Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Therapeutic Writing Resources

Founded in 1996, Lapidus is the UK organisation for writing and reading for health and wellbeing and works from the principle that words used creatively can be a powerful tool for health and personal, community and world development.

Word Sauce
Conversations, inspiration, courses and community in writing for personal development, health and wellbeing.

The Writers in Prison Network
The Writers in Prison Network puts writers and creative artists into prisons to deliver creative writing, drama, video, music, oral storytelling, journalism, creative reading and publishing programmes.

MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, etc
This course aims to prepare students for the considerable challenges and demands of working in the field of creative writing for therapeutic purposes.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Adam Bailey's Guide to Writing Retreats

Somewhere between a quiet hour at your desk and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the Writers Retreat. The Priory for procrastinators.

The retreat will be in the country, secluded by enough trees to give the sense of isolation but lit-up enough to scare off the hillbillies. Basically it’s the sort of hinterland people have being queuing up to leave since cities were invented. However, these pioneers were mostly of the 'worker' kind, lured to the city by the distant sound of clanging metal and the smell of burning man-flesh. Writers, though, being a subsidiary branch of Artist, are more into paraphrasing the grim experience than actually going anywhere near it, and will escape to the country before you can say, 'I wandered lonely as a mono-crop.'

Oo Arr
Of course the countryside has been inspiring people for years. These people have mostly been farmers though, and what they've been inspired to do (see 'think outside the box') is feed the brains of cows to other cows and then lean on a fence, have someone turn on the fairground music, and watch their herd start to wobble. Such is the jubilee on the borderline between prolonged isolation and drifting weedkiller fumes.

Making New Friends
Before you go then it's important you buy a Creatures of the Countryside book and learn to identify 'farmer'. The last thing you want to do is, high on the good life, approach one and start waxing lyrical. Remember, the only thing farmers wax is their tractor. And you won't be catching their wives waxing much either, especially in winter, although don’t mistake this wives' let it all hang out attitude for anything like that time learning pottery at Auntie Helga's Hippy Commune in Berlin. The countryside is Conservative. Traditional rules apply. Winter follows autumn follows summer and so on. The last thing you want to do is approach a farmer and gush your newly spun haiku. He'll rub his chin. He's mistaken your doubtful stammering for the confirmation code used with the Nazi he hid in his barn. He’ll reply,
‘Soft sunlight hides the
Inferno, raging in silence;
‘Oo-arr’ to fields sprayed with chemicals’ He’ll shake your hand the special way. ‘I thought you were dead, Gruber.' He’ll then talk for hours about immigrants.

The no-man’s land between customs being full of mines, it’s best to stay in. But what’s the retreat itself like? Apart from the bit about paying for it, each room is carefully appointed with the writer in mind. It has a desk. But what really makes this a writer's retreat, and not just a cottage in the country desperate for money, is that each room has a thesaurus in the top draw of the bedside table. Proof of this will be in the adverts for the retreats which say things like 'providing solitude not isolation.’

There will also be the lurking presence of other writers. Your pens keep going missing. And there's the feeling that the person behind you is writing down your conversation, and whispering to himself things like 'odd syntax, northern dialect, use for idiot character.’

Some retreats are really specialist with few creature comforts and no distractions except the feeling you're being watched from the trees. Such places are for writers who've read too much Thoreau and obviously you'll expect to pay a lot more for these. But for anyone not wanting to write the Great American Novel, perhaps just a few articles to Readers' Digest, most retreats have wash-basins.

Opulent writing retreats, on the other hand, provide rooms furnished exactly like those where great authors once worked. Popular is ‘Thomas de Quincey Lounge’, because there might or might not be spiders climbing the walls, also the ‘Stephen King Hotel’, which includes a special axe-wielding welcome by Jack Nicholson. Similar five-star retreats run special training courses. ‘Autobiography House’ teaches the magic formula: intervening time plus discretion-offsetting advance equals BULLSHIT. And at ‘The Charles Dickens It Was the Best of Writers Retreats It Was the Worst of Writers Retreats’ you’ll learn how to write sentences so long that they give MS Word’s paperclip a hernia and then you take this new skill on a trip to Beijing to breathe in the yellow belch and spend six-months stapled to a sewing machine in a firetrap adding value to cloth where you’ll have the logo of one of the trendiest brands in the world tattooed on your head, which although whilst there it’s for easier asset-indexing, when you get home you’ll be so Luxury and Premium you’ll be envied.

