My Big Fat Arts Award

This blog post will be short, but very, very sweet. I received a delightful shock last Thursday (11 May) when I won an arts award. The awards were part of an awards scheme organised by the Waterford branch, an organisation which offers support and networking opportunities to professional women.

Proper Award Photo
Me with my fellow arts awards and some judges and official types.

The Waterford branch is a fledgling branch, so I entered the awards to make sure that the arts were included in its awards categories. There had to be three entries, and there were, so I was very pleased about that. It’s great that an organisation whose core membership is businesswomen recognises the professionalism of artists and gives them a chance to boost their careers.

Filling in the awards application was more fun than I thought it would be. I had to talk about the work I had done, and it was good to remember the successes I had achieve. I also had to outline my vision for the future, and we artistic types do love an opportunity to dream. The most squirm-inducing part was the financial section, but my figures appear to have satisfied the judges.

Award-Winners’ Clichés

I’m now going to utter a number of clichés, but I hope you’ll forgive me, because clichés happen to be true. I did not expect to win the award. My fellow finalists are very cool and talented women. Bara Alich is a portrait photographer who takes intimate portraits of women and children. Eadaoin Breathnach stages ambitious plays in the mountains around Waterford with her theatre company, rig-out productions.

And yes, I do feel honoured to be chosen, honoured that three judges who didn’t know me at all felt that my work was impressive enough to merit an award. We can’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s great to get such validation.

My prize was a trophy, a certificate and free entry a national conference, where the national awards will be given out. I have to do an interview for the national awards in September, so watch this space.

Have you ever won an award? How do you feel it has benefited your career overall? Or was the glory of winning enough?

Writing with the Visually Impaired: The Next Level

On Saturday, I’ll be giving the next in my series of creative writing workshops for the visually impaired. It’ll be at the National Council for the Blind in Dublin, Ireland. It’ll be a memoir workshop using the three-act structure, which worked very well at the last workshop. The pieces will be on the theme of journeys.

Journeys can be quite different experiences for visually impaired people. Without sight, they become a feast for the senses in other ways. And even the most everyday journeys, to the shops or on a bus, can turn into adventures. That’s the theme we’ll be exploring, not just in this workshop, but in a bigger workshop that I have in mind.

visually-impaired-writing
How visually impaired people write. Photo source: NCBI Website.

A Full-Scale Project

I’ve been feeling for some time that I want to go to the next level with the writing workshops I give, to help individual people and groups to fulfil their ambitions to be published in some form. With regard to these workshops, I’ve been thinking for some time about a radio-based writing project and now I’ve taken the plunge. I’m applying for the Artist in the Community Scheme to create a piece of spoken-word art for radio.

I’m conscious that ultimately, this is my ambition, and the group I’ve been working with may be happy to keep going as we are. So to make it easier for them to take part in the project, it’s going to be an oral storytelling project rather than strictly a writing project. That takes the pressure off anyone who finds writing a piece for broadcast intimidating. And it allows the group’s natural storytelling abilities to shine through.

Mentoring

I haven’t done a collaborative arts project before. My own instinct is to give people their individual voice and let them write their own pieces. But telling a story as a group will widen the appeal of the project. So I’m applying for the Research with Mentoring strand of the funding. This will give me the chance to work with someone who has done collaborative arts projects before.

If I get the funding, I will be the one leading the project. I will create this piece of spoken-word art based on what the group of participants share with me. But I will also make sure that each of their voices is heard, as part of a greater tapestry of voices. Though it wasn’t quite what I envisaged when I first thought of doing this kind of project, I now realise it will still give the participants a taste of the power and liberation that the arts can bring. And that is my ultimate goal.

I’ll be keeping you updated about my progress with the application and whether I’m successful. If not, I will find other ways.

Blogging As Myself

When I write blog posts for businesses, I am usually a ghost writer. I keep myself hidden and I write as the business. I refer to we and us and I use the name of the business. I just see myself as the facilitator of the business owner’s vision, flair and commitment to delivering great service. My role is just to give shape to their ideas.

But recently, I was asked to write a series of blog posts as myself. It’s for a marketing programme called How Great Marketing Works, and the creator of the programme felt that the blog posts would have the ring of truth if I went through the programme and reported on my experience. The programme involves a small fee, but I am doing a free version, in the hope that my words will persuade others of the value of the programme.

question-marks
Editors ask questions to make sure they’re the right fit for you.

Step By Step

The programme is a bite-sized marketing programme, which means that all the information is broken down into easily digestible chunks. I take a similarly step-by-step approach with the blog posts, showing people how doing each module of the programme will improve the business.

I outline the problem the module helps people to solve, and the lessons people can learn. I finish by telling them how the module will benefit their business. As I’m doing the module at the same time as I write the blog posts, I’ve experienced the benefits myself, so I believe I’m giving people accurate information about how well the modules work.

Doing My Homework

Each module comes with a video, so I gather information for the posts by watching the videos and typing notes based on what I hear. If I need to go back over anything, the scripts of the videos are also included. Each module comes with a worksheet, and I complete those worksheets, so that I can tell people what each worksheet helps them to achieve.

