Autumn thoughts turn to classes

blackberrying Angus Racy HelpsI’ve never understood why I was taught to think of Autumn as a metaphor for closing down.  Okay, so my early school was rural.  In this season tractors hauling crops regularly passed our gates, and after 3.30pm many of us roamed amongst the workers gathering things in.  We even helped, occasionally, especially if fruit was involved.  Yes, days were getting shorter and winter was approaching.

But, and it’s such a big but I was tempted to set it in capitals, at the same time as harvests were happening, soil was ploughed, harrowed and sowed with crops for the next year.  In the UK, it’s one of the busy times of the agricultural year.

The same rule applies to learning.  Autumn is the beginning of the new academic year.  Remember the noise and excitement of that first day at school, the energy: the excitement?

Working in the FE sector on short courses, I’ve learned that September and October are still the main time when people think about signing up to learn something.  Are we wired to look for classes in autumn, or just following a pattern established in childhood?

Either way, now’s the time when I begin to check in with the office to see how the pre-enrolment numbers are going.  What will be popular?  How busy will the next few months be?

Busy, busy, busy, that’s my view of autumn.  Okay, so the days are shortening, but far from life slowing, in the classroom, the energies and excitements of the summer are being re-focused.  What better way to keep spirits up, as the light levels drop, than to learn or practice something?

It’s easy to feel that once we reach adult-hood we can, or maybe even should, put ‘school’ away.  Not so.  While it may be tricky to fit learning into the busy modern lifestyle, once tried, many stick with it.  They discover that joining a group of focused and enquiring adults can be stimulating, fun and stretching.

Aside from the chance to make new social connections, there are long-term health benefits to returning to classes as an adult.  In a Radio Times article from April 2016, Ellie Walker-Arnott reported that:

A Scottish study has tested over 600,000 factors in a group of 79-year-olds regularly since they were 11. It found that a quarter of brain ageing is down to genes while three quarters (75%) is dependent on our lifestyle choices.

One of the lifestyle choice the studies advocate is on-going education.

Learning something new changes the micro-structure of your brain and sees its size increase in certain areas, rather than shrink.

If you do similar sudoko challenges every day for 10 years it won’t work different parts of your brain, it’s got to be something new. Life drawing is a good option, as each picture is a fresh new challenge. As is learning a new language. Whatever you choose, continuing to learn as we age can have a “dramatically positive effect.”

Autumn thoughts, it seems, should be active.

 

*    Illustration at top of page, ‘Blackberrying’ by Angus Racy Helps.

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I belong to a poetry group

Does that sound like a confession?  Maybe it is.

If I don’t make every meeting it’s because sometimes I’ve not caught up with myself.  Otherwise, one evening per month should be achievable, and it’s etched not only in my diary, but into my memory.

miki-byrneI look forward to my two hours with Miki Byrne, and the gathering of local poets she hosts.  Some are published, some are not.  It doesn’t matter which any of us are.  One of the best things about the various writing groups I’ve been to is that our interest in writing creates a common ground, and a safe space to experiment in.

I think of myself as a prose-writer, but I do love poetry.  There are poems that I go back to over and over, at critical moments, or for reflection, mood, and inspiration.  Want to write with economy, depth and precision?  Here’s a  form of literature that demonstrates some of the most intriguing and exciting ways it can be done.

In the poetry group we share the risk of words.

And I do mean risk.  My adrenalin flows.

I go to be challenged.  A topic is introduced.  I start with nothing, but a warm-up writing exercise soon provides ideas.  As the exercise progresses, I untangle the threads of my thoughts, take up one of them and follow it.  I don’t know where it’s going, or what I’m going to say, but along with everyone else, I’m writing myself into a scenario.  Images are forming, building, becoming something I’m intrigued by, linking into ideas that matter to me.

We’re all in the same boat, with the same supplies, yet we each produce something individual.  Yes, these pieces are rough, but they’re first, or at most, second drafts.

We read them out, half-made as they are.  That’s not about bravery, it’s a chance to get some instant feedback.  This is not the time for in-depth critiques (that happens at a later stage), the audience and I are hearing my words, as I will hear theirs, for the first time.

Sharing gives us some ideas about important questions, such as:

  • Does it flow?
  • Does it say something?
  • What did I like about it?
  • Which part caught their attention?
  • Where might I expand it?

