Meet play laugh learn grow…and write

Last Monday I attended my first ever Women’s Institute meeting.  I must admit, I was intrigued.  For me, the WI always conjured up images of conservative, grey-haired ladies in twin sets and pearls.  But the WI seems to have had an overhaul of its image recently.  There isn’t anything remotely conservative about the Hebden Bridge branch: a more creative bunch of women you couldn’t hope to meet.  Each meeting they tackle something new: sushi making, hair consultations and photography are amongst their recent pursuits.  The strap line on their blog is ‘Meet play laugh learn grow.’  Even the thought of those simultaneous verbs makes me breathless.

There was certainly plenty of laughing during the evening, when fellow novelist Linda Green and I led a workshop to put the good women of Hebden through their creative writing paces.

It was quite a challenge to choose the right exercises.  We had just half an hour of workshop time each (ending the evening with a Q & A, during which we had some of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked about writing).  The group was a cross section of women of different ages, backgrounds and interests, many of them completely new to creative writing.  But these WI members were definitely game – open and enthusiastic about everything we threw their way.

In her segment, Linda covered plot and character.  She brought props, too, for the ‘What’s in my bag?’ characterisation task (a magician’s wand, a book of spells, a pointy hat – no prizes for guessing whose bag it was!).  My first exercise tackled story development.  Starting from the premise that all stories have three basic components (character, action, a character ‘arc’ or development), I got participants to invent things under these categories and write them down on three slips of paper.  Then swap the pieces of paper.  The result is a practically endless combination of people, events and character development points.  As always with this exercise, some of the results were off –the-wall but some came out as cohesive (practically ready-made) stories.    The range of characters was diverse, to say the least – amongst them, a young autistic boy, a dragon, a cat.

Next, I asked everyone to stay with their characters and write about that character’s shoes: design, state of repair, colour.  Also how they walked…There was some extraordinary detail.   Nineteenth century clogs on flagstone.  Webbed feet (that was the dragon).  Shoes from a charity shop in Chester.  In the space of half an hour, these women created stories from nothing.

Even more impressive was their multi-tasking ability: some of them managed to write whilst knitting.  I’ve never had that in a writing workshop before.

For me, it was an exercise in the power of imagination and intuition.  The half hour time constraint actually went in our favour, a way of beating the critical and unconfident voice that says ‘I can’t’ By the end of the evening, each and every one of them proved that it’s possible to be a writer.

With thanks to Amy Leader and Ruth Ainscough of Hebden Bridge WI for organising and hosting us on the evening.  And also to Amy for the photos.


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