Lessons: Stories that connect from Stories Connect
By Sally Flint
People’s lives have been changed not only by reading and discussing literature, but by writing creatively too. In Exeter, England, this has culminated in publishing a book of linked short stories and poems. This book is Lessons and it comes from Stories Connect—a community project, similar in format to Changing Lives Through Literature, that takes place outside prisons to help ex-offenders, substance misusers and other vulnerable people get over difficult times in their lives.
In 2011, after reading Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, discussions centred on the significance of characters in storytelling, how our lives interconnect, and how perceptions of one another can be very different according to our individual experiences. Rather than read more texts to illustrate this, both the participants and facilitators of Stories Connect began a collaborative writing experiment.
Each person invented a character—then got to know his imaginary person through answering a questionnaire which not only detailed a physical description and obvious things such as what the character did for a job, but also smaller things such as what the character kept under his bed. Once each character was firmly established in each writer’s mind the group discussed how the characters’ lives might overlap and be brought together. Part of the success of this collection is that each writer firmly took ownership of his own imaginary character and stepped into his character’s shoes.
However, to bring the characters together it was decided something more was needed—an event. Parties and weddings and all sorts of other occasions were brainstormed and somehow, out of talking about school reunions, the idea surfaced that the characters would all attend a memorial service for a recently retired headmaster, Keith Simon Lung.
Everyone discussed, debated and created—then each person wrote his character’s story in a way that linked to the headmaster and his memorial. The stories took months to shape, edit and bring together as an anthology. This process fostered an environment of trust and commitment. It motivated both participants and facilitators to further improve their communicative and observational skills. Everyone worked hard to make each story stand alone, while ensuring there are many intriguing links to be made across the whole collection and questioned by the reader.
Some of the contributors had never written a story or poem before while some had read and written lots. Perhaps what this book reveals best, and why the group wanted it published, is to show how the process of writing brought them together. The result, Lessons, proves that stretching imaginations and the practice of storytelling unites people at all levels, regardless of age, background, ethnicity or past histories. In the process of creating, the group encountered the unexpected and overcame challenges and, it has to be said, they all laughed lots!
“This is a consummate piece of group story-telling, a feat of cooperation and collaboration,” writes poet and broadcaster Matt Harvey in the book’s forward. He supports and works with Stories Connect.
Lessons is published by Dirt Pie Press, University of Exeter: www.riptidejournal.co.uk
For more information, e-mail either:
Dr. Sally Flint, facilitator and publisher: firstname.lastname@example.org
Louise Ross, Stories Connect co-ordinator: email@example.com
I heard about Changing Lives Through Literature In 1999 as Writer in Residence at HMP Channings Wood, a medium security prison for adult men in Devon, England. I was immediately intrigued – why couldn’t the programme work as well in UK prisons? Thus Stories Connect (formerly known as ‘Connections’) was born.
From 2000 until 2007, Stories Connect ran under the auspices of the Writers in Prison Network at ten prisons and units across England and Wales, always with the same exciting results. Participants talked of it being a turning point, and of it giving them a sense of belonging to the group and the wider society. They discovered they had views people were interested in. They enjoyed hearing other people’s views, even when they didn’t agree with them. Most of all they discovered the world of literature and how Steinbeck, Dickens and even Shakespeare spoke to them.
“In the past when I read books I used to just put the book down without a second thought about it; now I look for a deeper meaning other than the initial story and I try to put myself in that position just to see if I would act in the same way.”
- Young male offender at HMYOI Feltham
When I finished the residency in 2004 I still trained other prison staff to run the programme but I was missing being involved in a group myself. So I set up a programme for offenders in the community in Exeter, Devon.
I persuaded Devon & Cornwall Probation to become partners, and approached the head of English at Exeter University about being involved. Finally the Probation Service suggested we include ENDAS – Exeter & North Devon Addiction Services Criminal Justice team as partners as well.
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation has been a stalwart supporter and funder of Stories Connect over the years. They agreed to provide three-year funding for the new programme, and in May 2007 we started with our first mixed sex group of addicts and offenders on probation.
In prison you literally have a captive audience. Outside we had no way of persuading participants to attend other than the magic of literature. Without exception these participants were leading chaotic lives. Some had families to care for; others had some distance to travel. Would we be able to hold their interest?
Now, three years later, we still have two of our participants from that original group who attend regularly as mentors and help us to put the programme together at the start of each group. Six more keep in constant touch and attend when they can.