It’s nine years since the very first Dark Angels course took place at the Arvon writers centre at Totleigh Barton in Devon. Even more amazingly, it seems to me, it’s seven since we held our first advanced course on the outskirts of the pretty hill town of Aracena, in Andalucia. That’s where I’m heading now and the forecast is 30 degrees for the weekend. Just as well. Edinburgh airport today is cold, grey and rainswept.
Over the years as the Dark Angels – flock, flight, choir, chorus, exultation, take your pick – has grown, we’ve spread our wings and flown beyond the simple running of courses. Last year we set up the Other Worlds exhibition with the Story Museum in Oxford. Pairs of writers and artists put their imaginations to work to fill the empty spaces of the derelict Oxford telephone exchange, soon to be the Story Museum’s new home.
This year 15 of us have written a collective novel, Keeping Mum, now with its publishers, Unbound, for early 2014 publication. We have also just completed an unusual public poetry project, From Home To Home.
At 100 Shepherdess Walk, London N1, there is a large redevelopment site. The designer, Mike Abrahams, was inspired to do something different with the temporary public face of the project. So the grey security panels surrounding the site are perforated with a matrix of holes. Some of these are filled by yellow pegs which spell out words, one giant letter per panel. Others remain open so that nosy members of the public can peer at the works within.
The 40-odd panels spell out one line of a poem which changes each month for a year – 12 lines, each written by one of the writers or tutors on the Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College Oxford, last May. The poem is on the theme of home. Each new line begins with the last word of the previous one, the whole starting and ending with the word ’home’. (Three of the other participants, John Simmons, Faye Sharpe and Tim Rich, have blogged about it with pictures.)
But what is all this creativity really about? Why does it matter? What’s the point of Dark Angels, and why do people from the pressurised, often prosaic, world of business take time out to come on our courses or take part in our projects? Where’s the gain – either for them or for the organisations or clients they work for?
Over the last nine years about 250 people have been on our courses. All have links with the world of business, some as freelance writers, some as other kinds of creative consultant, some as communicators, brand specialists, managers and entrepreneurs. Following the courses, some have gone on to publish poetry, fiction and memoir. A few have remained unmoved by the experience. The great majority have gone back to work with their sense of language sharpened and enriched, and a better understanding of the power of stories, authentically told, to connect and engage people.
This matters deeply because the world of work, as I have so often said here before, is one where, for all sorts of reasons, incomplete, inauthentic, impersonal communication is the norm. And this world of work, of course, simply reflects the prevailing ethos of society at large. Coming on a Dark Angels course benefits our students’ clients or employers because their stories will be better told which, as well as helping to sell their products or services, may mean that their employees have a better understanding of who they’re working for and why. And it benefits the wider world because seeing oneself as a writer – and this is something we strongly encourage in people – is about more than just making with the words, it’s a way of being, a thoughtful way where what we say and how we say it reflects what we stand for and how we see our place and purpose and desire to connect with others.
If over the last nine years we’ve sent a couple of hundred people on their way with a wish to communicate more honestly, openly and effectively, not just at work but in life, that’s as good reason as any for all the creativity, as well being something we feel we can be proud of.