people’s courses, when they fit in with my timetable, and I hope to continue to do so.  I do it because I like to top-up my skills, and because I’m interested.

What happens when I get there is I meet interesting new people.  They could be any age between 19 and …well, the oldest student on one of my classes, so far, is 94.  On an adult education course people come from all sorts of backgrounds to share their ideas.  I can’t think of any gathering more diverse.  What we have in common is an interest in knowing more about the subject.

What we get is something more than we might have expected.  A sense of community develops.  My horizons are continually broadening.  We get into stimulating discussions, and I go home buzzing with ideas.  A good class is a tonic.

That’s why I’m adding my letter of protest to the others that are going out to our local MPs and the Chancellor, to say, think again.  What Adult Education provides is precious.  It’s not just a second chance, it’s about getting out of the house.  Instead of looking at how much it costs, I would say look at how it improves our sense of self and community.  We want more of this, not less.

Learning-lasts-for-lifeIf you’re interested in finding out more about the WEA campaign to save adult education, you should take a look at their facebook page.