A six-week introductory creative writing course for people receiving support from any of Changing Lives' brilliant services
Changing Lives is, in my opinion, one of the North East's biggest success stories: a 50-year-old, Tyneside-based charity helping more than 14,000 people a year experiencing homelessness, addiction or domestic abuse.
And not all charities are great at inviting their service users to tell their own stories of recovery, so it was music to my ears when Changing Lives asked me to help them form a writing group that would do just that.
Over the course of six weeks, I worked with a small group of writers who were currently engaged on a Changing Lives programme somewhere in the UK. We met weekly on Zoom, and in our sessions I introduced them to poetry, memoir and fiction writing, both through practical exercises and also through sharing the work of a huge range of brilliant artists.
The group was self-selecting; some participants had never really written before, some were already working on their memoir, others had dabbled a little. Coincidentally many of them were attending a programme for recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, so our writing often looked at themes of healing, recovery, anxiety / depression and authenticity. The work produced in our sessions was not intended to promote or advertise Changing Lives, however many of the participants saw their interaction with the charity as a positive step in their journey and wanted to write about how thankful they were for it.
When I start a new project, especially with a group of people who I've never worked with before, there are so many unknowns. I wasn't sure that what I had planned would hit the mark, and although I firmly believe in writing as a wellbeing tool, can it really help people who have experienced such challenging circumstances like many of this group had?
After our final session - where we welcomed Changing Lives stakeholders to come and listen to some of the group's work - I had to go and sit in my garden and have a bit of a cry! I needn't have worried at all, and the participants' written feedback speaks volumes:
'This course has given me the confidence to express myself and I have found a new skill'
'Bridget managed to drag things out of me when I struggled to get going. Once I started writing, however, I couldn't stop.'
'Six weeks have flown by and I don't want it to end'
So, what's next?
Each participant has now submitted a final, finished piece of work to Changing Lives, who will work with an illustrator to create some artwork that can sit alongside each piece. The group will have a chance to see all of the artwork before anything is shared publicly.
I have been in touch with a few of the participants since the course ended and I'm delighted to hear that they are still writing! I'm now in discussions with Changing Lives about running the course again for a new set of participants, and also creating an 'alumni group' so that attendees can continue to work with me once the six week course has finished (if they want to).
This was honestly such a wonderful project to be a part of and I think has created a good template that we can run again and again in the future. A huge thank you to Laura Richards for commissioning me for this work, as well as Oaktrees project lead Val Heslop and all of the other staff at Changing Lives who have supported those on their projects to access this course and kickstart their careers as writers!
For more information on Changing Lives, visit https://www.changing-lives.org.uk/
UPDATE November 2021: You can now read some of the final pieces of writing over on the Changing Lives blog:
Read 'Day 1 of 84'
Read 'Gutter Life'
Read 'A Fairy Tale'