Everyone reads, maybe initially that’s because everyone else reads.  But ultimately, in my observation, they read because not to read is to miss-out on a vital part of the process.

The poetry group is giving me a portfolio of ideas to work on, ideas that I might not have stumbled on, drifting along on my own. Some may not go anywhere: but I go back to most of them, sooner of later.

Group Sequence Poem

We’ve just finished a Writing Residential in North Wales – a great week, thank you very much, to all involved.DSCF6077One of the challenges I set the group this year was to contribute either a haiku or tanka to a Japanese style sequence poem.  A pad containing the first three lines was left on the coffee table.  This is the poem I picked up on the last day:

Voluptuous waves

matted fibres lift from the rocks

a forest wakens.

Carrying the soft waters

a spiral of tide and light.

Silver fish fly through

laughing green seaweed branches

dancing in their sky.

Infiltration of the stones

seaweed scent released to air.

Small stones roll to beach

children throw them at each other

no more smell of weed.

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Writer’s, club together…

butterflies graffitti artThe first rule for a writing class is you do ask questions.

The second rule for a writing class is:  You do ask questions.

Third rule for a writing club: you jump every daft hurdle the tutor sets, and follow whatever convoluted directions she or he gives.

Fourth rule: you write for as long as it takes to say what you find yourself trying to say.

Fifth rule: you don’t allow yourself to hear the voice of that critic who sits behind your shoulder whispering disparaging comments about your ability to be inspired, to transcribe ideas or complete a piece of writing.

Sixth rule: there is only you and your writing implements.

Seventh rule: castles in the air are desirable residences.

And the eighth and final rule: even if this is your first time in a class, you have to write.

So now you know the rules.

What’s stopping you?

You are Writer Club people.  There is a Tyler Durden waiting to break out of your sensible or otherwise lives.  Set them free.  Those thoughts you’ve nurtured for so long about setting aside time to write, are ripe.  Don’t waste this potent moment.

There’s no way to break this news gently: it is nearly Autumn.  Now’s The Time – get on-line and sign up for a class or group near you.

fight-club_0

With apologies to Chuck Palahniuk, whose film and novel, Fight Club, have provided me with hours of entertainment.

 

Four memorable days: Sense & Place

Last week we were on the Lleyn Peninsula, in North Wales, running a writing residential.

photo(22)

It’s no coincidence that the cottage we hired is just a mile along the coast from the cottages where we stayed when I was a University student taking part in writing residentials, all those years ago.   I’ve fond memories of those twice yearly trips out of Liverpool and was lucky enough to be invited along to help-out on several more after I graduated, so got to see how they worked from both sides of the desk, and to visit a good range of interesting local sites.

I’ve also been back since then teaching a variety of subjects for various organizations.  This, though was my residential: Sense & Place.

I took inspiration from the bits I liked best of those other times, mixed them with some ideas I had, and away we went.  The great thing was, it worked.  We absorbed atmospheres, wrote, cooked and ate, chatted, discussed and wrote again

There were moments when I imagined Edmund, my much-missed Imaginative Writing tutor wandering in, stooping as he entered, offering a lop-sided smile and taking a seat somewhere unobtrusive, to the left of center-stage.  I found myself pausing to imagine what he might say or do.  A smile, surely.  A nod of approval, I hoped.  The ‘residential’ format was his thing, his dream.  How I would have loved to have been able to invite him along to give us a reading from some of his poems.

Edmund Cusick, poet and Head of Imaginative Writing at John Moore’s University, had pioneered the introduction of writing residentials as a part of the HE learning programme.  During one of the last conversations I had with him, he told me that he was proud to think that he had been the first to see the value of taking writers out of their home (and home-from-home) environment.

His residentials expanded out to include visits to other inspirational areas of the country.  We’re already planning a return trip to the Lleyn.  I feel the same sort of pull that I guess Edmund must have, the longing to share with like-minded people my enthusiasms.  Even during the long drive home, I was running through a list of venues, rating their suitability, adapting my approach in light of this first experience as organizer.

Now clearly I’m working on a much smaller scale than a university.  But the principles remain the same: take a bunch of people who share an interest, and a willingness to get along.  Put them in suitable, comfortable surroundings and provide direction and space in measured proportions.  You should at least lose sight of the wider world for a few days.  Hopefully, they’ll get inspired, and who knows, me too. It worked.

DSCF5520So, in case any of the group are reading this, thanks, folks.  We did this.  I had a wonderful time.