Saluting the Young Carers of Manchester

It’s Carers Week, and though this doesn’t mean that all carers get a free holiday with their loved ones, it is still a good event for raising awareness about the wonderful work carers all over the UK do. They don’t just care for one week a year, they care day in, day out. They care for a spouse, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, daughter, a son, and a friend.  They care with joy, with love. They care in isolation. They care in poverty. And none of this is rewarded or appreciated by the state. Carers Allowance is a slap in the face, and carers, like millions of others, are suffering under the current cuts to Welfare. Many carers, like my dad, have had to stop work, or take early retirement. Caring for someone with a chronic illness, such as Multiple Sclerosis, is not always possible around a full time job.

So, raising awareness is great, but what actually matters is the actual, real, support for people with chronic illness and disabilities, and for their carers. But many are currently living in fear of the Government’s promise of further cuts.

There’s also a lot of young people who are carers for their mums and dads, or their siblings. They grow up very quickly, having to spend their days helping their loved one with washing, dressing, maybe getting a younger sibling ready for school, instead of playing football or hanging out with friends. Being a young carer is a loss of childhood.

Charities like Family Action and Carers Trust 4 All support young carers on shoestring budgets for days out, activities and just having fun. They were both very keen when I approached them with this project. They taxied our young carers to The Powerhouse Library in Moss Side from all over Manchester and from Cheshire. In particular, Shay Garry from Family Action has worked really hard to make sure this project happened, providing a limitless supply of crisps, chocolate and toast for everyone.

Lancaster University funded my eight week creative writing course, and the wonderful folk at Writing on the Wall festival are going to produce an anthology of poems and stories by our seven young carers aged between 14 and 19. We started off with a bigger group, but despite my best efforts, sometimes caring responsibilities mean it’s too hard to sustain this kind of project. But we are going to include work from Tobija, Chrissie, Amy, Chloe, Britney, Reko and Arron.

Before the course, I was nervous about working with teenagers. I was worried my approach would just be too academic and boring. But these teenagers are fantastic. They have thrown themselves into writing  and have worked hard to develop their poems, and to attend the workshops. They are very very excited about being published. Shay and Neil from Family Action took part in the writing exercises too. (see a photo of them below).

During the course, the wonderful author Michelle Green and poet Mike Garry ran workshops. Both have a lot of experience in community writing, and they were excellent. (See my earlier post on what I learnt from them). Here is Michelle in her workshop, enjoying the sound of young people writing:

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We also went to a workshop with Marvel comic writer Tim Quinn, hosted by Writing on the Wall. We all had a go at creating our own comic characters, and we will have illustrations in the anthology too. Here is Tim Quinn in action:

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It was also a fun trip for us all to Liverpool. I was heading to a wedding afterwards, so was overdressed in a huge polkadot frock. I turned my character into Polkadot Grril. Here are Amy, Chloe and Tobija drawing: 

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Each week we practiced performing the new stories and poems. Michelle Green was brilliant at showing us breathing exercises to help with nerves and how to project your voice, and she is going to take a final workshop in preparation for our anthology launch. 

The work in our anthology isn’t really about being a young carer. I didn’t push their writing into autobiographical terrain, or demand that they write about this aspect of their lives. Primarily, the work is about being a teenager, like any other teenager. The writing explores varied and sometimes difficult subject matter: there’s poems and stories about becoming a criminal, the pain of exams, loneliness, grandparents’ secret love lives, suicide, as well as a love song. 

Here are some excerpts:

‘School is where her body is used like a football.
Kicked to the ground and thrown
against the lockers in the corridors’

from ‘School Is’ by Reko

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‘Yeah she’s dead, she’ll live.
It wasn’t my fault, honest,
She was just there and it happened.
The whole situation started when I came downstairs
Looked in the fridge and my chicken was missing.
I asked my girlfriend where it went,
She said it she ate it!
That was the turning point
No one can prove anything, so yeah I’m safe
I only killed my girlfriend over chicken,
Jamaican Jerk Chicken,
Honestly.’

from ‘Yeah, she’s dead, she’ll live’ by Britney

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‘Yo Shak,
My friend!

Rolling along like
A chain… chain?
Bicycle: you break it, you fix it.
Like a necklace, links between one END to another

Down at the 101 bus stop at McD’s brav! The smell of oil like 20 year old sweets!
(But) “narr Man”
Girls are deceiving; he spoke within the strength of pedals
… Being pushed
Like the chain? Being stretched out as far as it could.’

from ‘Yo Shak’ by Tobija

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What I learnt from Mike Garry

I’ve know Mike Garry for years through literary events in Manchester, and he’s given some inspiring talks when I worked at Bolton University, so I wasn’t disappointed with his workshop with my Young Carers

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I’ve taught creative writing in a number of guises at universities over the past few years, and this kind of teaching tends to foreground ‘workshopping’ students’ writing rather than focus on generating writing in the session. Workshopping is as you probably know, when a group of students and a tutor discuss a piece of writing, and give feedback on it. Though this is an often disputed method, it still dominates most university courses. This might be because they mostly started at MA level, when a writer is expected to have some experience of writing. This has been replicated at BA level, and at places such as Lancaster, used even in Year One. Students are expected to be ready for workshopping even at the tender age if eighteen. It is a gruelling process, and my memories of it at BA level are of avoiding it. I actually stopped attending my workshops because they upset me. I was an overly sensitive soul. So the past couple of weeks of having a completely different approach have been a refreshing change. I have some experience of community workshops, and I veer away from workshopping in them. The focus is on producing writing, and enabling people who have had little experience of writing gain confidence in themselves.

