Literary Goings On at the Royal Centre, Nottingham
When I last interviewed Cathy Grindrod she mentioned a writing group she was leading at the Royal Centre in Nottingham. As Cathy explains below, this group is for the over 55s, but this does not mean it is merely an excuse for a cup of tea, biscuits and a chat; although that is certainly a valuable part of their creative process. The craft of writing is taken very seriously, although often with hilarious results. After performing at the Nottingham Festival of Words, they are now in demand and fast becoming part of Nottingham’s literary scene.
I went along to interview them all to glean their views on their involvement with the group.
Cathy: I’ve been leading this Creative Writing course for nearly 2 years now. We meet in the Royal Concert Hall on Friday mornings and it’s part of a wider Arts initiative for the over 55s, set up and co-ordinated by David Longford, the Education Manager at the Royal Centre. Being a creative person himself, David is an inspiring person to work with and very supportive of our work in the group.
Why have you decided to do this?
Because I’ve worked with Cathy before and she gets results, so here I am.
I’ve written bits and bobs in the past and was really into poetry as a child. I tried a bit of sketch writing and things like that. I’ve done stuff at the Theatre Royal, so when this started I was really interested in getting involved.
Because I didn’t have a very good experience of writing at school. I felt a bit cheated and so this was an opportunity to try and develop that sort of area which I felt was neglected almost.
Cathy: Surprising how many people say that.
How much experience of writing has everybody got in the group?
Next to no experience.
I think I’ve been dabbling for a while, but I think it’s always good to learn more and experience more to gain confidence. So to be able to come here and learn more through Cathy’s teaching and from one another, has been a great experience.
How did you find out about this group?
Advertising, but I can’t remember where I saw it.
It’s on the education part of the Theatre Royal website. I found out about it with another member of the group and was told that it was going to be set up along with the acting and the dancing.
I found it from the regular brochure that’s put out by the Centre. But it’s tucked away so you have to be quite keen to find it!
I think it was at another group and I’ve also worked with Cathy before.
So really part of it is a connection you have with Cathy?
Cathy: I think there are three of us that have worked together before.
So the answer is either being very attentive or knowing Cathy or someone who knows about the event.
What sort of things have you done?
I think there’s a bit before the actual doing. For me anyhow. It’s about being brave enough to come, realising I didn’t have to write the great British novel in order to come and I could start somewhere that I was comfortable with. The general openness and supportiveness of the group have for me been great. I wouldn’t have gone on to do much if I’d been uncomfortable. So given those things, and their support, it’s been an enormous help in terms of gaining sufficient confidence to meet all the frequent challenges that come up.
So it’s the nature of the group that helped you to feel supported and not intimidated?
I think also that because we do a variety of things, you do feel that everybody can have a stab. I think it’s a tribute to everybody that we’re all prepared to have a stab at everything. It would be very rare that anyone would say, ‘Oh, I’ve not had time to do that’ because of something that has gone on during the week. That’s a very rare occurrence, because nearly every week everybody’s done something and had a go at something. I think Cathy has a good way of opening up your past experiences and I have actually said before in some ways it’s a bit like therapy. Because you’ve forgotten a lot of things from your past that through writing actually come back to you and they’re useful to use.
You’re saying that you’ve been provided with the tools to facilitate this ability to write that you didn’t think you’d got or weren’t sure about?
Well I think some of us have written a lot before, but perhaps in a different kind of way. So I think some of us got experience of formal writing, like report writing. So it’s sometimes changing the direction and this has been started off by doing this group.
The other aspect is that Cathy brings, each week, examples of whatever it is we’re working on. That introduced me to other people’s writing that I just wasn’t aware of before. So that’s been very interesting as well. I’m now able to get an appreciation of what else’s out there.
What sort of work is this?
It’s given us sign posts I suppose into other areas of writing.
The examples we had this morning are fantastic and you think. ‘Gosh Yes.’ But you don’t immediately think you’ve got to run away because you couldn’t possibly write like that. You will have a go. As you say, you have got to read, and today we’ve been reading poetry, because otherwise you don’t know what the possibilities are.
This is the fire that Jane built
This is the box of letters that burned
on the fire that Jane built
Those were the tears that Jane cried
when she smelled the fumes
from the smoke from the letters
that fed the fire that Jane built
I think for me I’m interested in where creativity comes from and the mechanics of creativity, of how you do something. I thought this group was just going to be about the mechanics of writing. In fact I find we have plenty of room to be creative by how we respond to the particular challenge. So one of the reasons I wanted to do it, was because it wasn’t visual art. But I know about art and being creative in art and I was fascinated to find out whether that spark of creativity could be turned into words. I find that a very interesting path to move along.
