The Thrill of the Spoken Word

Last Saturday, I was delighted to play a small part in Modwordsfest, Waterford’s first-ever spoken words festival. I’ve become very drawn to spoken word in recent times. It’s hard to know how to define it, but I would describe it as any piece of literature that is spoken rather than written. That means either you write a piece that is designed to be performed, or you write no script at all – you just perform the piece off the cuff at an event. Spoken word can be poetry or prose, fictional or true- it just needs to be spoken.

Spoken word helps me to reconcile the part of my personality that loves to reflect and write and the part that loves to perform. For the Modwordsfest reading, I decided to go pure mad and perform a piece I’d written, but without a script. I’d already read it at another spoken word event, so it was fresh in my head. When it came to my turn, I just went for it.

And I have to admit, it was a headrush. The challenges of a muffling microphone and the sounds of a band playing on the street all disappeared as I spun my story, about the ups and downs of finding a good hairdresser. The crowd laughed in all the right places, and people passing by stopped to have a look. My inner diva was truly satisfied.

Here’s a pic of me reading. Have you ever tried spoken word yourself? How was the experience for you?

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
Reading in The Book Centre, Waterford, for Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn

Matching Words with Pictures

I’ve always seen myself as a word person, not a picture person. I’ve heard all the clichés, that pictures paint a thousand words, that every picture tells a story. But I felt very little urge to take any myself. I’ve always thought words were enough. But last weekend, I found myself taking a photography course.

 

Why I Took the Course

 

You could blame my lack of interest on my sight problem. But that’s not the reason – at least on a superficial level. Having a visual impairment doesn’t mean you can’t have a visual brain. But I never really developed mine. Pictures just never spoke to me. Maybe it’s because I’m missing the layer of detailed vision that makes pictures more interesting. Or maybe it’s just because my brain is wired for sound.

 

But in the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware that the world runs on pictures. When I was asked why I wanted to do the course, I quipped that I wanted to get more likes on my social media posts by putting up pictures, and this in turn would make me feel good about myself. But I really did it so I could get a sense of how pictures worked and what makes a good picture, so I can communicate more effectively with pictures.

 

I spotted a notice about a photography course for visually impaired people in a newsletter I subscribe to. It was given by Carsten Hein, a photographer from Berlin who’s worked with blind photographers before. I felt the course would offer a sympathetic environment for me to develop my skills in the making of pictures.

What Happened on the Course

A group of about twenty of us gathered in the National Council for the Blind’s headquarters in Dublin for the course. Half of us had some form of visual impairment and the other half were sighted volunteers, photography enthusiasts from different camera clubs in Dublin. Carsten divided us into two groups, one to take shots outdoors and the others to do light painting, of which more later.

I chose to do the outside photography, and I took pictures of things that I never would have noticed otherwise. I felt I was seeing the world in a different way. The feedback afterwards was illuminating (pun intended). I was impressed by how some photographers, who had very little sight, had such a precise idea of what they wanted their pictures to achieve and how to position their subjects. It confirmed my belief that you don’t need to have sight to have a visual brain.

Then on Sunday, we all did the light painting. Some of you may be familiar with this technique. The room is darkened, and flashlights are trained on a subject to illuminate it. The camera is set so that it takes the picture a number of seconds after you press the button. The camera transforms the beam into ribbons of light that look for all the world like spaghetti strands. You can use the strands to make beautiful shapes. The most striking was a series of Braille dots which spelt out Breaking Limits.

What I Learned

The course confirmed my belief that you don’t need to have full eyesight to have a visual brain. Some photographers were blind or near-blind, but had a very precise idea of what they wanted their pictures to achieve. Once they were told where to aim their camera, and where given detailed descriptions of what they were taking, they could take beautiful photographs.

I still don’t think I’ll make a photographer. Words will always be my great love. But the course has given me the confidence to complement my words with pictures. I have more faith in my ability to find interesting pictures to take. The descriptions of the pictures taken on the course revealed the layers that lie beneath the surface of pictures, and I’m now going to enjoy looking for those layers.

I put the lessons into practise straight away, when I went to a concert on the Saturday night of the course and was inspired to take this picture of the church where it was held.

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My Big Fat Funding Application

Recently, I handed in a big brown envelope at an office in Dublin. It did not contain money, but it did contain something previous: my application for Irish Arts Council funding to develop a literature project. I applied to the Artist in the Community Scheme, which gives artists funding to develop projects with a community group of their choice.

Application Form
Applying for Arts Council Funding – taking workshops to the next level

In my case, the community group will comprise visually impaired people who are service users of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). I’ve been giving creative writing workshops there for some time, so I felt it was time to take the workshops to the next level. NCBI have given me great support in my ventures. We’ve decided that a radio broadcast would be the right fit for the group.

