Freewriting in Peformance

This month I have four short videos of writers reading their own work for you to enjoy.

All were filmed at a free poetry and music festival in Bangor, North Wales, earlier this year.  This annual festival is called “Curiad Bangor” or, in English, “Bangor Pulse” which is a great, inclusive, name covering anything with a beat, whether in words or music.

As part of this year’s festival, I organised a night of poetry and prose performances and it happened to feature some writers who subscribe to the weekly freewriting prompts I send out for free to anyone who signs up on this website.

Three of the performers read work that had been sparked originally by one of my freewriting prompts and although of course the work is theirs and theirs alone, it was such an honour to be credited with inspiring them to write it.

I hope their pieces will show how freewriting from a prompt can form the basis of finished work, after judicious editing.  Perhaps they will inspire you to sign up and have a go too.

First up is a lovely, sinuous piece of writing about jazz by Nigel Stone.

In classes on the short story or novel, an old standby of mine is to invite students to write about the strangest person they’ve ever met.  Elaine Hughes produced this absolutely hilarious and yet very affectionate piece about a real eccentric with the title “The most peculiar person I ever met”.  It brought the house down!

Last but not least, here’s Anna Powell.  She reads two poems.  I’m not sure which prompt formed the start of the first poem (“Spiders”) but the second poem, about her hearing problems, was from a prompt that she had to adapt to her own use and I like to think that it was the practice of freewriting that gave her the freedom and courage to do it.  Not only has this produced an excellent poem, it also gives us much more of Anna herself and I felt priviledged to be invited into her inner world.

To round off the show, here is myself and partner David performing a Hopewell Ink piece.  So far, all of Hopewell Ink’s words have arrived in a freewrite of mine.  It often takes a while for the finished version to emerge but I hope that the freshness of freewriting (those “first thoughts”) remains.  This is a seasonal piece that celebrates autumn but in a less-than-conventional way.

To sign up for a free weekly writing prompt, please put your e-mail address in the box at the top left of the page.  More details here.  Thanks!

Does Freewriting Work?

My students say yes, it certainly does!

Most creative writing courses will have an element of rough, initial drafts done either in the classroom or as part of the process of producing work for assessment.  The course I have just finished teaching, however, put the practice of doing intense, short bursts of unplanned writing (a technique known as freewriting) at its very core.

In every class I included at least two freewriting sessions and advised my students to do a ten-minute freewrite every day if at all possible.

The students did not share these freewritten pieces of writing with each other but used them as the raw material for on-the-spot short passages to share, or as the starting point for the completed pieces of work that they read out in the final session.

Sometimes I would give prompts, and sometimes we would generate prompts by creating, and then picking out at random, folded-over slips with short phrases on them.

There was a lot of laughter and the work that resulted was fresh, original and surprising.  In fact, when I asked the participants to reflect on the experience at the end, the commonest reaction was their surprise at what they had produced.

 

Here are some of the written comments that the students made at the end of the course, quoted with their permission, on how freewriting worked for them.

The Element of Surprise

The first three students quoted all talk about the pleasure of surprising themselves:

“It’s a way to give yourself permission to write with almost no expectation of any particular result, so that there is surprising joy to be found in what results.  It’s like opening a door to a creative area of the mind and just letting words flood out.  I have surprised myself at what has come out both in terms of subject and content.  I have discovered a narrative voice and am excited to allow it future ‘ramblings’ as I find I am pleased in a writerly way with what comes out.  Who knew?”

“Freewriting has got me writing, and with regular freewriting I am developing my ‘writing muscle’.  The no-stopping rule does seem to improve my thinking and I’ve been surprised at some of the ideas that have emerged from the process.  Using freewritten pieces to work up into finished pieces was much more enjoyable and effective, I felt, than working in any other way.”

“The freewriting exercises have allowed me this freedom to just write — computers so get in the way of the process.  Freewriting really surprised me: I am a writer!  OK, so never a professional but someone who enjoys words, just as I did as a child.  I can see that there is still so much that I want to tap into and to use my unconscious and dreams to inform further art work.”

