How I Don’t Remember It

I’ve recently joined a new poetry group. It’s so new that we don’t even have a name yet, but I’m enjoying the work of the other members.

One of them wrote about his time at Stirling University and included a photo of the place in the springtime. For the following month’s meeting, I visited Paisley, where I studied at what’s now the University of the West of Scotland. I’d paid a brief visit to the town centre in 2016, but it had been some years since I’d explored its other areas.

I’d expected some change, and I saw it particularly in the accommodation. There were new blocks of flats in a couple of spots, while one place I used to rent from the University had clearly been sold to a slum landlord – and the other might well have been going the same way.

I then walked up Neilston Road, which is one of the backbones of the town. From the moment I turned onto it, I began to wonder where I was. There were new tearooms with seats outside – even though it rained all day – but even taking them out of the equation, I didn’t even remember other landmarks.

Deutsch: Logo University of the West of Scotland
Logo of the University of the West of Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were bends in the road I didn’t recall, buildings that must have been there a century I didn’t register, and a field with cows as you head out of town that I must have seen at some point.

At least now I had a focus for my poem. One of the prompts had been ‘A letter to…’ so my piece became A Letter to Paisley, with the first lines reading:

I saw you the other day,
I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you.

But I found the opening words to be the easy part. Sometimes I can have something I really want to say, or I theme I particularly want to explore, and I find it difficult to work out how to present it.

In the rest of the piece, I muse upon the changes that have taken place and the parts I didn’t recognise, and I ponder whether it was the excitement of moving there at age 18 that caused me not to take in the details I saw on that day. I presented the piece to the group on Thursday of last week, and they helped me to make a few changes that will probably find their way into the next draft.

Strangely enough, I gained a BSc Music Technology while I was there. I didn’t do much with the qualification as it was, but I was able to use it to gain a place on the Masters degree I completed last year.

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How to manage a writing group.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been organising literary events, and I’ve gathered some experience during this time. Remember that every group is different, and what worked or didn’t work for me might prove the opposite for you.

The two groups I currently run are: Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers; and the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge to pen a novel in a month. The two groups are rather different beasts, and there is little crossover between their memberships, but there are common factors in the way they’re run.

Planning

Ensure your group has a defined purpose

Hotchpotch has a definite purpose: you can take along your own work and read it for up to 10 minutes, or simply come along to listen to others. It’s a format that works for us and has done for some years.

NaNoWriMo is a franchise of sorts with a not-for-profit organisation, so you must follow their instructions and ethos. As such, we started off with purely November meetings where we would encourage each other to finish our novels. But there was such enthusiasm that we continue to meet up weekly and work on other individual projects.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, of course, but don’t stray too far from your original intention. There is a risk that your members will be put off going as it’s not what they expected.

Be early

Think months or weeks in advance, not days, to save rushing around at the last minute. The main NaNoWriMo event happens in November, so I’ll start planning in August as I need to receive promotional material and work out where and when our meetings should be. The next Hotchpotch is usually booked on the same day as the last meeting. Always be super-early to set up for meetings.

Coordinate and cross-promote

Hotchpotch must ‘compete’ with a monthly Silent Reading Party and a monthly Literary Lock-In as these also happen on Mondays. Through having conversations with the organisers of the latter two events, we now coordinate these events so they hardly ever clash. When one of them announces a new date, I also promote it to Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo participants.

Communication

Use suitable methods

This depends largely on the IT skills of your members. Our NaNoWriMo region has a Facebook group where most people engage with us, although NaNoWriMo HQ require us to use their own mailing system. Conversely, many Hotchpotch members don’t use Facebook and prefer to be on our mailing list.

Hotchpotch has business cards with contact details to give to new members. During NaNoWriMo months, I also have a mobile number with a budget SIM card so people can contact me with urgent enquiries. In practice, however, we’ve rarely needed to use it.

