In April 2018 I became the Writer in Residence (WiR) at Creative Future. The residency is based at Preston Park Recovery Centre (PPRC), a much-valued sanctuary full of creative opportunities for people in recovery from a range of mental health conditions.
Writers in Residence have always been intriguing and mysterious to me; I have never been one until now but over the years I’ve worked alongside many. I have looked up to them, respected them, revered them and sometimes I have even envied them a little but, if I am honest, I haven’t really known exactly what they do. Is it a job, like being a tutor? Is it a chance to generate a creative response to the residency setting in some way? Is it a development opportunity for the writer: time and space, away from normal day to day activity to focus on writing? Creative Future are keen to stress that the latter is the prime focus of this particular residency but I am quickly discovering that being a WiR is inevitably a little of all the above and is all the more satisfying for it.
A few weeks in and a number of the service users at PPRC have approached me for a chat, to talk about their own writing or to find out more about me and my work. Some have booked slots for one-to-one time and have brought extracts of their writing to share with me. I feel pleased they have felt able to do this so early on in the residency and I am mindful to feedback in a way that will give them impetus to continue writing and find in it some catharsis at the very least.
One woman tells me she has written three novels in complete first drafts, another is working on a graphic novel; she has her story mapped out with sketch books full of illustrations to accompany the words. A third person has handwritten her whole life story on lined notebook paper, and a fourth showed me his songs and poems on his phone; yet another described the million+ words he has written in his diary about his incredible, colourful life. On one afternoon there were conversations about the relentless rain in Manchester, the beautiful flowers in the garden, the free spirit of Patti Smith and the poems of Spike Milligan. On another, I found out about Rainbow Mountain in Peru, creating cards using the art of decoupage and the life and death of a 17th century, seventeen year old poet whose portrait hangs in the Tate.
I knew it might be a dilemma to balance my own creative practice as WiR with being available to support the service users in sharing their own stories; now I realise that actually an essential part of being a WiR in a setting like PPRC is being surrounded by other people’s stories. Most of these stories are very different to mine, some more difficult and painful, others complex and circuitous; most circumnavigate or defy the traditional linear markers of what we are led to believe is expected of us in life. All are important and, as a writer, I am nourished by them; by hearing about lives I would never have known about had I not been here in their midst as the Writer in Residence and by finding ways to consolidate my own experience to encourage the storytellers to continue to find ways to tell their stories.
I have come to learn over the last few years that being able to describe yourself as a writer is as much a state of mind as an occupation, it takes a level of confidence which is enough to outweigh the self-doubt and the sense of being a fake or an imposter. Years ago when I was scribbling in notebooks and daydreaming about being published, I was a writer but wouldn’t dare call myself one. Instead, I waited for someone else to validate me before I allowed permission to validate myself. Just by being here at PPRC others can see that what I am doing, as I sit in the corner tapping away, is exactly what they do at their computers and in their notebooks or on their phones when no-one is looking. By seeing a writer at work, editing, redrafting, jotting down new ideas or just plain musing, I hope it will enable them to declare that they too are writers.
To fulfil the purpose of this residency and ensure I have time to develop my own creative practice at PPRC, I have set some parameters in place (limited 121 times/designated drop in opportunities etc) for those that want to talk more to me about how they can explore creative writing as a part of their own lives. And, as I write this, sat in the wonderful garden at the centre, on the air there is a gentle murmur of people talking, befriending and supporting one another through human connection and general conversation and I feel very pleased to be part of this as the Writer in Residence. I have absolutely no doubt that being in this new environment, surrounded by these people’s stories, will contribute something vital and precious to my journey as a writer. I am excited to find out just what this will be.