Silencing the Inner Critic

As you see from that last quote, some of my students were practicing visual artists and they noticed that freewriting was having good effects on this area of their creativity too.

One of the benefits of freewriting is to silence or circumvent the negativity that so often bedevils the inexperienced (and, indeed, experienced) writer, and several students reported that this was indeed a genuine and valuable result of freewriting:

“I found the process of freewriting a great opportunity to just let go.  It allows the mind the opportunity to gush out thoughts and importantly to ignore the ‘critical mind’ which can interfere with both writing and art work.”

“Freewriting does indeed get you going!  As someone who used to be paralysed by the blank page I could not now do without it.  Freewriting has put ‘life’ in my writing, particularly in character description.  I seriously doubt that I could have accessed this with my conscious thinking mind.”

“Freewriting has definitely been great for getting me writing.  I’ve often been crippled by not knowing where to start, or what to write about. But with freewriting there’s no choice or decision.  You just write.  And yes, it turns out that you do feel more like a writer when you’re actually writing rather than just thinking about writing.  I found that the interaction, or balance, between giving the mind freedom to roam while actually having to get those thoughts down on paper was a really useful exercise in being open to new ideas.”

“Freewriting has loosened up my mind.  I’ve gained a lot of pleasure and fulfilment from realising I could produce creative words and express a whole range of feelings and thought without the need to keep ‘stepping back’ in critical reflection, indeed self censorship, during the actual first draft.  Although I can draw on crafting after the first go, I’m now able to ‘let rip’ without the need for over-thinking which had been blocking my expression.”

Finding Your Voice

One of the key, mysterious, qualities of good writing is “voice”, and freewriting seems to be a good way to ‘find your voice’, as this student discovered:

Freewriting lets you ‘speak on paper’.  I mostly hate my carefully-constructed writing: it ends up not sounding like me, which is often disappointing because in my head I am clever and hilarious.  Freewriting is, I think, helping me sound more like the me I know I am.”

Joy

In short, enjoyment and confidence were the overall results of the course and I couldn’t have been more pleased to read these comments:

“Freewriting has been helpful in kick-starting imaginative writing.  I have enjoyed finding out where my weird imagination might take me.”

“I’ve found freewriting frees the mind and makes me feel like a writer.  It takes away the fear of the blank page, and procrastination.  It gives me confidence.”

 

Try It Yourself!

If you’d like to try freewriting with me, The Freewriter’s Companion, there are two options:

  • Sign up for my free, weekly, freewriting prompts which arrive by e-mail at 9 a.m. every Friday morning. Each one is designed to spark a ten-minute freewriting session which you can do at your leisure during the week.
  • If you live in North Wales, you might like to come along to my next course which starts at the end of February 2020. There are lots more details here.

Hello and Welcome to Write to Done Readers!

I’m excited to say that my post

How to Use Freewriting to Supercharge Your Work

is up at WRITE TO DONE, a great website that really does have  “unmissable articles about writing”!

I’d like to thank Laura, the editor, for having me as a guest blogger, and to welcome Write to Done readers to my website.

While you’re here do have a look at my mission statement, and a couple of my best posts such as Publish or Perish and Six Uses for Freewriting.

And don’t forget to sign up to receive a free prompt every Friday to begin your freewriting journey.  The box is on every page, at the top right hand side.  I’ll send you a short prompt direct to your inbox every week to kick-start a ten-minute freewriting session.

Enjoy!

 

Hopewell Ink – an exclusive preview

I am a huge fan of Austin Kleon. His advice to artists is to “show your work” or, in other words, to share the creative process in order to invite input, garner interest and de-mystify the labour involved.