Mike Garry’s approach draws the participants in by foregrounding his own experience of literature and writing, and why writing gives you a voice.

‘I don’t think poetry has to be about abstract things. It can be about real lives and central to us. When we write a poem we say here’s a bit of me.’  Mike Garry

Mike also draws the YCs in through his poems. He performs in the workshop and asks them to engage with what he’s trying to write about. His poem ‘Signify’ nicely drew us into thinking about our favourite teacher at school. I called her mam once.

 I tend to shy away from sharing my own work in workshops. I sometimes feel I’d be showing off, but after watching Mike’s session, I think this could be wrong. In fact, sharing your own writing can be the opposite of this. Mike’s openness about sharing his work with people is very encouraging to new writers. I’m just like you, he infers, and your can do this too. Literature is not owned by adults, by the rich, by others. Words are yours too. When you know words, and learn more words, this gives you power. You’re able to articulate yourself. You can do this too.

‘Writing poetry isn’t a job, it’s something I’ve got to do. If I don’t do it, I get poorly. I write to understand things. If something makes me feel strange, I want to write about it. When my head’s battered, it’s questions bothering me. Writing makes me explore those questions.’

Mike’s method involves asking the YCs to write down words during his readings. I think this helps to listen and focus on them, and they write down the words they like or that ‘sound good’ to them. What I liked was his way of breaking down the process of writing a poem to a list of words.

‘Words are very important because they help us express and communicate how we feel. When we have words and collect words like this, it makes writing easier. When I say the word red, what do you think of? Everyone will think of a different word because we are all unique and special.’

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This was Mike’s writing task:

Think of either a tragic or joyous situation that either you or someone else was involved in.

think about the situation and what the story is. Most poems are tiny stories, tiny narratives.

Write down ten words about that situation.

write them in order

‘What’s good about poetry is its a way of saying something but subtly. You can use subtle words to imply what you are saying.’

What does writing this story make you feel? Write down ten words.Can you find a narrative in the words you have written down?

Write these words in order, in a story or narrative.

Two hours is never enough for a workshop (though three always feels a little too long). Mike finished with some breathing exercises, which the YC’s really loved. The exercises helped to  slow their readings down, give them confidence and gave a sense of fun to reading aloud. He got us all breathing slowly and stretching our arms. The following week, Michelle Green developed these exercises much more, and I realised where I’d been going wrong all these years  with my own public readings.

The key to reading a poem is not being embarrassed. Stand up tall. Everyone listening wants you to do well. Read slowly. Don’t rush. Pronounce your words clearly. And make sure you practice. It really makes a difference.’

In my next post, I’ll share Michelle Green’s approach, as well as tell you more about the awesome young carers involved with the project.

Young Carers Project in Manchester

Recently started a creative writing project with young carers in Manchester and Cheshire. I’ve got a new website dedicated to the project here, hosted by the University of Lancaster, who is kindly funding the project. All of the participants are aged between 14- 20 and live in Greater Manchester or Cheshire, and I am developing their writing to produce an anthology. This will republished by Writing on the Wall festival.  I’m working with six young carers from Family Action, and seven from CarersTrust4all, based in Cheshire. That’s a lot of teenagers!

Our first workshop was a full afternoon at Proctors Youth Centre in Hulme. Lovely Vicky from literally spent all morning from 8am picking up everyone from around the North West in a van. She is made of stern stuff.

I provided the sandwiches. I have never bought food for 13 teenagers before. How many loaves of bread does it take? My guess of four was actually correct! As an introductory workshop, I wanted the writing exercises to be open and about content rather than form. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t be able to get 13 teenagers to write. But by half way through there was the wonderful silence of people writing contently. I’ll upload some of the exercises we did in a later post.

Our second workshop was help in the Power House in Moss Side. The support worker from Family Action is called Shay Garry, and if you are a writer based in Manchester, you may think, hmmm, I know the name Garry. And yes, it’s a small world. Shay is Mike Garry’s brother. Because of this, and the fact that Mike is a wonderful facilitator, I invited Mike Garry to run our second workshop. The support worker from CarersTrust4U as well as some of the young people were ill, so we only had five Young Carers there. This was a real shame. Mike was really inspiring, and did some wonderful work in getting the young people to read their writing aloud.

Tonight is our third workshop with wonderful Michelle Green, who is  short story writer and poet. I’m really looking forward to it.

Creative Writing Courses – Is the Bad Press Fair?

