Getting Started - Creative Writing

Updated: Oct 6, 2020


Workshop with Heather Richardson

John Hewitt Society Festival

27 -31 July 2020

As a translator, I spend a lot of time writing for others. I love bringing stories, ideas, and messages from other languages, cultures, and contexts into English. I love opening up windows offering another perspective on life and the world around us. And I love taking time to mull over subtle nuances when trying to decide on the ‘perfect’ word in English. The words I write, however, were first written by others. Words and ideas that required inspiration. Words and ideas already carefully considered. Words that carry weight, especially in the literature I so love to translate. Each time friends and colleagues suggested I might enjoy creative writing classes as I talked about my projects, I was hesitant. Creative writing couldn’t possibly be for me, could it? My mind wasn’t full of vivid dreams, wild ideas, or a flurry of emotions needing to be poured out into poetry. I’d never had a hidden desire to write a novel. And I certainly didn’t have a manuscript of any kind gathering dust in a drawer. Weren’t those the kinds of reasons that prompted people to sign up for creative writing workshops? However, when some of these friends talked about why they wrote, and how the process was the purpose, a source of pleasure in itself, I started to wonder if perhaps I should reconsider my initial hesitation.

It was as I honed my literary translation skills that I was finally pushed off the edge, as it were, at the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School in 2018. The week-long summer school included two half-morning creative writing workshops, so there was no turning back! I was nervous but realised there was no better – or perhaps safer - place to take the plunge than in a room full of friendly translators who, for the most part, didn’t consider themselves as ‘writers’ in the traditional sense either. I had such fun with the exercises, discovering new ways my mind could twist and turn, that I left with good intentions of continuing the practise. The less said about how that went once I returned to my usual routine the better. The seeds, however, had been sown and I was therefore delighted to spot the Getting Started – Creative Writing Workshop with Heather Richardson at the John Hewitt Society Festival at the end of July this year. Like many things in 2020, the festival was going online, along with the workshops. Having attended a couple of short creative writing workshops at Belfast Book Festival during a holiday back home last year, I felt fairly confident these workshops would be just as welcoming. So confident I even managed to persuade no less than three friends to sign up with me. What a silver lining to these crazy times when we can’t meet in person to be able to ‘take’ them on their first ‘trip’ to Armagh!

Over the space of three afternoons, Heather Richardson welcomed us into her study via that wonderful platform with a name that rhymes with room. It was a delight to meet and see participants dotted across the world with roots in Northern Ireland (or via me at least). Ironically only one lovely lady connected from a town close to where the festival should have taken place. Heather created a wonderful, relaxed atmosphere each session by inviting us to respond to short texts she’d shared in advance. She then helped us get the creative juices flowing with exercises that had us drawing up shopping lists including emotions and sentimental items, scribbling down food-related memories, brainstorming the characteristics and emotions of men and women in old photos. We then took time to use this material and see where it would take us as we wrote short poems – with and without restrictions – character sketches, conversations, and final sentences. One of the highlights of each session was listening to the short texts the other ladies shared – such a wealth of ideas and talent! Heather also used the work produced to suggest further points for reflection, a natural teacher who guided, encouraged, and prompted further inspiration.

As a translator, I often find myself pondering over the use of tenses as I work. Language textbooks offer tidy tables with the relevant conjugations for different tenses, so non-translators may wonder what the problem is. Surely you simply copy the same tense, right? Anyone who delves deeper into languages and translation in particular, however, quickly discovers it isn’t quite that simple. So that’s why I was delighted when Heather challenged us to work on a scene from our memories with two specific instructions: 1) write it from the perspective of another person; and 2) write it in the present tense to further change your relationship to the scene. It wasn’t an easy one, and the scribbles and corrections in my notebook show how I needed to rethink and rewrite several sentences to ensure consistency. As Heather said, ‘the present tense is not our usual tense – the third person past tense is always the default mode.’ Certainly a point for further reflection, and one that I’m sure will be helpful in my translation work too.

It was perhaps apt that the other exercise I enjoyed most was writing the final sentence of a story we’d started to structure. It’s an interesting task – deciding on an end point without necessarily knowing the details about how you’ll get there, not worrying about the exact route, and staying open to changes along the way. Perhaps this exercise has stayed with me because it echoes my own relationship with creative writing and writing more generally. Perhaps it’s also an essential lesson for life in general – especially in these strange times.

So, on that note, I’ll leave you with the final sentence of my story. Who knows where or when it may reappear, the path will, however, be an adventure.

She looked back at the tumbledown house that seemed to be held together by ivy alone before tucking the photo into her book and running down the lane after her brother.

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