In this spirit I thought I would share some writing with you which is still in development.  It’s destined as a new piece for my spoken word band Hopewell Ink and although I’m fairly happy with the words as I’ve written them, collaboration with my musical partner could lead to changes.  For instance, it’s not unknown for me to redraft after, or even during, the sessions in which he devises the sounds or music to go with the words: it’s a two-way street where his sounds make me re-think my words at the same time as my words are suggesting sounds to him.  We rarely disagree…

The new piece is called “Gentle Men”.  Rather amazingly, it originated in an idea I had over 13 years ago and is listed in a notebook as a “genre-indeterminate idea” meaning I didn’t know if it might turn into a poem, story or even, I suppose, a novel.  Hopewell Ink was a long way in the future then.

The direct source was a song by John Martyn called “Don’t You Go”  a hauntingly beautiful lament about the perennial sacrifice of young men by warmongers, and the words are an appeal to resist the call to arms.  (You can read the lyrics here.)  Loving John Martyn’s music as I did (and do), I was moved by the song and made these (freeewritten) notes:

This languished in my notebook until 2013 when I exhorted myself to have “another go”:

In the second note, I’m focusing on the young male singers themselves, after seeing this video on Youtube of Tim Buckely singing “Song to the Siren”.  Again, however, the “germ” didn’t grow into anything.

But the last few years of the #MeToo movement have put ideas about masculinity into new contexts.

Feminists such as myself have spent years analysing and protesting against the ways that society sets out what should be rewarded in women (e.g. attractiveness, docility, selflessness).  There has never been a shortage of descriptions of the ideal woman by men (in art, advertising, or government policy, for instance), but women rarely spell out what they want men to be like.  Culturally, the image of the superhero is maybe the closest to a shared male ideal, but that isn’t much practical help to anyone.

Some men, such as Robert Webb (see a clip from an interview here), have been trying to de- and re-construct the idea of masculinity and I think women should join in the debate.   Female views should in theory be welcomed because some men nowadays seem to be genuinely confused over issues of consent, and basic good manners.

It’s all made me want to identify and explain clearly what I think is admirable in men, so I went back to my notebook entries and finally wrote something based on those old fragments.  Nervous about sharing my views on masculinity in public, I tried it out first on the men in my life…and they liked it!

Here it is, then:  “Gentle Men” which will be coming to a Hopewell Ink gig or CD soon, in some form or other!  Let me know if you like it, or have some suggestions for improvement.

I’d also be interested to hear your views on masculinity today, whatever your gender: what, for you, is a gentle man? Or do you have a different ideal of masculinity altogether?  Do you agree with Robert Webb that masculinity has no meaning or relevance in modern society?

Finally, why not make these questions the basis of a freewrite using the prompt “what is a gentle man?” or “which men have I admired and why?” Choose one and write without stopping for 10 minutes, putting down exactly what you find in your head without editing or censorship.  Alternatively you could try freewriting on the more direct question “what is a good man?” in order to blast through your defences and give you a truthful result.  Who knows, it might even lead on to a story or a poem.  Good luck!

 

 

UPDATE: we released the album LURID on January 13th 2019 and “Gentle Men” is the last track.

You can listen for free, or pay to download it, here.

Hopewell Ink on Radio 3

Instead of a post this month, here’s the link to the Radio 3 programme Exposure featuring my band Hopewell Ink at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, North Wales, broadcast last Thursday.

We are on first, and there’s also a short interview in which I explain how these spoken word and music pieces started off as freewriting exercises.  Hope you enjoy it!

Exposure 29th March

 

 

 

 

If you would like to buy our CD, which is called The Cure for Silence, please go to the Hopewell Ink page here

 

 

Hopewell Ink – Exposed!

Since 2013 I’ve been part of a band called Hopewell Ink and we’ve performed in local venues around North Wales.  Hopewell Ink consists of spoken word, and various instruments including drums, harmonium, and slide guitar.  The words are written and performed by me, and the electronic or acoustic music and sounds are created and performed by my partner, David Hopewell.