Length of Posts

There’s a school of thought that longer blog posts are actually better, because they give search engines like Google more information to work with. In general, they give more in-depth information to readers and give you a chance to show off your expertise.

For this project, I’ve been asked to write posts of 800-1,000 words in length., about the size of a feature article in a newspaper. To prevent readers from getting bored, I use short paragraphs and short sentences, so people will have reached the end before they know it.

Lessons Learned

I can honestly say that this blogging project will be a learning experience for me. I help people communicate through words, but selling yourself is about a lot more than that. Us artistic types can be pretty crap at selling ourselves, so it will be handy to gain nuggets of marketing knowledge while I write.

Also, Finola Howard, who originated the programme, is brilliant at social media, and is on top of all the latest trends. Working with her will beef up my own social media knowledge.

When you’re writing blog posts for other people, do you ghost write them or do you write them as yourself?

Devising Content Strategies for Businesses

The Irish economy is apparently recovering. People’s perception of that recovery may differ, but I’m inclined to believe that the recovery is real. That’s because businesses have started to look for content from me as well. There’s a greater interest among businesses in content marketing, which means creating content that helps them reach their customers and be more visible on search engine.

Content marketing is part of a wider phenomenon called inbound marketing, where you aim to draw people to your business by giving them valuable information and building relationships with them. HubSpot, a social media marketing platform, offers online certification in inbound marketing, which I will study for during the quiet summer months.

copywriting image
Marketing content can have many hidden messages.

I know that businesses want results, and in the coming months, I’ll be focusing on writing content that doesn’t just read well, but delivers tangible results for them. But I still believe that before you employ any of these fancy marketing techniques, you need to figure out what you want to say.

I create content strategy documents that outline this for businesses, and which they can use when they’re talking or writing about their business. I wrote one for a new business recently, and here’s an outline of what it contained.

About Us

This is the most important section of the content strategy document. It outlines the fundamentals of your business. You define what you do and most importantly, why you do it. Knowing why you do it keeps you motivated, because it connects you with the passion and creativity that made you want to start the business in the first place. You also outline the mission of your business, the goals you want to achieve for your customers.

Our Services

In this section, you further define what you do for your customers. You give a detailed outline of what the service is, how it works and how it benefits the people who avail of the service. You also include a section explaining the ways you go the extra mile for your customers, the extra efforts you make to deliver great service.

Our Audience

We’d all love to think that everyone will be interested in what we offer, but the reality is, there’s a certain core group who’ll be more interested than everyone else. In the section, we define that core group. A helpful way to do this is to create a profile of a typical customer: their age, location, educational background, family situation, interests and use of social media. You can then pitch your content to match their interests and concerns.

Why Us

This section is one of the most important, because it gives you a chance to tell customers how great you are. It summarises all the reasons why it would be worthwhile for people to avail of what you offer. It highlights the benefits you can bring them, the ways you can solve their problems and enhance their lives in lots of little ways.

How do you approach writing content for your business or organisation? What strategies do you use?

Why Children Can Read Dark Stories

A few months ago, I read a comment from a mother in a newspaper article that she would not read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to her six-year-old daughter, because of its racist overtones, particularly in the early chapters which reference the lead character Mary’s life in India. I was dismayed to hear this. Partly because she was allowing modern-day values to colour her view of the book. And partly because I don’t think she was giving her daughter enough credit. In my experience, children are much better able to handle dark material than adults give them credit for.

The Secret Garden

In a way, it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t have children and if I did, I might feel the same fierce urge to protect them from dark or troubling subject matter. But I’ve given numerous creative writing workshops to children over the years, and children are willing to embrace darkness in a way that adults are not. I also think of my own childhood, when my parents were willing to answer any question I had, and when I came across anything dark in a book or TV programme, they were able to contextualise it for me and take any fear away.

Processing Truths Through Stories

From time to time, you’ll hear parents say that they won’t allow their children to read fairy tales because the material is too graphic. But in earlier eras, parents used fairy tales to explain the world to their children, to teach them lessons about good and evil and about the right way to behave. Stories give children a safe way to process dark and difficult concepts, and this is something children instinctively understand.

It strikes me that stories can be a useful jumping off point for discussion between adults and children. In the case of The Secret Garden, yes, the attitudes to race were somewhat unsavoury. But they were a product of their time. I myself wouldn’t be mad about its portrayal of disability, but again, I have to accept that this was a product of its time. Besides, the book also teaches lessons that are still vital today, about the redemptive power of nature and the value of kindness.

Children Embracing Darkness

In a week’s time, I’ll be giving a children’s Easter creative writing workshop. During the workshop, I’ll do a Chinese Whispers style exercise. The story will begin with the words, “The girl went into the wood,” which tends to conjure up dark fantasies in people’s minds. When I did it with adults recently, they stopped the story just as it was starting to get dark. But when I do it with children, they will be willing to go all the way with the material, taking the story to lots of crazy places. They will thoroughly enjoy the process and, as far as I can tell, emerge from it emotionally unscathed.

What do you think of children reading or writing stories with a dark theme? If you are inclined to shield your children from this material, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It’s always worthwhile to have another perspective.

