With a pen and a piece of paper, it’s possible to become anything.’ This student’s reflection on creative writing sessions is testament to the potent power of words to elicit change. Academic studies tell us there are numerous benefits of writing creatively: it can boost confidence and wellbeing and, for young people engaged with writing, increases the likelihood of them performing better in school and going on to university. Yet, as the curriculum becomes squeezed across all sectors of education, it is more difficult than ever to make the case for the importance of writing as a transformative act.
It is in this context that the UK’s inaugural National Writing Day was launched last week, on 21 June. The initiative was co-ordinated by the charity First Story, which places professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities to foster creativity and communication skills. Over forty national educational and cultural partners, including the Royal Society of Literature and the National Literary Trust, got on board to help celebrate the transformative power of stories. Staff in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities at Leeds Beckett contributed by hosting a two-fold event. Both parts were designed to mark the importance of writing in our communities and in our lives. Both brought together regional organisations – First Story, as well as the Yorkshire-based publisher Bluemoose Books, and Leeds booksellers Blackwell’s – to host workshops run by writers for writers, and a panel to explore the creative processes and practice across the genres of poetry, prose and drama.
During the afternoon at Leeds Beckett’s Broadcasting Place, five Yorkshire-based writers in residence from First Story led workshops for writers, teachers and community educators that covered a range of approaches and issues. Emily Diamand prompted reflection on the obstacles to the imagination that are sometimes experienced by creative writing students. Sai Murray shared the power of teaching slam and performance poetry. Nik Perring asked participants to ask the question ‘what if’ as a trigger for potential stories: what if there were no questions? What if gravity didn’t exist? Maps emerged as a theme for the day. Malika Booker’s session facilitated the mapping of memories through drawing and the visual, while Dan Ingram-Brown got workshop students to create forests of stories by using real (rather than metaphorical) maps. ‘Very informative and inspiring,’ one participant wrote. ‘Fast paced and fun,’ another commented, ‘there is definitely an appetite for more events with writers leading workshops for other writers and interested parties.’
After a move of venue to Blackwell’s Books on Woodhouse Lane, I convened a panel of writers – two Bluemoose novelists, Colette Snowden and Dan Micklethwaite; poet Zaffar Kunial and performance poet and dramatist Zodwa Nyoni - to discuss the place of writing in their lives. Differences in perspective and experience ‘led to a sparky interchange during the debate,’ as one audience member noted. Another response was that ‘it was a very useful session for anyone interested in “how to write” … there were some surprising stories about how people manage writing as an intellectual and practical activity.’
The texts, stories and places of these writers span the global and the local: like Kunial’s writings about Kashmir and Grasmere, and places in between; novels set in Manchester and Huddersfield; and the Leeds streets mapped (even through digital images on set) of Nyoni’s stage play, Ode to Leeds which is currently running at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Criss-crossing geographical boundaries, the panel discussion unfolded like a map – ranging across the influences of parents, children and teachers on writing practice, and the constraints and freedoms bound up in the drive to tell stories.
As far as National Writing Day goes, it was virtual maps that won the day, largely through the power of the internet. Online users connected across the geographical space through hashtags #NationalWritingDay #TellYourStory. People were encouraged to look through their window, snap a photo, write about the view and share online. On 21 June, #NationalWritingDay was the top trend on Twitter, demonstrating not just how powerful writing stories can be, but the drive also to share them with others.
Recent medical research has proven that the act of writing speeds up the healing of wounds. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I’ve witnessed many other ways it can heal – not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically. It’s true that with just pen and a paper, you can harness the ability to become whatever or whomever you want to be.