On Wednesday March 14th BBC Radio 3 are hosting a gig at Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda and Hopewell Ink will be performing at 8 p.m., followed by two other bands. Link to Neuadd Ogwen The gig will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Thursday March 29th at 11 p.m. on “Exposure” which is a monthly programme that showcases music from different parts of the country.

We perform pieces that range from descriptive landscape poems (such as “Curled Slug and Scaffolding”) to cheerful, almost danceable numbers (like “Hard Heart”).  Some tackle big topics such as what heaven might be like (if it existed), while others are less grand: one is about an annoying, unidentifiable noise.  There are soundscapes of the natural environment and word-portraits of cities, people and daydreams.  We even try to tune in to the whispered words of dead spirits.

There’s a CD in production called “The Cure for Silence” (named after the title track) and we’re hoping that copies will be available on the night, and as downloads at  https://hopewellink.bandcamp.com/album/the-cure-for-silence.

I compose all the words for Hopewell Ink and every piece I’ve worked on has started out as freewriting.  It will have been a ten-minute freewrite on a random topic, perhaps, or something I’ve written when away from home in response to a new place.  I then take the kernel or even a whole passage of freewritten material and develop it, by addition or subtraction, into a finished shape.  Usually what I produce has a beginning, middle and end, but sometimes it will bear the trace of the associational nature of freewriting and work more like a series of loosely-connected images, which is how Still Life with Old Shoe ended up.  You can listen to that track here

To get another view on Hopewell Ink, I thought I’d interview my band member David, NME-style.  Below are my questions (“me”) and his responses (“him”):

It’s Sunday lunchtime and we’re sitting in the kitchen.  David’s just made some soup.  He’s wearing a Captain Beefheart T-shirt and is finishing off the dregs of a bottle of brandy.  He seems somewhat reluctant at first to answer my questions, so I start with the easy ones:

Me: How would you describe Hopewell Ink?

Him: Spoken songs?  Or maybe art music.  Sound art, perhaps.

Me: Would you say it was experimental?

Him: Not exactly experimental.  Unusual.  It’s unusual because it has spoken word with specifically composed musical backing.  Not many people do this.  The late Jayne Cortez, who performed with Ornette Coleman was one. [here’s a link to Cortez performing with her son]

Me: What would you say is the usual format, then, for spoken-word and music performance?

Him: Rap.  But rap is street music and we’re coming from a different context, which I suppose is poetry on the page.  Rap is the route most people go down, like Kate Tempest.  It’s aggressive, in-your-face, and we’re more contemplative.

Me: You come from an environmental sound recording background.  How does that connect to what you do with Hopewell Ink?

Him: Well, if you remember [I didn’t!] the first incarnation of Hopewell Ink was in one of my long pieces of environmental recordings called Surfaces [here’s the  link ]

In Surfaces I used hydrophones, contact mics on fences and Aeolian instruments [instruments played by the wind].  You added some spoken words but they were just one element and added after the other parts were put together, whereas now the words are the focus.  Back then, when I was doing the original recordings at The Spinneys [a bird reserve near Bangor] or by the river [in the Ogwen valley], you were freewriting at the same time, in the same place.

Me: How important is the environmental sound aspect in Hopewell Ink?

Him: Not very.  But we do have it on one track: Newborough.  We might use it again in the future but it would be a different balance between the spoken and field recordings because the focus is on the words now.  And we have shorter pieces.

Me: Would you say what Hopewell Ink does is “difficult” or “inaccessible”?

Him: No.  Generally people like listening to it and find it interesting, and moving.  It’s very accessible.  Some spoken word is very formulaic and stylised but I think Hopewell Ink is more accessible because there’s more going on.  The aim is to add additional elements to the spoken word format and give it more depth.

Me: Can you sing along/dance/take drugs/have sex to Hopewell Ink?

Him: Sing? No.  Dance? Occasionally.  Take drugs?  I’ve heard it’s happened.  Have sex?  Well, the one about the dead people might put you off.

Me: Is it any good to put on in the background, at a party, maybe, or while working?