A GUEST POST BY LIZ MONUMENT

Before I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA, I’d written several novels, none of them to a publishable standard. But instead of getting progressively better, I seemed to have reached a glass ceiling I couldn’t break through. The worst thing was, I had no idea why. I’d published non-fiction and competition-winning short stories under my belt, and my novels seemed to begin OK, but the endings repeatedly fell flat. Cost or not, an MA seemed to be the last option I had before I accepted that I was doomed to fail. This is every writer’s biggest fear: the monster that lurks under the bed; the shadow that sneaks into your darkest thoughts as it dawns on you that you might just not be up to the job after all… and I had to find out.

Only a few weeks into my MA, I realised that I’d been writing the kind of fiction I thought I should write, rather than the kind of fiction I really needed to write. My novel endings were hollow because I simply hadn’t gone the extra mile to make my fictional worlds vivid enough. As an experiment, I wrote a test piece to assess my tutor’s and peer-group’s reaction, and was delighted to find they had as much fun as I did venturing into my make-believe world. From that moment onwards, I began to concentrate on Sci Fi Fantasy, something I’d not written since childhood. I’ve never looked back.

The MA’s critiquing process worked, for me, far better than slogging away alone hour after hour. Two years of part-time study later, my MA novel was shortlisted for a competition and signed by an agent. But, without the camaraderie of my critique group and the wise comments of my tutor, I felt adrift. So, the following year, I returned to university to begin a PhD in Creative Writing. Six months in, and I’m back in my comfort zone – in fact, I’m positively thriving on the experience. I’m exploring women in Sci Fi Fantasy, and writing a dystopian novel in which I’m being encouraged to push boundaries and experiment freely. This is what creative practice should be all about. My tutors were, and are, published novelists, poets and short story writers with a plethora of industry awards to their names. And between them, they have a huge amount of educational experience. Just because you write doesn’t mean that you can teach people to write, so publishing and teaching skills are essential for good tutors. So, I simply don’t agree with the angry voices in the aether who blog or post that CW courses are over-priced and pointless. I sometimes wonder whether those dissatisfied customers resent the fact that their MA taught them they don’t make the grade as professional writers. After all, it’s a fact that not everybody with a Creative Writing MA goes on to get published.

So why do we need CW courses at all?

In the old days, an agent would pick up a new writer and would be prepared to work with that writer for up to two years, to produce a polished debut. Then, things changed. A couple of serious recessions impacted the publishing industry, and the internet altered the nature of publishing. Publishers became more risk averse, and agents followed their lead. Today, agents will only take on a novelist who is ready to be put straight out into the public arena. In other words, authors have to do their training somewhere, and the system has conspired to ensure this is at the author’s cost (both in terms of time and money) rather than at anybody else’s. Case in point, Robert McKee (Story, Methuen, 1999) notes that apprenticeships used to exist in the world of film writing. They don’t any more. So, welcome the Creative Writing course…

Now take a look at the Universities who run the majority of CW programmes. I studied for my degree in the days when every UK citizen was entitled to state funding. Student loans were only introduced in my final year (and the maximum amount you could take at that time was £350). Today, Universities are run in a different way. Students take out huge debts to study, and universities have to balance their books, which means courses have to appeal to applicants who will be paying out of their own pockets. And what better way than offering would-be writers the chance to realise what is, for many of us, a long-chased dream. Education is no longer simply a system: today, it is an industry, and universities are smart enough to use it to cash in on those dreams.

You may have read that Stephany Meyer wrote Twilight in three months flat. Combine this with the maxim that ‘everybody has a novel in them,’ and you’ve a heady combination of possibility and promise aimed at the would-be writer. Of course, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it actually took Meyer ten years to write Twilight, with only the final edit being put together in three months. As I writer, I know it is simply not true to say that anybody can write a novel to a publishable standard, but it’s fair to point out that if most people think they can, then English departments have a guaranteed audience for CW courses. So there you have it. A simple equation, but an equation non-the-less. Add to this the fact that on-line (distance learning) courses have answered the demand for students to keep costs down by studying from home, and you can see why, at the end of 2011, an internet search for CW on-line tuition brought up only two distance learning courses whereas two years later, the same search listed a screen-full of possibilities. Now, in 2015, there are even more. So, if the education industry is providing what we as consumers are asking it for, can we really complain?

I can only talk about my own experience, and it’s been extremely positive. I perform best with repeated reviews of my work, intelligent and structured comments from a feedback group, the overarching guidance of a supervisor, and a recommended reading list. Yes, it’s true you can learn to edit your own work (you have to!) and trawl websites for book reviews but for me, that’s never been a substitute. Every writer benefits from mentoring at some stage in their career. I wouldn’t change my path one bit. I remain a champion of Creative Writing courses, and of distance learning. I’m sure I would’ve got there in the end, but I have no doubt that my MA shaved two or more years off the process. Long may the CW course continue!

Liz Monument is a novelist and PhD student at Lancaster University. Her novel, The Eternity Fund, is published as an audio exclusive by Amazon Audible on the 17th February.

www.lizmonument.com