#32 A whole lotta artist training progams

 

It’s -14 degrees outside in New York. Eek.

Well, no further excuse needed to remain cosy in our apartment, look at the Empire State Building glowing from the window, and catch up on my blog.

So…

there is a HUGE range of organisations supporting community artists in the US. Massive. More than I imagined.

The National Guild for Community Arts Education, for example, hosts webinars and brilliant training programs for community-based creatives. Its leadership course has trained over 150 people, all now blossoming and influencing others.

The NGCAE believe that tremendous projects come from preparing and nurturing artists for roles as teachers, facilitators and community organisers. The organisation also manages 8 research projects, each looking at how to grow the field. Mapping funding and its effectiveness. Building a video library of professional development tools. Sharing examples of failing. So great.

Talking to Executive Director Jonathan Herman, I heard about other artist training packages. These include:

My plan is to undertake a few myself. I’ll prioritise those available online, accessible wherever you are in the world. I’ll let you all know my thoughts, reviewing usefulness from the perspective of a writer working with elders!

Some of these training packages are relevant only to specific contexts. Some may only be suitable for certain kinds of projects. But I’ll have a go at appraising them, with the intention of enticing other writers to pursue this kind of work too!

 

#31 Quiet

 

I like the quiet. I’m not a performer, I speak softly. But when I meet with elders, I often have to raise my voice.

 

In care homes, there’s always background noise and distractions. Nelly, an older woman I spend time with as a befriender back in London, has hearing loss. We read poetry and talk about writing together. Her stories of life in a beauty salon, a cruise ship, an antique shop are brilliant. I do shout, but I find it hard to talk at a high volume for a long time!

 

I find the mindful, calm, gentle projects with elders appeal to me most. Poetry and reading activities seem to allow pauses to reflect.

 

Spare Tyre (UK) runs an interactive performance called The Garden, for people living with dementia. It uses non-verbal methods. Partly as a bilingual person’s ability to communicate in their second language can erode with dementia. The show aims to be quiet and meditative.

 

I say all this, and then I attend an Alzheimer’s Poetry Project session and my attraction to only quiet things flies out of the window!

 

The award-winning APP sessions facilitate the creativity of older people living with dementia. Poet and Founder Gary Glazner’s booms short sections from a classic poem for participants to echo. With me sitting alongside, he leads a medley of songs and verse. Shakespeare (Shall I Compare Thee…), Wordsworth (Daffodils) and ee cummings (i keep your heart in my heart). We do hand actions, feet stamping and clapping.

 

I’m caught up in the bright energy of the session, and even find myself performing lines from Romeo and Juliet in a broad cockney accent. I pretend to meet the Queen. I dance and sing.

 

We move to a communal creation of a group poem, with participants asked specific questions and told to ‘use your imagination’. One person pretends she is Shirley Temple, another is an eager-to-please waitress. Gary then reads the poem. He improvises, adds detail, inserts a song, concludes with a flourish. It’s perfectly done. Many of those who didn’t join in at the beginning, do by the end. There’s smiles and the joy is infectious.

 

To conclude? Gary’s work is inspiring, like nothing else I’ve seen. The participants at APP adored the session. Plus, it’s not always the quiet things that count after all.

Image from: http://www.creativeaging.org/programs-people/speaker/gary-glazner

#30 Getting going again

My heart is fit to burst in New York. I love this city so much.

The weather is cold (-2 degrees currently, and a hint of snow in the air) but the sky is a bright shade of blue and the sun is shining.

I have two and a half weeks here, filled with meetings, as well as online training sessions, desk research and afternoon strolls.

Because this is the final phase of the project, I’ve allowed myself to travel at a slower pace than I did in Australia. There, my schedule burst at the seams and I met two, three, sometimes four different groups, artists and organisations each day. Here, I’m more reflective, bringing ideas collected over the last nine months to each meeting.

I’m also feeling practical.

I know I want to make some new literary projects. The creative befriending scheme, matching a senior with a writer. And a big burst of an intergenerational project, in which a group of us are writing live. Each meeting I have, I’m thinking about how I can make these things happen, and how to gather other writers of all ages to join me.

Thanks for reading!

#29 Stopping to pause

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” – Winston Churchill

Post #29 is a moment to reflect on this project so far, which is around nine months old.

Writers Meet Elders is a project I developed to bring together the strands of my thinking and practice about ageing and writing. 

It includes my writing projects with individual and older groups of people, and research into supporting writers to make creative work with elders. It’s supported generously by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, and Age UK Bromley & Greenwich.

In 2015, I travelled to Australia to spend time thinking about what it means to work with those in later life as a writer, and why it matters to be listened to and be engaged creatively as an older person.