Him: Terrible idea.  You wouldn’t want it on at a party, unless you want it to sound like there’s more people there.  And it’s definitely not background music.  It invites active listening.

Me: What’s that?

Him: Active, or deep listening as Pauline Oliveros calls it, is where you consciously bring attention to something rather than a more passive approach where you already know what you are going to hear (like Abba’s Greatest Hits).

Me: Improvisation is one of your other musical interests.  Do you improvise as part of the process for Hopewell Ink?

Him: All the music and sounds for Hopewell Ink are improvised at the composition stage and some elements are improvised on stage.  I have a basic structure but I never play exactly the same thing twice.  I do use some loops, though.  They are either recorded in advance or during the performance, then I set them to run as a backing.

Me: People might be interested to know if the words or the music come first.

Him: Words more often come first but not always.  I had the concept for Electronic Voice Phenomenon [a piece about the spiritualist idea of being able to hear the voices of dead people in electronic white noise] and you produced the words.  Most often I’ve had a musical idea and you’ve offered a piece of freewriting to fit it, then we’ve worked on it together.

Me: What’s the best and worst thing that’s happened during a Hopewell Ink gig?

Him: Best: when we got Electronic Voice Phenomenon to work properly and everyone was surprised, and a bit spooked, to find the room filling up with whispering voices.  Worst: major technological breakdowns almost every other time we’ve tried to perform Electronic Voice Phenomenon.

Me: Like the time the echo wouldn’t work and the loop had a recording of us arguing on it that we couldn’t switch off?

Him: Yes, that one.

Me: Where do you see Hopewell Ink going next?

Him: I’m guessing you mean artistically.  We seem to be producing simpler things.  Shorter, and snappier, like “Ticking” rather than the older stuff like “Still Life with Old Shoe” that’s longer and more complicated.  But it all depends what inspiration strikes next.  It might be a concept album!  One of my favourite pieces of music recently was “Sleep” by Max Richter and that lasts eight hours.

Me: Hmm.  We’ll see.  Finally, what’s your rider for our gig on 14th March?

Him: It’d better be another bottle of brandy,  I’ve finished this one!

The Makeover

This month’s post is a fairy story I wrote some years ago (all rights reserved, folks!).

I hope it will amuse everyone and appeal to writers especially.  See if you can identify the different writing gurus, they are all connected with freewriting.  If you spot any resemblance to TV personalities or shows of the past, these are entirely co-incidental.

The Makeover by Kathy Hopewell

Once upon a time, a woman called Charlotte sent in her video tape.  On the film were pictures of her dressed as normal.  She wore Peter Pan collars, ugly brown glasses, and the most hideous beige skirt with a fallen hem, but secretly she had always wanted to be a novelist.
— Help me! she wailed, like a desolate child.

In the studio, the style guru is on the sofa watching Charlotte’s video.  She beams with anticipation as it comes to an end and swivels round to face the camera.
— Well, we thought we could help, she says, and we picked Charlotte out of two hundred hopefuls to come in and give herself up to us, body and soul. We started by showing her exactly what she’s been doing wrong all these years.

Cut to Charlotte herself, looking sheepish in her baggy grey underwear.  She steps into the magic room of mirrors to confront her misshapen and bulky outline.
She is prodded and spun on her heel.
— It’s such a waste!  The style guru shakes her head.  You’re simply not making the most of yourself.  And she puts an arm around her pale, wobbly waist.
This unexpected kindness brings out Charlotte’s tears.

Then it’s time to show her some new looks on shop dummies.
The first model is an American poet living in an adobe house in New Mexico.  The style guru explains that the way the skirt flows over the body, skimming the hips and giving the impression of slenderness, is achieved by completely letting go of the internal censor and writing whatever comes into your head without stopping for ten minutes.
— But do you really think I could get away with this? asks Charlotte.
— Yes! Yes! she shrieks, Just try it!  Try it and see!