Research Into Application

My research for this application and in general over the last couple of years tells me that if you want to get funding for such a project to happen, you need to do it as a group project. Everyone involved contributes to the artwork, but the artist is the leader and kits together everyone’s contribution to create one original piece of art.

This involves a shift in thinking for me, from being a facilitator to being an artist who leads a group towards the creation of an artwork. To manage this shift in thinking and learn more about the process of creating a collaborative artwork, I applied for a mentor as part of the funding.

The mentor I chose is called Ciaran Taylor and he has worked with visually impaired people in a radio drama project called Sightless Cinema. So he understands the needs of my chosen group, and he has loads of experience in bringing together people’s ideas to make an artwork.  

Create, a community arts organisation which runs the Artist in the Community Scheme for the Irish Arts Council, run a very helpful advisory service. One of their coordinators spent ages with me, giving me advice. She really gave me food for thought, about how to turn myself from a facilitator into an artist, and the importance of not presuming to know what a group might want.

If I am successful, the biggest challenge I have will be in recruiting people for the project. Because I’ve been working at NCBI for the last couple of years, the participants have already done several workshops with me, so they may feel they’ve already done enough. So we’ll be widening the pool of participants, and we’ll also invite sighted people who have an association with NCBI to come along. This will make the project more mainstream and integrated.

Goal of Project

The aim of this phase of the project will be to figure out what type of project will best suit the group. Maybe it will be linked spoken word pieces, or maybe it will be a long, glorious stream of words. Or maybe it’s not a viable project at all, but that will be an outcome in itself. Either way, it will be up to me to make the project a success. That’s quite a daunting thought, but I’m ready for a new challenge.

Have you ever worked on a collaborative arts project? What did you do to provide leadership and inspiration to the group? What process did you use to achieve the final project?

The Challenges of Running Children’s Writing Camps

I’m giving a children’s writing camp this summer and I’m looking forward to it. It’s been about two years since I gave a writers’ camp to children, and in that time, I’ve gathered lots of ideas for working more effectively with children, and I’m dying to put these into practise. Working with children brings lots of challenges, and careful preparation will ensure I can rise to those challenges.

 

Here’s a flavour of the kinds of challenges I’ll be dealing with.

child writing
Writing with children: a joy and a challenge

Condensing five days into three days

I always gave five-day writing camps before, lasting two hours each. But on the suggestion of fellow writer and mother Orla Shanaghy, a great promotor of my camps, I’ve adjusted the format to a three-day camp with longer sessions. I’m hoping this will be more convenient for working mothers. But it does mean I’ll need to hold children’s attention for longer. Other writer-mothers on a Facebook group I run suggested things like adding drawing activities, word games and lots of breaks. I’m confident that if I act on their suggestions, the time will fly.

Dealing with personalities

From previous experience, I’ve found that there are two extremes of personality I need to deal with in children’s writing camps. One is the loud child who is brilliant at distracting everyone else with their lively wit and imagination. The other is the shy child who regards reading aloud as the equivalent of swallowing nails. For the loud child, boredom may be a factor, so I’ll keep the workshop moving and give them tasks to do. And for the quieter ones, I aim to make the atmosphere as warm as welcoming as possible, so they’ll realise that reading aloud isn’t so awful after all.

Managing volunteers

When you run a children’s writing camp, you must have other adults available for health and safety reasons. These people play a very valuable role, but they’re a responsibility too. My main responsibility to them is to make it clear what I’d like them to do, so they’re not just sitting there. They’ll have lots of practical things to do, like hand out writing materials and take children to the bathroom. But they play a creative role too, helping children who are quieter or work more slowly. Essentially, they’re a second pair of eyes and hands.

Have you ever run a children’s camp of any kind? What challenges have you come across and how have you dealt with them?

Making a Press Release Newsworthy

When I started my business, I specialised in writing press releases. But as the world moved more online, that side of my business waned, and in the last two years, I have probably written only two. So it was a real blast from the past when I received a call from the owner of a well-known company, asking me to write a press release.

The owner had recently launched herself in the UK market, and is planning to use her press release to introduce herself. Journalists love juicy newsworthy angles, and the owner had been on a well-known TV programme which would be familiar to UK audiences. She felt that this would attract the interest of the UK media.

press release pic

Creating the Press Release

As a former journalist, I’m used to writing news articles, so I write press releases in that style. This means the main message of the press release will come through clearly in any coverage the business receives. It also means the coverage will be more factually accurate.

So I focused on the five Ws of journalism: what, when, where, who and why. I start with what, to get straight to the point about what makes the business newsworthy. When and where also covers practical information that people need to know.