I visited projects and met writers, artists, cultural organisations, care centres and funders to consider opportunities for older writers and those working with older people.

Next week, I leave for the US to continue this research by visiting New York, Washington DC and Milwaukee.

The more I embark on this journey, the clearer my thoughts become.

Here’s three things I have in my mind at the moment:

  • There are so many ways that stories and poetry are being used in care and community settings, enabling older people to express themselves. They’re mainly writing for wellbeing and life-writing  projects, so I’m still keeping alert for imaginative projects that bring in writers to craft new work with those in later life.
  • I’ve been writing poems with older people. I wonder how my writing practice is impacted by working with elders. When writing about dementia, there’s a tendency to write in fragments: text on the page loses meaning, words drop off the end of sentences. This can be evocative but the focus on what is lost may limit the kind of writing being made.
  • Training for artists to work with older people exists, usually learning a specific model of practice. I’m enjoying uncovering additional ways that writers can source their own support. For example, attending a Death Cafe and talking to strangers about end-of-life, care, and ageing could offer a supportive space for artists.
  • My big dream is to set up one-to-one creative commissions between older people and writers/artists–a kind of creative befriending scheme. The two people–the writer and the older person–develop writing, art or a literary project together.

I’m excited! There’s a lot more to see and do.

#28 Death Café

This week I attended my first Death Café.

It was held in the upstairs of Blighty Coffee in Finsbury Park, north London. Running the session were two women who trained as End of Life Doulas.

The format of this Death Café was simple. Join a table, introduce yourself and why the Death Café attracted you, and let the conversation flow. There’s no agenda, or rules. It’s not therapeutic, but it is supportive.

All you do is talk and listen, ask and consider your responses. In our group we had a filmmaker, two academics, someone obsessed with death since a child, an anthropology student and a pregnancy photographer.

It sounds morbid, but Death Cafés are vibrant places.

The founding notion is that people just don’t talk enough about death. About their own, about the demise of others, about the deep, dark places thinking about death can take them too, about the happiness that comes from understanding that life will one day end.

The topics we covered ranged from West Indian funerals to reincarnation, how motherhood changes your relationship to your own mortality and how procrastination eats into precious time but is also a reminder that we don’t need to rush through our lives.

I didn’t envisage Death Cafés as part of my writing and ageing research, but after an evening talking about end of life, good deaths and personal philosophies, I realised what a vital space this could be for older people and artists working with elders, with bereavement and in end of life facilities.

It’s amazing to find a place where small talk was swiftly replaced with big thinking in favour of big thinking. Somewhere which proves the value of facing your own fears about death in a safe place with others.

One of the reasons I embarked upon my Writers Meet Elders research was that after months of working with older people in care, I found I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the feelings arising.

The exhilaration, confusion and sadnesses. Mostly I enjoyed the work, mostly the elders I worked with were warm and receptive, chatty and cheerful. But sometimes people whispered that their sharp minds were trapped in ageing bodies, or how they were filling time with activities to ward off encroaching loneliness. Families didn’t visit, health was failing.

Something like the Death Café – a positive and open space to consider what it meant to be facing the end of life – may have helped me, and helped them too.

 

#27 How to say it

I’m struggling to find the right words to talk about the research I’m doing.

I’m not comfortable with participatory literature. Or participatory writing. This is partly because ‘participatory’ feels like a dramatic way to describe the act of joining in with something.

Creative activities that bring local people or gather together those with a common link is community arts. An artist makes work alongside a community, rather than for them. An artist facilitates the experience, not using the experience to stimulate their own work. Often, it’s not appropriate for one artist to have a louder voice than the others who share their stories. But I also am excited by projects that offer the lead artist to both support others and also create new work.

I hear performing artists talk of Applied Theatre. That is, using theatre practices in less traditional spaces. For example, with communities, with schools and in prisons. Applied Poetry could work, following similar principles, perhaps.

There’s other ways of describing this work, too. Writing in a Community Setting. That’s direct. Although should I say, Writing in, for, by and with communities? What is a community anyway? The word seems to negate the sense of individuals. And my writing always comes from life, from one-to-one conversations I have.

One term I do like is collaborative writing. It suggests working with others, innovation and embracing the unexpected. Authors and poets generally, historically, write books alone, but this is a different approach that creates different kinds of work. It fits with my previous projects, which try to bring people together or offer new ways of reading, or sharing writing.

What do you think?

(Image from a recent workshop I ran for emerging writers)

#26 When are you nurturing creativity?

“When are you nurturing creativity?” asked Caroline Jeyaratnam-Joyner to a group of us at a workshop for community artists. “And when are you imposing your own vision?” We all considered this, and it struck a chord with me.