The second model has confessed in the past to hiding under a baggy alcohol addiction but now gets up every morning to three clean sheets, which she covers with her hopes and fears.  After that, she knows exactly what to put on for the day.  You can see the clarity and sense of direction in the strong lines of her suit.
— But I don’t have a lot of time in the morning, says Charlotte.
— Oh for goodness sake, do stop being so negative! scolds the style guru.
Charlotte looks doubtful.

— You always wanted to be a writer, didn’t you?  Ever since you were a child?
— Yes, says Charlotte, Yes, I did.
— So what stopped you?
— Well, the truth is I didn’t think I could ever show my legs.
— That’s so common!  We hear it all the time!  But Charlotte, what’s the worst that can happen?  Are you afraid that someone will think you are too old, or too slutty?  Well you’re not and you’ll just have to trust us on this.  Do you trust us?
— OK, she says.
— Well done, Charlotte!  You won’t regret it.  Now, off to the shops!

The next day Charlotte clutches her pen, hoping she can afford what she wants.  The choice is amazing!  There are brightly-coloured chick-lit books, elegant and exclusive poetry collections and row upon row of horror novels.  She desperately tries to remember what she’s looking for, but her mind goes blank.  She is saved by the shrill descant of the style guru approaching.

— No, Charlotte, not the black!  Didn’t we say ‘no black’?  You have to give up this ‘do or die’ attitude, it’s too dark for you.  Look, before you try for a whole outfit, you need to get the underlying approach right.  Did you know that two out of three women are wearing the wrong underlying attitude?  And it shows in the way that they hold themselves.  Once you get that right, everything will look better on you.

They go to an exclusive boutique.  The walls are lined with shelves of frothy lace and shiny satin, and when Charlotte pulls one out, it is the most intricate and beautifully-designed quotation she has ever read.  By chance, she has picked up her exact cup size.  She reads: I shall not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.
— Charlotte!  It’s just right for you, and William Blake is the best.  It’s always worth risking that extra bit more.
— Try it on!
So she does, and it fits perfectly.
— You can come here whenever you want, there’s lots more pieces you’ll like.  You must try a Chekov some day.
— But what about the owner?  Charlotte feels a bit strange just helping herself.
— A genius! So sad to lose her.  She had the best eye in the business, and she even developed her own lines.

The style guru pulls out a drawer labelled Idleness and inside is something that will cure the drooping that you get when you feel guilty about doing nothing.  It is cleverly designed so that the rounded shape of the imagination is restored, and the lace is very forgiving.
— And look, she goes on, here’s one of her really racy black numbers.  She holds up the quotation in front of Charlotte’s entranced face: Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion!  Be a pirate! Write any old way.
— Oh, I want that one too! cries Charlotte.

After this, finding the right things is easy.  Charlotte moves instinctively towards the muted greens of Virginia Woolf and prefers double-layered constructions, always in the well-tailored limited omniscient: she’s too heavy around the hips for the first person, apparently.

Finally the day arrives when Charlotte must reveal her new self.  She is sent to the hairdresser for the finishing touches.  John is quite severe and he won’t allow her to wear her long style any more.  He proposes to cut, dramatically.

— Well, all right, I’ve come this far, says Charlotte, looking for the last time at her haphazard, plentiful curls and embellishments.

He smoothes and snips and divides her scruffy tangles.  He brushes a last ink-black lock into the sleek shape of a comma.  Now, the strong lines of her cheekbones come out and it’s as if her real personality has emerged for the first time.

At last Charlotte stands in front of the covered mirror.  She feels a sort of fizz in her fingers.
— Ready? asks the woman, fidgeting with anticipation.
Charlotte shuts her eyes and thinks the word ‘eagle’, then nods.  Off comes the cloth.  Her knuckles prickle, and feathers start to appear, wetly snapping out from her hands and elbows.  Her back feels tight and uncomfortable; something is trying to grow, very quickly, from her shoulder-blades.  At last she begins to beat her large, new wings.  The style guru is speechless, which has never happened before.  With a deafening sound like falling rubble, Charlotte flies to the open window and away into the sky.

