Something extraordinary happens on Dark Angels courses. People who don’t even think of themselves as writers discover that the simplest of words have a power to connect beyond their wildest imaginings. And the connections they make are not only with each other, but also with themselves.
It’s part of our manifesto that to write well at work you must first have experienced and enjoyed writing well for yourself. So we give people a few basic tools and encourage them to write about things, places and other people that may have nothing at all to do with their jobs, but mean something to them personally.
The effects are often dramatic. Previously unexpressed emotions find their way to the surface. Vivid memories are unlocked. Original turns of phrase burst forth to startle their creators and delight everyone else. And the group comes to see one another in a fuller, more human light – because the best possible effect of words chosen well and thoughtfully is to reveal what is universal.
So, back to the manifesto (and echoing my fellow tutor John Simmons’s blog this week), we believe that writing well at work means writing humanely, with consideration for the reader, respect for the truth and recognition of our common humanity.
Last week in Sweden we saw this beautifully illustrated in an exercise where we split people into small groups and ask them to build an imaginary brand on the basis of a few randomly chosen words. More often than not this leads to flights of fancy and general entertainment. But this time, the words in question neatly dovetailed with the real businesses of two of the participants.
One ended up with a crafted version of the story of how he came to found his new, cloud-based advertising agency; the other with a new look at how he positions himself as a consultant to the families of autistic children. Both were highly personal to the individuals concerned. Their collaborators were generous with their creativity. The results were moving human stories that said important things about the two businesses.
Another exercise involves connecting with place, always an important feature of our courses. On this occasion it was a particular pleasure since Sigtuna is such a charming location. A small, very old town on the shore of lake Mälaren, 60 kms from Stockholm, Sigtuna has a narrow high street of multi-coloured wooden houses, a tiny town hall with an elegant spire, and large stones etched with runic writing everywhere. Our conference centre, built by the Lutheran church in the early 1900s, had ochre-coloured walls, an old-fashioned library with a gallery and a cloistered courtyard filled with red roses.
People spent a couple of hours wandering in the sunshine, looking for something that would spark a connection or trigger a series of thoughts. Later they wrote a sestude, the 62-word form originally coined for the 26 Treasures project. The constraint of so few words concentrates ideas and emotions in a powerful way, and again people were surprised and delighted to find that they had expressed something universal by reference to a uniquely personal experience.
The glory of it is that we can all do it. Creativity or self-expression is one of the most basic human impulses. It’s why we call ourselves Dark Angels and this is how we explain that slightly mysterious name: “It’s a nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the idea that our creativity comes from our flawed human nature; that as Dark Angels we are neither those who have ascended nor those who have fallen, but that we occupy the fertile, if broken, territory somewhere in between.”