The question rattled around in my head.

Spare Tyre, which creates arts projects for people at risk of not being heard, ran the workshop. The organisation’s approach is powerful. It’s about empowering vulnerable individuals to find a role in an arts project. As a designer, a creator and a decision-maker.

The question rattled for one main reason. It reminded me that I feel I have to persuade people that writing creatively with others matters. That collaborating to make literary projects can be fun, rather than just worthy. That it can be as challenging to work with people who dismiss  contemporary poetry, as it is to engage in the craft of writing itself.

It’s true that whenever I mention my research, or work with a new group of elders, I justify what I want to do before I begin. I can’t nurture others, if I’m so focused on getting my point across.

My fellow Spare Type workshop attendees helped me think this through. In the future, could I offer a project structure to let others work out how to react? And my practiced lines about the importance of writing and wellbeing, and offering the space for others to find their voices? Maybe I could express it non-verbally. Through experience rather than my words.

It follows the writing advice we’re told time and again. In your work, you should show, not tell.

#25 Happy Birthday!

I’ve been quiet for a while, because I threw myself into a new project. For Age UK Bromley and Greenwich, I’ve been creating brand new series of written pieces to celebrate 50 years of the organisation.

I spent four weeks asking clients, staff and volunteers of all types to share memories, thoughts and impressions of the charity. I attended art groups, day centres, coffee mornings and advice-sessions. I travelled to corners of London I’d never visited before. Together, we all chose the stories we wanted to hold up to the light and then I wove them into six new pieces.

At Age UK Bromley & Greenwich’s AGM, in the presence of the Mayor of Bromley and many of the participants, I read a few of the pieces.

One, Alphabet of Elders, is based those I met – and also the names of the most interesting, inspiring, significant older people I asked them to share.

Another, pasted below, is one of the three poetry- portraits I produced with and for one of the residents of a care home.

Mary is mainly metal

Mary says that at ninety-five,                         she’s made mainly of metal.

There’s the hip replacement,                          the shoulder operation.

Metal screws in her spine.                                In both her legs, rods.

She sits in a metal wheelchair,                        she uses a metal walker.

Her mind is sharp,                                               nothing metal there at all.

She reads the papers,                                         she’s friendly to everyone.

There’s chess and cards                                     and bingo.

But as she’s made of metal,                             she’s not quite herself.

It’s like wearing someone else’s coat,          a coat like her coat

the same size, the same buttons,                   but it’s not hers.

She knows it’s different.                                   It simply looks the same.

 

Happy 50th Birthday Age UK Bromley & Greenwich!

#24 Interpreting and/or collaborating

I’ve been speaking to many writers about their projects with older people. What they do, how they do it, and why it matters.

Where the Heart is‘ was a set of artist residencies developed by David Clegg with Age Concern Central Lancashire.  Six artists received open commissions to produce new work about the experience of working with those with dementia.

It’s led to so many amazing new pieces of work. Poet Sarah Hesketh published a superb collection The Hard Word Box last year. Novelist Sarah Butler produced Who Asked You? A fine collection of stories, interviews and personal essays. Jennifer Essex’s dance films and her work depicting co-dependence are startling and evocative.

Not arts therapy, or facilitated writing classes. Nor the chance to create work to display for visitors. The aim was for each artist to respond creatively.

They read, they wrote, they recorded conversations. They thought about, as Hesketh says, “how radical life writing can be.”

The project offered new perspectives from young artists on ageing, caring and living with dementia. This is a great model to consider. Serious, but open-ended enough to allow artists the freedom to create unexpected pieces.

‘Where the Heart is’ helps me think about what I mean about making literary work with older people. Community artists in Australia termed my work and this project ‘interpretative.’ I do understand this criticism. It raises ethical questions when an artist offers a perspective on older people’s experiences, rather than allowing them speak for themselves.

Then again, my activities, and that of both Sarahs included interviews and verbatim pieces in their work. Also, ‘Where the Heart is’ intended to show the reality of dementia care settings. It’s a secluded world that we don’t usually get to see.

How do you create art, let alone co-create art in dementia settings? How do you collaborate in a way that’s based on the needs and aspirations of those you are working with? Is using the words from a conversation with someone part of that process? Some artists say so, others disagree. Can listening and recording with someone else be co-creating? Maybe.

There’s room for activities which are collaborative and/or interpretative. As I continue with my research, I’m just keen to see a range of literary projects with those in later life.  Testing ideas, exploring the models, thinking about what writers of all ages need to create it. I’m trying to hone in on the work I want to produce, and that I want to see made.