Writing: For what purposes?

What kind of e-writing did I want to do? Much of the online advice was telling me to sort out a niche, produce the series of books that built up the brand, and so on. I had, however, already decided that I was more interested in writing a range of different things, for different purposes (even if a personal style showed through as similar from piece to piece).  What were some of these writings? Where did they come from? Where did I imagine they might carry me and others?

Made in Birmingham: the Tales

As a bit of self-discipline I sat in the same Starbuck’s every morning on my way in to work (Same seat; same coffee – that’s the kind of person I am) with a page-a-day diary and a picture torn out of a newspaper or magazine. The picture might in reality have been the face of a celebrity, or politician, or just an interesting-looking person but to me they became a fictional character who might have an interesting story to tell.  The aim was to write one full page in ten minutes, producing a tale as told from the point of view of that slightly quirky character. After doing this morning after morning for several months some of the tales started to cross-reference to previous ones, but mostly they were self-contained anecdotes.

Seventy of the tales were pulled together into ‘Made in Birmingham; the Tales’. Others were discarded. Some were regarded as too weird. The Tales are available via the Amazon kindle site.

The next stage was to think of the whole collection of tales as data collected by a fictional researcher based in a small town as part of some social observation project. This stemmed from somewhere in my own background. My first degree had been in science and, much later, I completed a doctorate in sociology based on researching the various ways the idea of community was being formulated and used by different sets of people. Both of these experiences had given me a fascination with thinking about research methods, what might count as valid evidence, the basis on which common understandings (and misunderstandings) got constructed. Mixing all of this with a quick burst of imagination led to the fictional account of a research project, with the Tales acting as research notes (case studies if you like) from which some realistic sociological/psychological insights might be pulled together. The beginnings of this are set out on the Writings section of the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website under the title ‘Sides and Edges’.

Made in Birmingham: the Poems

In 2008 the UK had a National Year of Reading, sponsored by the government in an attempt to get more people reading more things for more reasons. Birmingham was already very active in its efforts to raise the whole profile and levels of reading, writing and spoken English across the one million residents as a whole. This was driven forward by a partnership of the major education, training and employment agencies in the city acting in unison via a private company established to collectively manage more than £30million of investment in these core skills. The archive of that activity can be read (at least until 2015) at www.coreskills.co.uk  with a summary of the early work available on that site as both a text and a voice document under the title ‘Moving the Mountain’.

The city naturally wanted to play a strong role in the National Year of Reading. An account of the kinds of things done is available within the Miscellany section of www.thewordsthething.org.uk . Having done all the ‘mechanical’ things: strengthening the link between every school and its nearest public library; supporting reading development activities in schools, community organisations, libraries etc, we wanted to try something a bit different.  We were challenged by two things: (a) the way things were promoted within the city had become quite structured via public sector agencies and we were trying to push the idea of simply putting information in accessible forms on-line and letting people get it and use it in any way they wished, and (b) although reading was alive and well in the city very little – at that time – was poetry, especially amongst the groups that were reading least and in the most restricted ways. We wanted to see if there were ways of getting a wider range of people reading a wider range of poetry, on their own terms, quite quickly.

As part of this a set of poems were written to deliberately cover a range of lengths and topics. Some of these were meant to be taken quite lightly whilst others might be lingered over. The poems were not intended as a formal collection. They were more a set of disconnected poems to be taken or left. Nor were they aimed at an audience of writers and poets. The 70-80 poems were released in a series of episodes and were road-tested with widely different groups across the city (teenage boys in the later years of secondary school; male parents whose experience of poetry was fleeting and unexciting from their own days at school and who had been put off poetry as ‘not for people like us’; groups in residential homes; bus passengers; and so on). No doubt there were a number of ‘poetry people’ ready to point out that these were not poetry on their terms. The readers being targeted, hwoever, (those ‘poetry-is-not-for-the-likes-of-me’ people) readily identified these writings as ‘interesting’, ‘readable’ and ‘enjoyable – for poetry’. All had found something in the sets of poems that they could relate to and discuss informally.  The poems were gathered together under the ‘Made in Birmingham’ banner and the set is available as an e-book on the Amazon kindle site.

