The start of a new year challenges all creative practitioners to think about what we can do better. Here are the usual suspects for writers. ‘I will write every single day, even if it’s just for five minutes!’ ‘My commonplace book will never leave my side!’ ‘Writing first, editing after!’ All worthy – but dull and rather forced. Painters, illustrators, textile artists, visual communicators, musicians: what are the typical resolutions for you and which of them have you actually made this year?
Inspiration comes more easily from finding new ways to go about your practice, rather than from trying again things you’ve already tried to do in past years. So if your habit as a writer is to close yourself up at home in your room, 2016 might be the year you venture out and write in company with others.
There’s no shortage of ways to find other writers to write with, without it costing a great deal. The Bookseller estimates that after a decade of rapid growth in literary festivals in the UK, there are now around 250 of them. Many include writing workshops in their programme of encounters with published authors. Doolin Writers Weekend in County Clare in March promises ‘an eclectic mix of workshops, readings, theatre, music and food’ with ‘something for every level of writer’. In November, you can work on a short story at the Richmond Literature Festival in south west London. The Poetry Business runs monthly writing days on Saturdays in Sheffield.
Carol Stimpson, a creative arts student who has included writing in her level 1 course choices, stretched her legs as well as her mind when she took the plunge and joined a writers’ walk at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival. Here’s what she discovered about the city and about the relationship between walking and writing.
How do you really get to know a place? The answer is to walk around and think about it.
At the Street View Writers’ Walk and Workshop, Vicki Mackenzie, our leader for the day, introduced the concept of thinking to the rhythm of a walking pace. She also outlined reasons why people walk. For example: pilgrimage, exploration and pleasure – all excellent sources of writing material. For this exercise we were to undergo a sensory exploration of the old industrial quarter of Sheffield. At the same time, we could consider the historical and current purposes of the environment.
I was excited to take the opportunity to meet some tutors, staff and students from the OCA. It also gave me a chance to meet others who weren’t studying but simply interested in producing creative writing. I wanted to experience the riches of what a workshop had to offer, and as a ‘first-timer’, I had no idea what to expect.
As we walked, we were struck by the contrast of old and decayed with revival and renewal. It struck me that there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas going on as members of the group chatted with one another about what they saw and experienced. There was a chain reaction of one impression informing another. I overheard someone say that all he could smell was a ‘nondescript aroma of fast food’, and I realised that I’d neglected the sense of smell altogether and needed to sharpen up a bit. We actually wanted to walk, talk and note-take for much longer than our schedule allowed.
Back at our writing headquarters time was given for a free-writing session and a polishing of ideas. Without any pressure, there was willingness enough to share our impressions and it was fascinating to discover the breadth and variation of perceptions and interests. Everybody’s imagination, it seemed, had been tickled by something different.
I confessed my bewilderment at some found texts I’d found intriguing. Someone else produced honed imagery describing the decay of some old workshop sites. Another found the noise of football fans marshalled by police through neighbouring streets had stimulated a personal memory of a Pakistani landslide – something we all agreed was a powerful and frightening metaphor.
All too soon, it was time to pack up and say our goodbyes. I was going away with raw material to feed my imagination for weeks to come. I’d also learned about the richness offered to the senses by the simple act of walking and opening my mind to the surroundings. Perhaps most importantly, I’d realised how vital it is for me to meet up with like-minded people in order to get out of my own narrow groove.
Some writing students, apparently, are reluctant to attend workshops, but from my own experience I can recommend the benefits of getting together to bounce ideas around.
‘Street View Writers’ Walk and Workshop’ was held in collaboration with Sheffield’s
Off the Shelf Festival of Words and OCA.