Brilliant blue, sparkling in the sun
Rippling tiny waves broken by a run
Of splashing strokes – as Picasso swum.
Down and up and up and down the pool,
Picasso, mind alert, cleared by water cool,
Swam idly, musing, allowing thoughts to spool…
How much work are you given to do in between classes?
(This raised big laughs and shouts of loads and burning the midnight oil)
We get something every week to have a go at.
But mostly, even if you’re doing it rather late on Thursday evening, you do want to do it. We all pick up pens because we want to. It’s as simple as that. It sounds a bit pretentious, but it isn’t. The thing’s there. You’re stimulated and you do it. We’re not Sylvia Plath or RV Bailey, but we have a stab at it.
Cathy: I think that sums up what workshops should do. Because I hope I don’t tell you what to do. I’m trying to guide you and also give you something to work on between sessions, but then it’s up to you to get out of it what you want to get out of it. I was in a session yesterday where someone said ‘I don’t write in workshops,’ and I said ‘Well you may get very bored then.’ But they went on to join in every exercise. But if they hadn’t, then that would have been up to them. I see my job as bringing something out of people rather than telling them what to do.
… for her the pen is a midwife,
Delivering her babies, her thoughts.
Their swaddling clothes the clean, white sheets of paper.
They have a future.
The pen gives her power to make her mark on the world.
What is interesting is that you have to produce the work, then presumably you’re critiquing them. There are different levels of critique how did you feel the first time you had to have something critiqued?
I felt it was set up particularly well, because it was praising what was good about this piece and what do we like about this piece and what do we think might be improved, which is a very positive way of critiquing something, as opposed to being slated and told what you’ve done is rubbish.
It was to help you rather than destroy what you’ve done. It builds confidence up.
It is one of the really positive things that you always come away with each week, whether you’ve read something or somebody else has. It is a really positive exchange that you’ve learned things from. You’re able to give something as well as take something.
Also Cathy always says that when you discuss a piece, and somebody says, ’Well, that might have sounded better if …’ that if you feel strongly about what you’ve written and want to keep it how you’d written it, then do it. At the end of the day that’s your work. But if you feel that a suggestion somebody else has made is actually helpful, then use it. This means you still own your piece at the end of everything.
One of the aspects I think adds to the richness of the group is that we’ve all lived at least fifty five years. That’s what everybody brings when they come to the group. When we get newcomers, which we will get next time, they’ll bring the same thing. It’ll be a completely different set of experiences and none of our lives have been very much the same. But we’ve all lived and we’ve all learned something over the years and I think that adds an awful lot to it. It means people can speak with an authentic voice about something, whatever it is, for example childhood, school, work experiences, that sort of thing. There’s also the fact that you assume that when you get to at least fifty five, you have hopefully got some aspect of something about you, where you can actually take constructive comments about whatever work that you’ve achieved. It’s not like we’re going to pick up a pen and walk. You want to be here. Some will be better than others with things that you produce. It’s about the process.
School dinners. Now that’s a term to turn your stomach. It’s a wonder we didn’t all have eating disorders of some kind after the gastric abuse of 60s school lunches. Tapoica – …an alien broth of a hundred anaemic eyes swimming in milky slime. Yuk!.. What had we done to deserve servings of such a malevolent dish? (Chrissy Thornhill)
Many a time she would be bedridden and the doctor would be called. More often than not he would caution that she hadn’t got long to live. Each time, by next morning, she was up and drinking her stout and sending someone out to have a bet on a horse or three. (Wendy Haynes)
stormy grey, billowing pockets at her hips,
she sailed forth
to the bus stop, the shops and church
with Presbyterian vigour,
her string bag bulging with purpose…
People take kindly to constructive comments. I think that was evidenced in a way when we were getting ready for the performance for the Nottingham Festival of words. Because lots of things that we did in the performance were improved for ‘performance’. The words may be different on the page, but with a live audience in mind, they needed to be edited, adapted. People didn’t mind when somebody said, ‘Oh. Would it be better if we did, that like that.’ So the editing process was good.
We worked in groups and gave feedback to each other.
So the fact that you actually have to perform changed the way you looked at the piece?
It was more a case of tweaking.
It was also affected by the piece, because some pieces would work better than others in front of an audience.
