It shouldn’t have worked but it did – 14 writers spending a weekend together with the goal of planning a collective novel. There may not even be any precedent for it.
Common sense says that, if not actual fisticuffs, there would at least have been irreconcilable differences over the direction of the plot, or the relationships between the characters, or the tone or the setting.
But this was Dark Angels and that isn’t what happened. We spent the weekend in a kind of mounting and largely consensual creative fever, assisted by vast quantities of food, a majestic drinks cupboard, and a number of stags and other unfortunate ungulates egging us on from their observation posts high up on the walls of Balavil, the large Adam house in the Highlands where we were staying.
There was discussion, of course, even disagreement, but by Sunday night we had achieved the near miracle of bringing 14 characters to life and developing the admittedly very rough but workable outline of a plot. With some further tuning of the story, and a little editorial guidance, everyone will soon know more or less what their character needs to do and think, when. Then all they need to do is get writing.
But why should Dark Angels represent such an outbreak of collaboration and harmony when it would have been perfectly reasonable to expect conflict? The answer, I think, is that unlike some purely creative writers, most people who come on our courses, and certainly everyone involved in this particular adventure, have had many years’ experience of the collaborative requirements of the business world. Which is not to say that they’re not creative writers – there are some writers of beautiful fiction and wonderfully elegant non-fiction among them – but they all know how to behave as team players when the need arises. In fact our process was probably not unlike that of the writers’ team for a TV drama. So, they were all prepared to subordinate their egos to the needs of the story – which in itself says a great deal about the power of a good story.
This is also the theme of another adventure I’m embarking on next month, this time with my wife, Sarah. We’re running the first of what we hope may become a series of workshops together, on the subject of personal stories – the ones we tell all the time about the experiences of our lives; and how, if we take time out to think about them, to look at them in a fresh light, they can offer valuable insights into how we connect with ourselves and the world around us.
And why would one want to do that? Because, we both believe, it’s a process that can help people to lead their lives more richly and fully. In our different roles, Sarah as a counsellor, me through Dark Angels and other work, we’ve both seen it happening, we’ve both seen someone experience an unexpected, possibly life-changing moment of understanding or creative expression through the retelling of a story.
Call it personal development, perhaps, though that has a rather earnest ring to it. What we really want is for people to spend a couple of days being thoroughly energised, inspired, entertained and moved by a fresh look at the narrative luggage they’ve carried with them all their lives, and the possibilities of expansion and change that may lie hidden within it.
These stories we tell, there’s no end to the surprises they hold for us …
The Stories We Tell, a two-day workshop, 20 & 21 April, Birnam Arts, Birnam, Perthshire. Click here for details