Not too little; not too often

By all means send out a message early, but remember to issue regular reminders. People forget, or accidentally delete the e-mail. Also make sure your latest message reflects any changes that have happened since the last one. For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. Hotchpotch reminders are usually two or three weeks apart as the meetings are monthly.

But once a day is far too often, unless you happen to be sending out daily writing prompts.

Exercise privacy with e-mail

Whenever you send out a group e-mail, use the Bcc box, not To or Cc. This means each member will only see his or her own address when it’s received. Always give people the option to unsubscribe from updates; the last thing you want is to be reported for spam. It can be as simple as typing Let us know if you want to unsubscribe at the bottom of each message.

People

Be welcoming

This is a big one for me. Unless your group is really only for you and your mates, everyone who comes along needs to feel welcome. I’ve been put off going to groups in the past when it became clear the existing members were only interested in their own company. Whenever new folk turn up to NaNoWriMo or Hotchpotch, I make a point of introducing myself and chatting to them.

Consult, don’t dictate

Keep a list of a few trusted regulars you can talk to when the going gets tough. In the case of Hotchpotch, we had to make a difficult decision about a venue. We made a collective decision that I now agree with, but if I’d dictated, I would have gone the opposite way and might have lost their cooperation. NaNoWriMo is largely stable now, but I know the core membership are there should any problems arise.

Deal with troublemakers appropriately

Literary meetings are generally safe spaces. I can think of only one serious incident. I was a member of a group where we felt the standard of leadership fell far below what was expected. The incident was resolved, but not before pages of online words had been exchanged. If you need to keep someone in line, it’s rarely appropriate to do it over the Internet or in front of other members.

Most often, someone will say he or she didn’t like the group. I find it’s best to fix the problem, where possible, or to acknowledge his or her point of view and accept you’ll be one member down next time. It’s not worth turning a complaint into an argument, but to learn from it and concentrate on attracting new members.

 

If you have any tips you’d like to add, leave them below. I’ve no doubt I’ll think of one or two more myself when this has posted.

Performances and Housekeeping.

On Monday of last week, I debuted a new poem at Hotchpotch. This is a local open-mike night for writers. While I’m far more of a prose writer than a poet, I thought this particular piece would go down well.

I’ve been to enough live events to know the standard housekeeping message that’s given before the performance. This poem was a version of the announcement that made it sound as though the speaker was having a mental breakdown. It did indeed attract a positive response, while a second poem and a short story were also well-received.

At last month’s Hotchpotch, I had a picture taken of me. I didn’t particularly like it because my neck was too far forward reading the piece. This time I was sure to stand up straighter and look up at the audience from time to time. I’m not saying my pieces came across better because of it, but I certainly felt better by paying attention to these factors.

I’m an advocate of people reading out their work in public, and of course in private while proofreading. If you know of a nearby group, go along and support it. There are actually two such groups around here, but I didn’t take to the other one since the focus there is mainly on folk tales, whereas Hotchpotch has a more literary flavour. Some groups even allow you simply to listen without contributing for the first meeting.

But what if there isn’t a group, or it’s not the right style for you? Have you ever thought about starting your own? There’s no reason why you should wait for someone else to do it, as it probably won’t happen.

The meeting place doesn’t have to be anywhere with a stage. We meet on the upper floor of a café, and we create an informal Poets’ Corner near the top of the stairs. Some pubs and coffee shops are happy to donate their space provided the participants are putting money in the till, so we hold at least one break during each evening. Just bear in mind that the venue could back out or change their terms at any time. A pub we used to use free of charge suddenly wanted £50 a session, even though we probably spent double that in drinks alone.

The other element you need to decide is the ethos. Should the audience offer constructive criticism to the readers, or is it solely for writers to try out new material? At Hotchpotch, the latter approach is taken, although there’s nothing to stop people giving feedback to each other privately afterwards.

But above all, it’s for writers to meet and talk to each other. Every time we meet up, I usually hear about an upcoming event or two that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about. The actual writing process is generally a solitary pursuit, but we all still need that connection.