I then elaborate on who is involved in the story: a well-known business owner or customer, or a person who may have benefited from the business. And I finish with why, because the reason why business people do what they do can be compelling, and makes for a memorable quote to finish.

Newsworthy Press Release

The service the company offers is quite feelgood and lifestyle oriented, but her style of speaking is quite crisp and matter of fact. So I aimed to create a press release that reflected her style, even though many of the outlets she’d be approaching would be more soft-focused.

Journalists really want to know if you’re media friendly, and this business owner certainly had that quality. So I hope that journalists will see that quality in the press release, even though it doesn’t have a current news angle. It’s more about introducing the company to the UK media. Certainly, the client was happy with it, and that’s my main priority.

Do you still send press releases? Do you still feel they’re relevant in an online world? If you’re a journalist, do you still rely on them as a source of news?

How I Got Paid for Reading

Recently, I got paid to read. What a delight for a bookworm like me. After all, it was my love of reading that naturally lead to my love of writing. But being paid to read, while still fun, is a different ballgame. You have to put your critical hat on. The reading I was doing was for a developmental edit, which is also known as a reader’s report.

pperson reading book

 What’s In a Reader’s Report?

A reader’s report is a comprehensive report that evaluates how well a story works. In this case, it was a novel, but you can also get reader’s reports for memoirs, collections of short stories or single stories. You give people overall recommendations on different aspects of their story: their plot, characters, setting, viewpoint and dialogue.

In a reader’s report, you don’t correct spelling or grammar, but you can flag up errors that keep repeating themselves, or give general tips to help a author improve their language, such as cutting down on adjectives.

 The End Result

In the final report, you give overall recommendations, and then you give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of how to implement those recommendations. First, I read the story the whole way through. While I made notes, I aimed to read it as a general reader would, so I could immerse myself in it. These notes formed the basis for my overall recommendations. Then I read more analytically, going through each chapter to give chapter-by-chapter recommendations.

Reader’s reports are a really good idea if you’ve done a first draft of your story and you can’t figure out how to take it forward. That was the case for this author. They’re also a very good idea if you’re at a point where you can’t do any more with your story and you’re considering your options for publications. You may have shared the story with friends, family or a local writer’s group, but a professional opinion will help you take your story to the next level.

Have you ever had a reader’s report done? Have you ever compiled one?

Three Content-Writing Lessons for Businesses

Last week, I gave a presentation for an organisation called Waterford Chamber Skillnet, which provides courses to help business owners and employees improve their skills. When I looked at their programme, I saw that they didn’t have content creation among their courses, so I approached them and they scheduled me into their programme of social media workshops. I gave the presentation in this beautiful room.

Ship Room Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
I gave my presentation in The Ship Room at the Edmund Rice Heritage Centre. Photo Credit: Edmund Rice Centre Website.

Writing content is essential to a lot of jobs, particularly marketing and communication ones. But a lot of people feel they don’t know where to begin. I’m not a writer, they think. What can I say about my company? I wanted to banish those doubts with my presentation, and give them the tools and confidence to figure out what to say and how to say it.

I had a particular focus on social media content, because there’s a lot of buzz around content marketing, and I wanted to equip people with the skills to avail of it. A lot of the people at the presentation were employees, and I hoped the presentation would make it easier for them to do their jobs. For the business owners who are juggling marketing with all their other jobs, I hope to take the hassle out of creating content.

Here are three of the messages that I aimed to get across to the attendees.

Know why you’re writing content

This is fundamental to the success of your content marketing campaign. The fact is, on a busy day at the office, writing content is going to slide down the to-do list. If you know why you’re writing your content, you’ll find time for it. I told the participants that if they’re lucky, they’re doing it because their business or their job is their passion. But as a lot of them were employees, I said that if you can at least see the merits of writing content in fulfilling your role, that was reason enough.

Be Consistent

As I said, time is a challenge, so I told the attendees to create a schedule for their social media posts based on the time they had available. And I said that it didn’t matter if they only blog once a month. The point is that they do it regularly, on a specific day. Then their customers will know when to expect their content. They’ll be a regular presence in their customers’ lives, making it easy for their customers to stay in touch with them, and ultimately to buy.

You’re the Expert

A lot of people feel that because writing is not their forte, they’re not in the best position to write their content. But they’re the ones who are doing their job, day in, day out. That’s what qualifies them to write their content. They don’t need fancy words or an elegant turn of phrase. They just need to tell customers clearly what their customs can do for them. In my presentation, I aimed to give them tips and resources that would help them to do this. Only time will tell whether I’ve succeeded.

As a business owner or employee, do you write your own content? How do you approach it? What do you find difficult about it, and what do you enjoy about it?