Taking Memoir Writing to the Next Level

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I’d love to give more in-depth writing workshops. I have given such writing workshops in the past, but I want to make it more of a feature of my work. I want to take a group of enthusiastic writers to the next level. Just over two weeks ago, with the help of just such a group of enthusiastic writers, I achieved that ambition. I gave a memoir-writing workshop which gave the writers the space to create a full-length story and get feedback on it within a few hours. The writers created their magic in this building.

 

Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
The Edmund Rice Heritage Centre, where these stories were created.

 

This story would explore the role of point of view in shaping stories. In other words, the point of view you choose to tell the story from shapes the atmosphere of the story, and changes your view of the characters in it. The writers would tell the story of a small but significant injustice that they experienced when they were young.

We all have them. The time we were promised sweets but never got them. Or we saved up to buy something, only to find that the shopkeeper had sold it on. As a twist, the writers would tell the story from the viewpoint of the character who committed this injustice.

Building the Story

The writers started by brainstorming the small injustices they’d experienced. They came up with a list of three, and then whittled that down to one. They then took the time to get to know the person who committed the injustice by doing a character sketch. This is a profile of a character, where you give details like their name, age, location, family, and secrets about them that no-one else knows, The writers would be aware of some of the details, but could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Every story needs a structure. This story would follow that timeless template: the three-act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. I devised a set of questions based on the three-act structure. Answering these questions would help them gather the facts of the story and put them in order. Once they’d answered those questions, they could then flesh out the facts to make a full-length story.

The Finished Product

The writers ended up with remarkably accomplished first drafts, well structured, with rounded, sympathetic characters. Some of them had not actually written before, but rose to the challenge beautifully. They were also generous in giving feedback to each other. Most of all, they found that they gained a new perspective on events in their lives, and were able to empathise with their former adversaries.

Do you have a small but significant injustice from your childhood that you could mine for stories? Try writing about it from the viewpoint of the other person. You may be surprised at the results.

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Journey Through the Senses Writing Workshop

Recently, I gave one of my favourite types of creative writing workshop, for one of my favourite organisations. The workshop was my Journey Through the Senses beginners’ workshop. And the organisation was Waterford Libraries. I gave the workshop in one of their busiest libraries, in Ardkeen.

Objects of Affection

This workshop uses the senses to trigger emotions and memories, which in turn can lead to ideas for stories. It’s a nice gentle introduction to writing for beginners. After some icebreakers, I distributed some quirky objects I’ve picked up along my travels: a ladybird whose wings open to reveal a watch, a jade stone, a wooden perfume bottle from Bulgaria.

The participants then wrote the life stories of these objects.  They used the feel and the look of the objects to help them imagine what those lives might have been, what adventures they had and how they came to be there. Some people didn’t like the objects they were given, but I told them that sensations you don’t like can provide just as much inspiration for writing as beautiful ones. The important thing is to evoke a strong reaction.

A Taste of Oranges

We then moved on to one of my favourite exercises, which I’ve written about on this blog before, A Taste of Oranges. Oranges challenge all five of the senses, and people have to let go of their inhibitions about eating such a messy fruit in front of other people. The participants had to describe the oranges using all five of their senses (this orange looks/this orange feels). Eating the orange was an optional extra.

Oranges
Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Once the senses are triggered, I like to expand the activity. After they’d worked their senses with the oranges, I asked the participants to write about a meal that was memorable for a particular reason, which triggered some hilarious and poignant tales.

Musical Moments

I decided to do this activity on a whim, as I don’t normally do it, even though music is integral to my own writing practise. When you do activities, you don’t know which ones will work out. The other activities had gone smoothly, but I was still waiting for that ‘foom’ moment when the group takes off. It came with this activity.

I played a piece of music (Apache by The Shadows), and the participants had to write the names of a person, a colour and a place that the music made them think of. They then wove those three words into a short story. The resulting stories took us on voyages to different parts of the world, and prompted lots of lively reminiscences.

How do you incorporate the senses in your writing? Are you drawn to beautiful sensations, or to more troubling ones? If you’re a workshop facilitator, do you do activities based on the senses?

How to Run a Great Children’s Writing Camp

For the first time in over two years, I ran a children’s creative writing camp. After such a long gap, the prospect of this camp was quite a challenge. Especially since I had changed the format of the camp. Previously, I had run the camp in five two-hour sessions. But this year, I decided to run a three-day camp, with each session lasting 3.5 hours. Feedback from parents told me that this would be much more convenient for working parents.

The thought of holding children’s attention for that long, and indeed keeping up my own energy levels, was quite daunting. What’s more, the children who enrolled were a mix of ages and abilities. Three of them were boys, and my experience with them was more limited, as it’s usually girls who show more interest in the writing camps I run.

Here are three things I did to help me overcome these challenges.

Prepared Well

I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to hold the children’s attention. As well as my usual writing activities, I thought of word games and picture based activities that would offer a bit of variety and hold their attention. I also had to think about what we would do during the break, rain or shine. In the end, I didn’t need the extra activities. Since the length of time for the camp was more or less the same as in my previous camps, I had enough material with my main writing activities to last for the entire camp. And the children’s concentration never flagged.

Asserted Authority

This is the most challenging aspect of running children’s camps for me. You’re not the children’s teacher or parent, so you can’t discipline them. But you’re also not their friend. Creating a warm, trusting relationship and giving clear instructions for activities wards off a lot of issues. But when issues did arise during this camp, I made it clear what I didn’t like and how I wanted the children to behave, I also took any actions which I felt would be in the best interests of the group. As a result, I felt more in control, and the children didn’t step outside the boundaries.

Set Concrete Tasks

This group of children responded better to activities that had a clear outcome at the end. The more whimsical activities went down less well because they couldn’t see the purpose of them. The boys in particular were more likely to switch on if there was a clear end in sight. As a result, when it came to writing a full-length story on the last day, they were very focused, and you could see their skills starting to come together, they began to see why we had been doing all these activities, and took pride in the end result.

Children's Summer Writing Camp 2017
Children at writing camp hard at work creating stories.

 

Outcome of Camp

Dare I say it, this was my most successful children’s creative writing camp. Much of the credit for this goes to the ten lovely children who came to the camp. They were open, creative, kind and respectful to each other. The children not only wrote their own original stories, but read them in front of an audience of their parents. They may have forgotten about it all by now, but I can only hope a little seed of creativity was planted, which will bear fruit in later life.

If you run a children’s activity, what do you do to make it fun and fulfilling for them? If you’re a parent, what benefits do you hope your children will gain from attending a camp?

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?

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?

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.