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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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October 2007 Volume 5(5)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland


Writing with difficulty

Colin Will on the importance of allowing everybody the right to their own writing.

I recently attended an excellent workshop on creative writing for those with learning difficulties. It was organised by NAWE, the National Association of Writers in Education. NAWE aims to put creativity at the heart of education, and believes that everyone should have contact with practising artists – and especially writers. It supports the practice and teaching of creative writing in all kinds of educational environments.

Some of my own work in teaching poetry writing takes place in environments which aren’t strictly within an educational framework, and it’s true that I work with individuals who may include those with learning difficulties but who also reflect a broader spectrum of issues, from behavioural problems and neurological disorders to psychoses. Nevertheless this was one of the most stimulating, informative and inspiring workshops I’ve attended in recent years, and I’m certain I’ll make good use of the lessons learned in my own practice.

We start with the premise that we must accord the people we’re working with the recognition that they are the writers. We aren’t there to rewrite their work, or to give our interpretation of what we think they may be trying to communicate. They have an absolute right to have their words, thoughts and feelings made public, and the writers working with them must support them in achieving that. Of course it’s difficult, but as with many difficult things, that challenge is what makes the work worthwhile. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing, as I’ve said before.

The British Institute of Learning Difficultiesrecently presented a submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It’s startling in its evidence and ideas, but more significantly in its language. It eschews the meaningless management-speak that so infests local authorities, government departments and funding bodies. It says, for example, that those with learning difficulties “do not want services but that they want a life”.

Let me give you a longer quote, from the paragraph “Getting a Life”:
We believe that the following outcomes should be available to people as a right:

  • I
  • take part in everyday activities
  • People treat me with respect
  • I have friendships and relationships

  • I am part of the local community
  • I get the chance to work or to do other activities that are valued by others
  • I am safe from bullying and abuse
  • I get help to stay healthy
  • I make everyday choices
  • I make important decisions about my life
  • People listen to the views of people who are important to me.

    I find this list quite profound in its implications, and it makes a much stronger impact by being expressed in everyday language. I would argue further that it shouldn’t just apply to those with learning difficulties – these are general expressions which apply across the whole area of human dignity and human rights.

    What does this have to do with teaching people how to write poetry? We have a responsibility to ensure that in the environments we work within, in the attitudes that we embody, and in the way we work, we don’t just ‘tick the boxes’. We don’t just respect the rights of the people in my groups, we cherish those rights.

    In practical terms, we learn about the everyday activities of individuals, what they like, and what they don’t like; what they want, and what they don’t want. We explore the possibility of using these activities as a basis for their poetry. If some individuals want to work with their friends or carers rather than as individuals, we allow for that. We aim to extend to them as writers the same opportunities for publication, readings etc which would be extended to all other writers. We’re facilitators, encouragers, developers, translators, communicators, but never dictators.

    Deconstructing a poem
    I recently had the chance, at the Callander Poetry Weekend, to deconstruct one of my poems in front of an audience. It involved taking it to bits, pointing out all the influences on my work, and the poetic devices I used in its writing. I’ve never tried this before, so it was a bit of an experiment, but I was very pleased with the audience response, apart from one heckler.
    The poem below is how the poet Rowena M. Love remembers the event.
    Colin Will e:

    The Heckler (for Colin)
    Callander garden with four ponds;
    The Heron appears, not in search of koi,
    but conjured by the company of poets
    who circle the square marble table,
    overflowing into ragged lines beyond.
    Its allusion-tinted plumage is ruffled
    by their search for deeper meaning.

    Deconstruction is in full flow
    when the cat descends.
    She bounds into the group
    with ‘See Me!’ determination,
    in shades of shadow-striped Dalbeattie granite.
    She nudges feet and dangling hands,
    persuades poets to smooth her fur,
    or disturb the discussion
    with their whispered encouragement
    and smothered winces
    when clawed pads work at laps.

    Not content with teasing single threads
    from the tapestry of concentration,
    Whisky swirls off to the garden’s far reaches;
    she stalks a lone poet intent on her work,
    germinating a new poem
    amongst crocosmia and marguerites.

    she returns to the group,
    conquers the table itself
    in a flourish, whisk of the tail.
    It’s not enough;
    she scampers away
    with a twitch of irritation.
    Copyright © Rowena M. Love 2007

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    Information Scotland Vol. 5(5) October 2007

    © Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

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    Last updated: 13-Dec-2007