We were also interested in how far open-access writing could develop a life of its own, undirected and uncontrolled. The episodes of several poems, together with several of the Tales described above, were put monthly on a website and a small number of key intermediaries were alerted to this. These people were selected as ones who would probably bother to go and look at the poems/tales but who were, themselves, connected to wider networks in the UK and elsewhere. We were simply interested in putting the writing there and seeing what would happen. Within weeks we had readers from a large numbers of countries around the world, as well as readers in different UK towns and cities. We began to get emails back about how some particular poems or tales were being used:   ‘I print a poem off each morning and read it aloud to myself whilst looking out over the snow’. ‘I used these tales with my English class (of people in Italy) to set us talking about metaphors and idioms in the English language’. ‘We used Billy’s Tale as a starter on a teacher in-service day about young people with learning difficulties’. None of this could have been predicted. None of it was planned, intentional, centrally-driven – it was just happening around writing we had made freely available.

It’s Murder on the Eleven

This had quite a different origin. The Outer Circle is a famous 26 mile bus route (the number 11 bus) that runs round the outer edge of the city. You can sit on it and go round and round all day, each circuit taking around two and a half hours. A local blogger with a keen interest in the city suggested, in 2009, that on November 11th people might take to the Number 11 buses and write, photograph, talk to people, record their journey and generally enjoy the experience.

This stuck with me and from then into 2010 I wrote a story, set around the Number 11 bus route, in which bus drivers were being killed and one female passenger decided to get to the bottom of what was going on.  It was not a police procedural, or one of a detective series, or heavy on psychological profiling. It was meant as an easy-going tale that happened to be set around the bus route. After 20,000-30,000 words it was reading OK and getting positive comments from a handful of trusted readers I knew. Some of the more clunky text was edited, some of the stray bits were removed, and the final version was released at 11 minutes past 11am on 11/11/11: all a bit artificial, I know, but it was a bit of fun doing it.  This final version is available as an e-book on the Amazon kindle site.

Another Glorious Day

A different kind of writing and a different way that it was done. There is an organisation under the title National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) that anyone can sign up to. The main challenge when I came across it was to write a novel during the month of November. A novel was set at text of more than 50,000 words. There was a helpful way of putting in your daily total of words and getting an immediate chart showing how far off-track you were from successfully reaching the 50,000 limit by November 30th – which was a great spur to write faster (if not necessarily better). Having successfully got 50,000 words of fairly-edited text it was feasible to continue during December and into the New Year to produce a credible complete work.

I started November with a clear plot outline in my head. After a few days writing it was obvious that choosing a plot based on one person contained inside a box might not have been the most open  of things to have chosen but, hey, I was enjoying myself and turning out about the right number of words each day.

The result (after substantial later editing and extension) was the e-book ‘Another Glorious Day’, again available on the Amazon kindle site.

History of Castle Vale

Castle Vale is a housing estate on the periphery of Birmingham. It was built in the couple of years up to 1967. My first job was science teaching at the newly opened secondary school on the estate. Later in my career I returned to the area as a youth and community worker. I lived there; the kids went to local primary school there. My life was tightly intertwined with Castle Vale. It was the test bed for research I did for a later sociology doctorate on the notion of community (‘The Social Construction and Reconstruction of Community’). Throughout the many years I spent doing that research I delved deeply into the political, social and economic history of the area, back to the 11th century. Once the academic writing was out of the way I dusted all that off and wrote the definitive history of Castle Vale which, although based on a very small area of Birmingham, is full of enough intrigue, murder, inventiveness, wartime spirit and urban politics to be of broad interest.

It was a niche publication. Class copies were put into all nearby schools; copies went into local public libraries; and the text went up onto the local history section of Birmingham City Council’s public website. Since then it has been referred to in a number of publications and is, in an updated version, available as a PDF document to download from the Writings section of the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website.

Other varied writings

Also on www.thewordsthething.org.uk are writings on a wide range of topics including:

  • Countries ending in –stan and famous people called Stanley
  • The idea of progress in contemporary art
  • The nature of Place and Space
  • Work, wellbeing and public policy
  • Family learning and resilience
  • Approaches to change
  • Making all lessons learner-friendly
  • Learning and neighbourhood regeneration
  • Developments in reading and writing across a city
  • Cities and thinking ways forward

These are all available as free downloads on the site.

There was more than enough writing here to start with.

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