A few weeks later the style guru is on the sofa once again, armed with the remote control.
— So let’s see how Charlotte got on, after her transformation.  Has she kept to our rules or is she wearing those awful slippers again?
She shoots her remote at the screen like a gunslinger and Charlotte appears, resplendent in gorgeous caramel and vanilla plumage.
— Wonderful! See how she’s mixing and matching and creating her own look!  Then the woman leans in close to the screen.  Hold on a minute, what’s that?  I think it’s an egg!  Well, she’s done magnificently to lay that all by herself.

The egg is small but robust.  Charlotte has had to sit on it, to keep it warm, pretty much all of the time, even when she’d rather have been watching television.  Suddenly, a crack appears and a corner pokes out.
— My goodness!  It’s a paperback! exclaims the woman.
It takes quite a while to ease it out of the rigid shell, but soon the pages are dry and Charlotte beams with maternal joy.  She cradles the young book.
— I just can’t believe it! she says, See how bright and glossy it is!  And it’s all mine!

The End of an Era

School uniforms and new pencil cases are in the shops and this is the time, every year since 1989, when I look forward to meeting my new students at Bangor University’s School of Lifelong Learning.  But not this year.  Lifelong Learning closed on 31st July.  So although we’ll be teaching out all those who want to complete their qualifications via different parts of the university, there is now no dedicated centre, staff or courses for mature and part-time students at the university.

It’s such a loss.  A loss to the community.  A loss to the families of the students who might have been.  And the greatest loss of all is to the individuals themselves who might have dared, heart in mouth, to step forward and enter higher education and have their lives transformed as a result.

And what a loss to me!  The people I’ve encountered through teaching literature, women’s studies and creative writing have immeasurably enriched my life.  And Lifelong Learning has enabled me to devise and deliver modules that would have been unlikely to fit into mainstream degree courses, such as the one on freewriting that I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog.

When I heard the news that Lifelong Learning was being axed due to financial cuts I turned to my notebook and began to freewrite.  Out came a whole host of voices and stories from these past 28 years.  Once edited, they became the prose poem below: a series of first-person statements based on the real students I’ve taught but each one a mixture, a composite, of many different people.

I hope that these voices celebrate and commemorate the great achievements (and heartaches) of the last three decades of the “extra mural” project at Bangor University and show in some measure what has been lost by allowing money to be the ultimate determinant of the value of education.

 

Cost Effective Lifelong Learning by Kathy Hopewell

I run a local charity.  Before going back to study part time, my cancer diagnosis had stripped everything from me: marriage, work, hope, confidence.  The course was a lifeline, literally.

I am a schoolteacher and my evening classes at the uni are the only times anyone asks me what I think.

I’m agoraphobic but once I’d registered, my desire to learn about psychology was greater than my fear of going outside.  Now I’m thinking of going into social work.

At work, I was the one who stayed late to lock up and the one who cleared up spillages.  After I got my degree, things changed.  Now I do the orders, now I have a section under me.  Now I have enough to put some money by.

I’m disabled and having the classes spread out was the only way I could have got through a whole degree. 

I was an old-fashioned salesman with a briefcase and a business card.  My degree was the best thing I could have done because when the company went under, I didn’t, and now I’m self-employed.

I never used to speak to anyone after my wife died.  Now I get together with my classmates to talk about the assignments.  I suggested they came to my house next time.  The doctor’s taken me off the anti-depressants now.

I’ve worked in retail all my life.  Getting to grips with social theory was the first time I’d used my brain in years.  I reckon the two things together will really give me an edge: it’s like seeing the world with completely new eyes.

Before I came on the course I honestly didn’t know that I felt so strongly about social justice.  Now I’m running a drop-in centre and it’s all paid for by an application that I put together.