Immersed in the Cilento
It’s worth remembering the basic writers retreat maths – the more expensive it is, the more likely you'll end up joining a cult. For example, a weekend in the Welsh valleys in a house ran by Pat who gives free critiques and if tipsy plays the piano will be a fun and rewarding experience, and just as important, it will have plenty of options for escape. But a fortnight in the mountains of Italy, say, "immersed in the Cilento, ran by two ex-hippy's Lars and Else” is just asking for trouble.

Infinity and Beyond
To sum up, the writers retreat is a place of tranquility, albeit more ‘whale-song CD’ than ‘snorting ketamine off an infinity symbol’. It is at the writers retreat that you can free yourself from persistent conscious agitation for form in every thought and … sorry that’s yoga. Writers retreats are there to bore you senseless and leave you with no excuse but to write.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Alternatively of course you could just to go to prison. You'll have desk, discipline and enough gritty realism to roll a cigarette with. Of course, I don't endorse any of Her Majesties Writers Retreats; going to one will look bad on your CV for when it comes to the DayJob. In fact most employers will, when they see written in the ‘experiences’ section ‘prison’ frown only slightly less than if they read under 'interests' 'reading/ creative writing'. At least prison shows you're not afraid to break the rules and, if rumours about shower time are true, that you have a team ethic. ‘Reading’ just means you sit alone in corners, and ‘creative writing’ that you're probably a woman.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Solitude and the City - An Ibero-American Book Festival at Foyles

Foyles, as I recollect, used to be a pretty forbidding place. Books piled high and organised by publisher seemed to be arranged expressly to prevent frivolous activities like browsing. And the payment system (acquired, as events manager Andy Quinn reminds me, from Romania) entailed obtaining a ticket at one counter which you took to a cash desk to hand over your money before collecting your book.

It’s all very different now. A few years ago, when they stripped out the old shelves, they found piles of unsold books. An entire room of books was discovered, boarded up and forgotten, like a bibliophile’s tomb of Tutankhamen. The whole place is now light and airy, with chairs dotted about where you can sit and read a few pages before deciding to buy. There is a funky little cafĂ©. And on the top floor is the Gallery, venue for the free early evening events that now run throughout the year.

I was there for the second night of the annual Ibero-American book festival, to hear Mexican writer Chloe Aridjis discuss her award-winning debut novel, The Book of Clouds.

Her protagonist, Tatiana is a Mexican Jewish girl, youngest of a family of five. Having won a year in Berlin as a prize for coming top in her German course, she has stayed on, largely solitary, drifting from one odd job to another. As we meet her, she is starting a job with an eccentric elderly historian, transcribing endless tapes into which he has poured his thoughts on the ‘phenomenology of space’ – the way that the history of Berlin has seeped into the fabric of the city.

Berlin is very much a parallel protagonist in the book – mysterious, troubled, still trying to come to terms with its own divided past. There is a recurring theme too about the disorienting effects of artificial light.

It is significant that Aridjis has chosen to write, not about Mexico, but about a city where she lived for five years. She believes that illumination comes from some sort of dislocation. This is echoed in the book, where the three turning points for Tatiana are three moment of profound dislocation – one in a decaying basement once used as a bowling alley by the Stasi (or was it the Gestapo?), one by moonlight amongst the 2711 concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial, and one in a dense and mysterious fog that descends on the city at a critical moment.

Aridjis has a Mexican father and an American mother and grew up fluently bilingual. She admits to feeling uncomfortable, at times, being identified as a Mexican writer. After all, here she is, writing in English, setting her books in European cities. Yet she feels Mexican. For her, the strangest thing about The Book of Clouds was to find herself writing the interior monologues of a Mexican character in English.

Aridjis is currently living in London and working on a London-based book, to be called Assunder. Here she addresses a different form of disassociation. Set in the National Gallery, her protagonists are museum guards - invisible by profession, by and large impervious to their surroundings.

After that, she says, she would like to write a book set in Mexico. By then she will have achieved the necessary detachment to write about her own country. And yes, one day she would like to try writing something in Spanish. Some short stories, perhaps.

It is going to be interesting to see how this cosmopolitan writer with a coolly detached eye portrays London. Assunder is a book to look out for.

