You never quite know how a creative writing workshop with school students will go. There are so many variables. Are they doing it through compulsion or choice? What time of day is it? Are they a group who know and like each other, or disparate elements taken from a range of classes. I could go on.
So, it's always a pleasure when the variables suddenly seem unimportant. When the commitment to the writing takes over from any personal animosity or timidity, or any other factor that might have prevented each student participating.
And I'm also wary of site-specific writing. What if the site chosen turns out to be a damp squib - in the case of the weather, literally? Of course, if you've done your homework then the stimulus you have chosen should do the job, but you can't guarantee it.
This was the case last week for my two day residency as a writer at The Cavendish School, Eastbourne. The plan was to take the Year 8 students who participated to the cemetery opposite the school, so they could find inspiration in the names or the dates, the votive offerings and the style of grave.
Thus, the sign that greeted us as we entered was manna from heaven (which seems an appropriate turn of phrase given the location) for young writers. As you can see, it states:
'Please be aware of dangers in the cemetery such as uneven ground, open or sunken graves and hazards concealed by vegetation. Be mindful that all memorials have the potential to harm by virtue of their size, weight and condition.'
If that's not an open invitation for a good story, I don't know what is.
But there was more. Not least, the names. 'Euphemia' anyone? Apart from sounding like some sort of lung disease, it spoke of a different age. Has any child in the UK been named this in the last fifty years? I doubt it. Or 'Victoria Deadman' - a name adopted by at least two of the writers for their graveyard characters.
And in amongst it all, the real stories - the grave of William and Elizabeth Payton, killed 1943 by German bombs. Eastbourne suffered huge damage and many casualties as I learned doing my own brief research. We often hear of the suffering in the Blitz, two years earlier, but what of these provincial tragedies? What of those life narratives cut short before their natural close in some sequestered side-street?
I don't have any samples of the students' work here to show you, but if or when any are sent to me, I may post a few in the blog. Some of it was very good indeed, and all of it stimulating and skilful. It was a delight to work in the library before and after the graveyard trip with these talented youngsters.
That such a residency happened at all was down to the school librarian/resource centre manager, Jane Earley. Libraries are wonderful places just to be in, let alone work in. One day in the not-too-distant future, there may be a question on a quiz programme asking contestants what the word 'library' means.
With the threats to their continued existence from schools and other organisations strapped for cash, we may find the panel members scratching their heads or digging into the memory bank to recall that time, back in mid 2019 when a middle-aged guy and a determined librarian took them out to a graveyard and then gave them space to write in a room made up of shelves and books.