I’m in recovery but in class, people see something more interesting in me than my addiction.  In fact, I don’t even think about myself much anymore, instead I think about the next time I can get into the library and what I’ll say during the session next week.

This is a freewritten blog…

This is a freewritten blog, the first time I’ve tried it and it’s not going to be easy to be thinking in public and actually put down my genuine thoughts as they occur because that’s what freewriting is and there’ll be a fight going on here, even fiercer than usual between my hand moving the pen and not allowing my mind to edit as I write with the need to say useful, coherent, appropriate things.

It’s 30 years since Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and the long online interview in LA was so good! [“Natalie Goldberg with Steven Reigns” at http://nataliegoldberg.com/]  She even confesses to always having been in competition with the author of Bones meaning she never hit such heights again but that might just be sales because she must know that Wild Mind and Thunder and Lightning and now True Secret are every bit as good if not better than Bones.

writing-down-the-bonesI’ve been doing this [freewriting] for 10 years at least but to go into a classroom and explain it and why people should do it (if they want to write) is still very hard.  I can’t say I do freewriting properly anymore or even completely regularly but I can’t go for many days without it.  And now I’ve lost my track because just now the phone rang…it was out of area so I didn’t answer.  If it’s anyone who really wants me, or exists (vs a computer) they’ll leave me a message.

So what to say about Natalie and Bones?  Without it, no writing.  Absolutely. It was the decider, the guide, the best friend I had when it all seemed pointless.  Natalie was the only person who ever fully convinced me that writing is worthwhile for its own sake and surely the relaxation, the dropping of all that tension around being good, and competing and how to succeed, the letting go of that, has meant I could come to write the stuff that’s turned into our performances.  Such a good gig on Sunday! [Hopewell Ink, see “About” page] Everyone there was linked to me speaking we were all in the same moment and D’s new soundtrack was so good, it was motoring on, giving a sort of drive to the whole thing at the end and the coffee helped too.

So Natalie feels like to me, and presumably lots and lots of others as the one giving permission (Who Gave You Permission? is a chapter in Wild Mind, I think) and that’s who I want to be in the classroom on Saturday.  And will they be smiling by the end?  That’s the test.  The room warms up and people connect and you can feel the energy change.  That’s what happened before and it did my writing good and I wrote all the exercises and played the games too.  I have to get the paper slips ready and using scissors will make this RSI in my hand worse.  I resent it when it’s cooking or cleaning but nothing will stop me writing I’ll take ibuprofen if necessary.

natalie_goldbergNatalie is older and she’s had cancer but of course she’s written about it and that’s how she’ll have coped.  How would I manage if I couldn’t write?  What if I was in prison?  But what good does it do?  Natalie says you’re not creating any more suffering no she says everything is, she she I am stuck now which is odd because it’s more usually at the beginning and now I’m thinking about Women’s Studies and the conference which is it? where they need a speaker because someone’s dropped out.

The Zen stuff is very hard to convey from Natalie’s book, where it makes complete sense, to students.  What does Monkey Mind mean?  It’s what I’m trying to get past: all that stuff about the gig and the uni e-mails.  And what’s underneath?  Me, a woman in navy joggers because I’m hoping I’ll do some yoga later (unlikely but there’s a chance) and sitting here in Bethesda at my desk and so relieved, so relieved that I don’t have to drive to the hospital tonight.

So a blog abut Natalie and the 30 years since Bones.  Well, it could be about her core message: observe the mind, or it could be just me, taking it to some new people again this weekend and hoping it does change their lives for the better, as education can but only as writing does on this deep and dangerous level.  And now that sounds bad so I’ll have to edit it out but that would be cheating.

I used to despise D’s friend for not editing and think I knew better.  I wasn’t a writer then.   Now I know that it’s two halves of the same thing.  The freewritten and the edited are the two halves of a whole piece of writing.  And the freer the freewrite (and the writer who writes it) the stronger the final piece will be.  That’s a simple message, from Natalie, through me, to everyone listening.