And I shall be keeping an eye, too, on Foyles’ event list, now I know what an intriguing (and welcoming) place it has become.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Writing to Live Again

“As one writer put it, the rapt attention of an audience is like a mirror in front of her, reassuring her that, after all the horror and degradation, she is still, powerfully and triumphantly, alive.” [Sheila Hayman, Write to Life coordinator]

Freedom from Torture’s creative writing group Write to Life was set up by the playwright Sonja Linden eleven years ago. It began with just four writers and a couple of mentors and showed how writing can help survivors cope better with their pasts and with the present.

The group now comprises some 20 clients, all referred by counsellors who recognise that for some writing can heal like no other form of therapy. Their work is truly ground-breaking. Write to Life is possibly the only therapeutic writing group in the world dedicated specifically to survivors of torture.

Many of the writers are in what the group’s current coordinator, film maker and novelist Sheila Hayman, describes as ‘a state of petrifaction’, unable to work, endlessly waiting to hear if their asylum application has been accepted. Writing is something they can do anywhere, at any time. “All it takes is a pen and paper and enough peace to be able to let the words come out.”

We are privileged to be able to bring you a podcast that features performances from seven of Write to Life’s very talented poets. You can listen to the podcast at

I am alive*, by ‘Faith’ (Ethiopia)
I know*, by Tim (Congo)
What belongs to me*, by ‘Saber’
Drifting, by Stephen (Burundi)
I hear a voice, by ‘Uganda’
Glimpse*, by Stephanie (Cameroon)
My Hands*, by ‘Rocher’ (DRC)

The five starred poems can be read here.

I’m alive, by ‘Faith’ (Ethiopia) 

I’m out of the way, far away
From the journey I used to walk
For years and years
In the darkness.

I am now here, bright
Under the light
With my own breath
With my own soul.

Like the giant hand of Atacama
My hand is my sign
Revealing who I am, where I’m going
My existence and my new life.

I’m breathing, growing up again
Like a plant, like a grain.
I have renewed my self,
I’m born again.

The sky is singing, the earth dancing
On the ground my shadow is moving.
This is the sign that I’m alive. 

I know, by Tim (Congo)

I know half a loaf is better than nothing
Sometimes a whole loaf would be nice
I know peace is better than war
Why then is there war all over the world?
I know things will not always look rosy
It would be good if they did
I know life is a journey
It can be tiring, to travel all the time
I know that hope like a blazing candle can be
Put out in a moment
I also know that hope, like candle light
Can lead through dark moments
I know things can fall apart
They can also come together
I know we shall overcome some day
It will take a lot of work…

What Belongs to Me, by ‘Saber’

I came here on a day that nothing belonged to me
except my crutch, which at any time they could take from me
even though I could not walk without it.
On that day, things happened very quickly,
I was exhausted
but the time was very enjoyable
because every hour brought new things.
Bad or sad
Cold or warm,
Hunger and pleasure
New places... New people...New air!
But still, nothing belonged to me except my crutch.

I had brought many things with me;
my stories had a thousand colours, but my face had one, which was the colour of smoke.
I came here with the memory of those starless evenings which I had left; they did not belong to me.
I came here with the frightened smiles I’d found in the back of the lorry; I left them in the interview room; they did not belong to me.
I came here with my key in my pocket, the key of the small dark box which was full of white dreams; it did not belong to me.
Before I left my country I did not belong to myself, and nothing belonged to me.
I was owned by other people.
The day I came here, I owned nothing
and nothing belonged to me except my crutch...
the only thing that gives me direction
wherever I choose to go.

Glimpse, by Stephanie (Cameroon)

Looking around
I see nothing except my burden.
Everywhere seems dark, confined.
Like smoke from the chimney
I want to run out

Without remorse,
Leave everything behind
like birds in the sky
who fly free.
I want to turn my eyes

to a new horizon
fill my lungs with different air.
Like the sun rising
East to West, North to South,
Reaching every nook and cranny

I want to conquer the world
Leave my footprint everywhere.
I am still standing here
unable to cut the umbilical cord
so much to take care of.

But I know I belong here.

My Hands: by ‘Rocher’ (DRC)

Whenever I had done something naughty,
My mother used to shout,
Daughter, have you lost your head?
No mother.
One day, when I came to England
I felt terrible.
In this new country,
with a new foreign language,
there was nothing for me to do anymore.
This time, it was my hand I had lost.
Much as everyone talks about opportunity,
none of them seems to be for me.
I couldn't cook my food any more,
nor have a house to clean.
These hands, although they look like my Dad's hand,
they were no use to me now.