Creative writing at The Women’s Library
This August, I was lucky enough to attend The Women’s Library’s fully-booked, female-only, creative writing course. I’m a long time fan of The Women’s Library, popping in regularly to browse the exhibitions, attend events or flick through the collections. I’ve always hoped that my work may one day make its hallowed halls, so was delighted at the opportunity to enrich my writing skills alongside other female creative types.
The course, a joint venture of The Women’s Library and Tower Hamlet’s Summer University, was aimed at girls and young women aged 14 to 25 who wanted to “take their writing to the next level” using the library’s wide range of stories, letters, diaries, autobiographies, fiction and poetry as sources of inspiration.
Certainly, the materials we looked at were very inspiring indeed – from a suffragette’s prison diary (written in pencil on toilet paper) to excerpts from the writing of Jamaica Kincaid, a wonderful Caribbean poet.
We started the course by exploring our female identities through our names, and I found that in a pretty traditionally girly fashion, a few of us delighted in being named after flowers; I’m a Yasmin and the first friend I met was charmingly called Budlia.
How many of us could say we knew much about Yoko Ono, Jackie Onassis or any of Henry VII’s wives?
After all the participants had met each other we had a chance to get to know our course leader, the lovely Joanna Ingham, who introduced herself and her academic feats to us.
We talked about Joanna’s background in writing and poetry, but also about her role as learning co-ordinator at the library. As someone who would love to someday be affiliated with the library in some way, it was great to meet and chat to Jo, and I hope to remain in contact with her as I try to further my own writing career.
Feeling excited, stimulated and ready to engage with some meaty writing, we then went up to the reading room for our first interactive task of the course.
We looked through the biography section of the reading room, in order to find a title that could potentially describe our own lives. Here we stumbled upon so many fascinating female stories, with books about famous icons like Simone De Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath and Anne Frank nestled alongside biographies of lesser-known, but equally influential women; plenty of suffragettes, suffragists and women that have suffered at the hands of patriarchal society.
Some books chosen by the group were written by women trapped by domestic violence, others by women struggling to land a foot on the ladder of modern politics and others were about women considering themselves and their identity within the arts.
All the stories and subject matter we studied were fascinating, though I think the most interesting aspect of this task was that it forced us to address our roles as modern females in relation to the women that have lived before us.
Could we relate to them? Would it be possible for our group to seek any sort of identity within this tight realm of women’s history? Asking Joanna about this, she replied: “I think coming here often gives women a rare chance to really think about their gender, how it impacts on their lives and what their heritage is as a woman.” I can’t help but agree – by the end of the course I felt that as modern women it’s somewhat of an obligation of ours to try to visit the library, a space entirely dedicated to the history and struggle of our gender.
For Joanna, the edge for our creative writing group was that we were in a rich cultural working space, within the same four walls as the most successful female writers of all generations. As Joanna put it, “If Mary Wollstonecraft, the Brontës or whoever did it in their times then we’ve got no excuse not to in ours.” Wollstonecraft and the Brontë sisters aside, I found myself about to be influenced by a more unlikely female source…
I’ve never had to so closely examine my own role as a woman, and more importantly, as a woman writer
Back to the Reading Room and the biography task, where I had discovered a book called Miss Dizzy, to model my own biography on. My eye was initially caught on a whimsical premise (I’ve been known to enjoy the odd Margarita or two..), but my interest increased after my realisation that I was holding a biography of Winston Churchill’s mother in my hands (apparently she was something of a party animal in her day!) The beauty of the biography selection at the library is, for me, discovering the women in the background of certain iconic men.
As a group we discussed these ‘hidden women’, lurking in the shadows of the men in their lives. How many of us could say we knew much about Yoko Ono, Jackie Onassis or any of Henry VII’s wives? This exercise was a simple eye opener in why The Women’s Library remains an important institution, for the voice it gives to silenced, or sidelined, women throughout the ages.
A lot of the work we read out referred to our sexuality, relationships, self-image and families, so being in a single-sex group was great as we could all empathise with and support each other
Biographies found and women’s history briefly touched upon, we then attempted writing about our own lives in the third person. I found this task totally creatively engaging as, whilst a lot of the work I do is bio-related, I’ve never had to so closely examine my own role as a woman, and more importantly, as a woman writer, through my own perspective. I found that by the end of the day I had a new found respect for myself and my art, and went home happy.
The next day we spent exploring the relationship between pictorials and the written word, with my personal feminist highlight being creating a back story for a series of women’s images we were given. These ranged from the political to the domestic, with pregnancy, protest and pageantry all covered by the photos Joanna had provided for us. Giving a voice to the women in the pictures and being aware of our privileges over them (all the images provided were historical) was great, as I think it gave us all a pretty strong appreciation for our modern day female privileges. I found for myself that it also reaffirmed my feminism, with some of the images of misogynistic injustices really resonating with me for a long time after I’d seen them.
Whilst the course was not overtly feminist, we definitely explored aspects of the f-word and, indeed, the act of being all women sharing our personal thoughts and work together felt very empowering. A lot of the work we read out referred to our sexuality, relationships, self-image and families, so being in a single-sex group was great as we could all empathise with and support each other.
I loved that the emphasis of the creative writing course was on partaking as part of a small, creative community. I feel that too often with educational courses the teaching is overtly militant, or overbearing, but this was not so with Joanna and my fellow girl-writers. The whole course felt very comfortable, natural and liberating to me.
As Jo said of her teaching objectives, “I don’t think my mission is to get everyone to say they’re feminist… but to challenge negative stereotypes, be positive about women and their experiences and to plan my sessions from a feminist standpoint.”
Certainly, I have left the course feeling like a more confident, creative young woman. I thoroughly enjoyed the workshops and have walked away from them with a small notebook teaming with ideas and plenty of inspiration from Jo, my fellow participants and the thousands of other women the library plays home to.