A Wonderful Writing Workshop

In February, I was to give a memoir-writing course in Dungarvan, but the numbers weren’t high enough for the course to run. This was becoming a regular pattern for my workshops, and I decided it was time for a workshop revamp. After all, I love giving them, and the people who come to my workshops seem to love attending them. I decided I would take back control of my own workshops and promote them myself. My promotional campaign was a success, and on the day of the workshop, 12 souls arrived – my biggest number ever. People were even fighting for places, which was a great boost to the ego.

Workshop Introduction

The workshop was being held in a truly heavenly location, the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore. The day happened to be sunny, and the sea views were stunning. The windows are deep-set, and some of the participants used the window ledges for their writing, looking out the window for inspiration.

Coastguard Cultural Centre

Coastguard Cultural Centre. Pic taken from the centre’s website.

After introducing the workshop and talking generally about the evolution of memoir as a form, we kicked off with the warm-up exercises, which were all designed to help people tap into their natural storytelling abilities. A Chinese Whispers style exercise showed them that stories can take you to unexpected places. A paired exercise where people told stories about their day helped people to see that ordinary lives are rich with events that provide inspiration for stories.

Shaping the Story

In this workshop, my goal was to give people the tools and confidence to put a story together and realise how doable it was. As it was a three-hour workshop, a relatively short space of time, I kept the focus on plot and structure, in particular, the three-act structure. This is a classic structure. In the first act, you set the scene, in the second act, the action unfolds and in the third act, the story reaches a resolution.

We did brainstorming to help the group come up with an event in their lives that they could develop into a story. I asked them to identify three events in their lives, big or small, recent or from the distant past. Out of those three, they would choose one to expand into a story. At this point, there was some confusion. The group were finding it hard to see how this process would lead them towards a story. There is always this point in a workshop, and as workshop facilitator, you ask yourself if you’ve taken the right path, or brought the group beyond where they’re able to go.

Writing the Story

But then, once they had chosen the event, I gave them a questionnaire to fill out, based on the three-act structure, and once they started to fill that in, the structure started to make sense. As the group started to write the story itself, “the hum” had begun. This is what I call that moment when all the pieces start to fall into place and a workshop group starts to understand how powerful writing can be. The air goes still, but there’s a current of concentration in the air, a current so strong, you almost fancy you can hear it come.

Some groups need a lot of time to put their story together, and I had allowed plenty of time for that. But the stories came together remarkably quickly for this group. I had noticed that before when I used this structure with the group, and I thought that was a one-off. But it seems that using the three-act structure really does help ideas to fall into place. Some of the group read their stories, and the room filled with laughter and tears. By the time the workshop ended, each person had created their own unique story, something I hope they will always treasure.

The Privileges of the Writing Life

When we think of writing, we think of struggle. The struggle to get our stores written, the struggle to get published, the struggle to promote our books, the struggle to gain a living as a writer. The image of the tortured artist still holds sway in the popular imagination. But in many ways, the life of a writer is a rich one, and if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it. We tend to think of the benefits of writing in terms of competition wins or publication success, but it also greatly enhances our emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as the quality of our everyday life.

Here are some of the benefits that I’ve observed as a writer.

Ordinary Life Becomes More Interesting

If you’re a writer of fiction, your job is to pay attention to those small, ordinary details that other people miss. Seemingly insignificant details, banter with a shop assistant, a brightly coloured scarf around a woman’s neck, can be the trigger for stories. The great gift of writing is that you notice the extraordinary within the ordinary, and you transfer that to the page. You’re a lot less likely to be bored, and because you’re so engaged with what’s happening around you, other people will find you interesting to talk to, which is a nice ego boost.

Following Your Passion

Not many people are lucky enough to have a true passion, an activity or a cause that fills them with purpose and gives their life meaning. If you have the courage to follow your passion for words, life will feel much more exciting. That passion will also be reflected in your words, and people will respond to that passion. Many people find that they feel out of sync if they don’t act on their urge to write. Acting on that urge gives you a sense of balance, and you will end each day feeling fulfilled.

Making Sense of the World

Modern life is so busy and so full. Our days are full of events, even if they are only small ones. We’re also being bombarded with more information than our brains are equipped to handle. Writing helps us to process what’s happening around us, and turning our experiences into stories can help us to understand ourselves better. Most important of all, if something happens to us which involves a lot of emotions or changes in our life circumstances, writing gives us a way to deal with it. Being able to give voice to our innermost thoughts and feelings boosts our mental health in the long run.

You Get to Play God …

… or whatever higher power you may subscribe to. Being able to invent worlds, and characters to live in those worlds, can give you a real sense of power. When your story is flowing, you feel really inspired, and the process of putting that story together is thoroughly enjoyable. As a non-fiction writer, you benefit from being able to gain more knowledge of your subject area, or bring to light an amazing true story. Even being able to find the exact word or image to describe something is extremely satisfying.

When the words refuse to come, you get rejected or your Amazon profile doesn’t get the attention you hoped for, it’s worth remembering that the writing life is also full of wonders, which make all the hassles worthwhile. What benefits do you feel the writing life has brought to you?