How did you know which pieces work better in front of an audience?
Cathy gave us guidance to start with.
But it was also the feedback that came from the rest of the group after you’d performed something for a bit. One thing I remember was one of the group had a particularly long poem about a garage, which was particularly glorious. But as part of a wider piece, it was too long to keep attention running all the time and the solution eventually arrived at was absolutely brilliant. We divided it into four parts, with other pieces fitted in between like a chorus. It was an absolute highlight. So that was the performance bit, whereas on the page one would have read it through quite happily and quite differently.
It also, perhaps unknowingly brought out the piece as well, because we did it like that. It was because the writer couldn’t clear the garage shed all in one go; only in short bursts. And so it brought out something more and looking at that you think, ‘Oh yes it was better for all sorts of reasons, which we wouldn’t have thought of to start with.’
… I find
last year’s Christmas card from Beth,
the OTHER bike pannier, my jelly bag,
a FOURTH bottle of sugar soap,
2 silver bin-loads of past endeavour,
and an academic paper from 1988 that wasn’t taken any notice of then either…
It sounds as if you were beginning to get your ear in to the piece, but in a different way to just reading it on the page.
There are a few of us from a performance background and that made an impact as well.
How did you feel about suddenly being told you had to perform at the Nottingham Festival of Words?
It was the safety in numbers thing for me, because it’s something you’ve actually written and it can make you feel quite exposed.
Cathy did ask us individually and we didn’t have to do it. Fortunately everybody said they felt okay.
If someone hadn’t wanted to perform then somebody else could have read the words. It would have been difficult though if you were the only one among so many others.
It’s difficult to say because we all did it, so we don’t know how it would have worked.
Cathy: I have to say at this point how absolutely excellent their performance was. Sometimes these sorts of events can lack variety and writers do not always practise at reading their own work. The actual concept of what we did was to show you can make writing live in a way that keeps entertainment and the audience’s experience in mind. It was very entertaining and they did it really well, hence people will want to come back and experience it again or try writing for themselves.
Talking about drawing on experiences, did you realise that you could draw on your experiences and bring them into your writing?
Take for example the homework we had this week, where we were given clichés. I was trying to choose between two and I was sitting in the car waiting for my daughter to come back from school. I sat there wondering what I was going to do then suddenly it came to me that I knew that story, I didn’t have to make the story up. That definitely wasn’t a direct experience but an experience of hearing about something.
Mine was interesting because I made assumptions over something I remembered and I checked with my son who was actually there at the event I thought I’d remembered, but according to my son it wasn’t how I’d remembered it at all. So when I got down to writing I wrote something completely different from the way I had originally decided to do it. So the fact that I realised I’d made an incorrect assumption radically changed the piece. It was quite interesting.
Do you find you’re actually thinking about stories or your writing while you’re walking around?
Overheard conversation certainly. I didn’t have a notebook with me at the time but there are absolutely wonderful things come up and you think you can spin with that.
I was on the bus the other day and it’s just like being in Eastenders. This person got on the bus with a pushchair and she shouted to the back of the bus, over all of us.
This chap from the back says, ‘Oh, aye.’
She says, ‘I’ve been looking for you.’
He says, ‘Yeh, I’m out now.’
She said, ‘Oh are you? I’ve left Hodge, we’re not living together anymore, he’s living in Chesterfield.’
All this conversation is going on over the top of others.
He says, ‘Oh.’
She says, ‘Oh, we’ll have a talk.’
He says, ‘I might be back in again. I’m up for another charge at the moment.’
So she says, ‘Oooh, what’s that?’
He says, ‘Oooh, I’ll tell you about it in a bit.’
So we’re all sat there thinking, ‘I wonder what that is? I hope it’s not attempted murder.’
So you are aware of all these things going on.
So you become more observant than you used to be?
I wouldn’t say that we’re actively looking for things, I think it’s probably more by osmosis that things go on.
You’re certainly keen to observe things a lot more. Once things just passed me by but now I catch something and I’m really drawn in.
Cathy: That’s about thinking like a writer. It’s really great for me to hear that it’s actually taking hold of your lives and that you’re thinking differently. That’s really good.
It’s got to do with a level of awareness as well. It’s that you become more aware of the world around you. After we did our bit at the Festival I went to another session by Nottingham Poetry Society. There must’ve been four or five poets on that list that I had never even heard of. And I’m not saying that I’m going to read the collected works of everybody, but I’ve the list and I’ll get round to reading some of it.
