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Review: Festival of Words I

18 February 13 words: Sue Barsby
Roundup of writing workshops as well as time for a bit of cake...


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Making Lace: The Writer’s Process 
The creative process is always interesting. How does someone sit down and write? From symphonies to sonnets, novels to flash fiction, what does it take to get your creative thoughts down on the page? 
Ian McEwan’s novel Amsterdam has a scene where the composer went out walking on the hills in order to find inspiration. My boyfriend of the time, a bass trombonist, snorted in derision about this clichéd vision of creativity and perhaps he had a point. Often it’s the daily grind, actually putting pen to paper that people are interested in. 
This workshop, run by Karen Buckley, examined everything. In that sense it was far too short, running for only an hour when we could have talked all day. We started with the practicalities of writing, such as the benefits of using a notebook over a voice recorder. Notebooks, it seemed were good for ideas, jottings, observations, but actual finished pieces needed to be written on the laptop. Then we examined the role of place in the creative process and concluded that a room of one’s own is a luxury for a modern writer, particularly when trying to juggle work and family life. 
The next exercise brought us back to Ian McEwan. Cliché or not, many of us found inspiration and a starting point for creativity in being outside, walking or people watching. Karen used quotes from writers to explore the nuts and bolts of writing – about how to plan, showing not telling, how to find the right voice and about writing from experience. Each quote brought forth nodding heads and murmurs of approval from different corners. We talked about mapping ideas, about having the time not just to write, but the time to listen and be receptive to ideas when they came, as well as having the time to actually craft these ideas into sentences we were happy with. It was noticeable that the workshop audience was comprised solely of women, all of us trying to get a moment to ourselves while juggling responsibilities of work and family.
In a very short time we arrived at the final question: why do we write? Possibly the hardest question of all and once again there wasn’t time to discuss this in full. But what I liked about the workshop, and about much of the Festival of Words as a whole, was the coming together of writers. We often sit alone with our thoughts, cutting ourselves off from loved ones or colleagues while we get those thoughts down on paper. It can be a lonely existence and peppered with doubts. This workshop gave us all a feeling that we’re not alone, that it is worthwhile and perseverance pays off. 
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Assemblage workshop
It’s a nervous Louise Garland who greets us into the Assemblage workshop. She’s not used to the shiny new surroundings. Indeed the Newton building’s gorgeous clean and technological lecture rooms are not where you’d naturally create artworks made from hoarded or reclaimed materials. It isn’t too long before we sully the pristine tabletops.
Incorporating words into artwork is not a new idea and Louise shows us some examples of her own work, featuring ideas inspired by Tennyson, Keats and Plath, before letting us loose on the materials. The idea is to use words to inspire a piece of mixed media artwork and, while today’s materials centre around nostalgia (like all mixed media artists, Louise is a magpie and collects all kinds of bits other people throw out – photos, maps, bits of old clock, buttons) there’s no reason why you couldn’t be more dramatic with other, less fussy items.
The workshop is family friendly and there are three small girls who take to all the techniques with relish. Others of us are more reserved. The joy of using mixed media is that even those of us who have no natural artistic talent can create something with interest and texture – my piece combines suede, paper, lace, acorn shells and jewellery. Other pieces include wood, leaves, wallpaper, mirrors, copper wire, bits of dolls house furniture and photos. 
Some participants use well known phrases for inspiration while others stick to lines of poetry or their own work. But despite the fun of compiling a collage piece brought on by words you love, you could nevertheless do it all in reverse and bring together a range of diverse items in order to inspire some writing. Essentially, why not create a piece of art that works as a mood board? Plus, this works as a great procrastination technique when you’re stuck on your writing. 
For those of us befuddled from a long week, this workshop was a gentle and engaging way to get into the swing of a ‘wordy’ festival first thing on a Saturday morning.
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Weaving words with others
With so many activities on offer the chance arose to do something completely different to normal and a little out of my comfort zone. How easy it would have been to sit in a reading group discussion and talk books with AL Kennedy. Instead I headed upstairs to take part in a collaborative workshop. What is it like working with others? 
Being naturally introspective and terrified of performance the idea of writing with others scares me a little. For me the point of writing is to perform alone, so that you’re not present when your audience reads your words and therefore you cannot hear their roars of disapproval. Like many writers, I only imagine disapprobation… 
Luckily the workshop was well structured with exercises to break down barriers and get participants working straight away. How do you start working with someone else? Well, begin with what you don’t want to write. What’s left? I was partnered with Anne, a German girl who was at the festival as part of the Dovetail project. Dovetail is an EU funded project offering people in Nottingham, Karlsruhe and Budapest the opportunity to tell each other their stories, travelling to take part in creative projects such as this Festival. 
Anne and I decided we’d like to write a story about blackmail, secrets from the past and friendship. Once we’d decided on our setting (a circus in 1890) we then had to create characteristics, mannerisms and traits, swap them with another partnership and ascribe them to our characters. 
Anne’s English was very good but a few things had to be explained. This actually enhanced my workshop experience. What is the point of a words festival if not to really think about the words you use? And how easy is it to describe what sulky means? 
I found that it was easier to come up with more outlandish ideas when there was someone to bounce them off. And so in less than two hours two strangers from different countries had come up with a plot involving a trapeze artist who was scared of heights, not above blackmailing people to get what she wanted (top billing in a show on the ground) and disguising her true evil nature by wearing floral dresses and being a cat lover. Our blackmail victim was a drunken ringmaster about to be betrayed by his best friend, a clown who secretly wanted to be a pirate (and who was sleeping with the trapeze artist). Nonsense? Undoubtedly. But great fun. And certainly not the kind of thing I would have come up with alone. 
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'Picture you upon my knee,

tea for Sue and Sue for tea...' 

For us bookish types, there’s nothing better than a combination of words and food. I like the idea of emulating Jo March in Little Women, curled up with a book and a plate of russets but the reality is usually much less healthy so the prospect of a pop up tea room to celebrate the written word was right up my alley. 
The tea room popped up at Debbie Bryan’s Studio and Shop which, if you haven’t been before, is the perfect place to lose yourself in for an hour or so. Much of Debbie’s work is focussed on the industrial heritage of the Lace Market, with many pieces based around the vintage patterns and practices of yore. The perfect place then, to listen to Deborah Tyler-Bennett, the Festival’s writer in residence, who was giving a poetry reading when we arrived. Deborah often draws on her ancestors for inspiration, some of whom worked in the hosiery trade in Nottingham, and I rather liked the poem about her grandmother’s teenage habits of gatecrashing the funeral wakes of strangers. As you do. 
Beyond the poetry, this being a shop that celebrates craft, sat in the corner  was Lucy Renshaw, a local lighting designer who was demonstrating how she makes weird and wonderful lampshades from lace and bits of old material. 
But back to the important stuff: what was the tea room bit like? Well, there was a choice of whisky or brandy to top up your tea, served in little china jugs, an elegant marriage of style and hard liquor. There was a choice of cake (obviously I felt I had to have both, for review purposes only, you understand) and I think the fruit cake just won it for me over the brownies. 
Debbie’s shop hosts a number of events over the Festival and is a great example of how the arts can come together to explore language.
There's still time to catch the Festival of Words so check out the website for the remaining events...

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