…This is not the glove that scorched your face
when he touched you that first January morning in Coxley Woods.
As frost ate toes and cheeks glowed
your mouth opened to holly-berry kisses…
piercing the core
knocking you for six.
You wanted to nestle like a fledgling into his palm.
One thing I have found since I’ve started a creative writing degree is that I started reading books differently. Did you also find this?
Oh yes, especially the language and the plotting.
I recently acquired a Kindle and downloaded some free stuff. I started to read something and after a while, I thought, ‘This is so badly written. Why do I think it’s badly written?’ It’s not just enough to say something is badly written anymore. I had to find out for myself why I thought it was badly written, then I got really pleased with myself and found out how to delete something you didn’t want.
Why was it badly written?
It was clunky. I had to keep going back to find out what the beginning of the sentence had meant. It wasn’t descriptive, so it was like reading some sort of primer. It also had a particular focus which I found difficult to accept.
Cathy: it’s about developing a critical eye. It can go too far. When I did my degree and had to read all the time in order to write essays, I found it very difficult to read a book just for pleasure, until at least two years after I’d finished.
It’s like Shakespeare can be ruined for you at school.
Yes I am always shouting at children to go to see Shakespeare. The RSC used to tour and come to Mansfield. We had the plays in the leisure centre. I went once when it was a school’s performance. We got to the interval and the little boy sitting in front of me said, ‘Is it half time, Missus?’
I said, ‘Yes it is and you will come back and they will be doing something else.’
He said, ‘When does the stripper come on?’
I’m trying to think very hard about the Comedy of Errors to think what he meant.
The little boy said, ‘My dad says there’s a stripper.’
Then I thought, ‘Oh he means the courtesan’.
As it turned out she was wearing a body stocking and she was in a cage. I couldn’t help thinking what Shakespeare would have thought of it. But it was interesting that they were there and they had a jolly good time. There was a pillow fight where feathers went everywhere and I thought, when they get to secondary school, hopefully when the teacher says they’re going to do Shakespeare they won’t think, ‘Oh God.’ Because they’ve seen it. That’s what they were written for – they were written for schoolchildren. They were written to be played.
One of you said earlier that you had experience of literature being ruined for you at school?
I always found poetry difficult and I had to push myself into reading something.
My experience wasn’t like that at all. I had fantastic tutors who introduced me to Dylan Thomas, ‘Fern Hill’ for example and just lived the poetry.
I think I could have done more. As a young child when I discovered the library, I used to go every day and choose another book and read it under the bedclothes with my torch and so forth. So I read loads of poetry. I don’t think they ruined it for me at school, I enjoyed it. We were given book lists at school and you could enjoy them. Some of it might be how far your own interest takes you.
I think my interest in poetry has been revived by coming here.
… I’ve followed the way to west of west
And I’ve come to the field of stars
And I’ve hugged St James and given my thanks
And explored a few of the bars
So it’s time to go, as pilgrims go
Back to the everyday
And find it strange and full of grace
And still in the pilgrim way.
Because you come to this group do you now feel that you want to do more writing on your own or do you just do it with the group?
I think I need the discipline and the structure of coming. Even if I didn’t do the homework, I don’t think I’d sit at home writing.
I would agree with that. It’s around the social thing and also the energy that is there while everybody is focused on writing and that’s something you can really sense in the room.
I don’t think I would have written some of the things I’ve written if I’d just been sitting at home and not come here. I think sometimes there are things that Cathy gives us to do that act as a trigger so you know you can then go away and write something else. You might write more than you actually bring back. Even though we’re given the same idea to write on, I’m amazed at how varied everybody’s interpretations are. Nearly everybody’s is different. And even thought you wouldn’t have thought of it in their way, there’s still a resonance in there for you.
I certainly found in my later years I had this sense of wanting to write, because I’ve always been a formal report writer. What really stopped me was because I thought my writing is pretty turgid, because it was to do a job and I didn’t know what to write about. I genuinely didn’t. Now I’ve discovered you can write about anything, even vegetables. So for me it’s like removing the barrier in my head about this.
She would make a pot full of soup twice a week using ham end, mutton joint or pigs’ trotters for the stock. Glass bowls, filled with water and scattered round the kitchen, were used to soak red and yellow lentils, barley, broad and white beans and split peas.I can see my mum now, in her willies, digging up fresh vegetables from the garden. They were in the pot minutes after being picked. (Robbie Robb)
The whole process is a bit of an eye-opener for me. If you give me a word now I’ll write something about it.