In January 2021, for the first time in my life, I wrote a long, detailed outline for a community art workshop.
It was the first session in new project I’d entitled ‘Wish You Were Here’ and it was also my first attempt at doing creative work online. I was living on a mountain in rural France, and the dead of winter seemed well named. The darkness is deep here (so deep we’ve applied to be a dark sky sanctuary) but it felt even deeper in the first coronavirus winter. The UK was back in lockdown, deaths were rising, and the days were short and gloomy. And here I was, starting a creative writing project for Boston (in Lincolnshire), not face to face as had been planned for last spring, but online. I hadn’t met any of the people who might join, nor the other writer I’d be working with. So, that outline was like a guide rope designed to get us all up that unknown first slope. But in the past, I’ve preferred to work without such safeguards, preferring to be with people and listen for the right direction. My outline felt like a lesson plan, and I’ve always believed that, whatever community art is, it’s not teaching.
That memory returns as a measure of the anxiety with which I approached my first online project. Six months on, I have a copy of the book that has come from the project and I’ve rarely felt so happy with the art of any project I’ve worked on. But my anxiety was not unreasonable. This book has been made by a dozen people who have never met, except online. It’s not only the workshops: project planning, commissioning drawings, design, layout, proofreading—everything has been done thanks to the internet. And there were some real advantages to working in this way. The workshops acquired their own character, with a nice degree of intimacy. And even with the invisible impact of the internet, the environmental cost was surely reduced. Our work was fast and efficient, too.
I doubt we’d have made a better book if we had met, but perhaps it would have been different. I did miss being with people and now, I especially miss that moment of celebration that comes when we can all see – and share – what we have achieved. I’m hoping that we will finally meet in September at the Boston Book Festival, and perhaps have a group photo. Still, the book itself feels special because it carries that separation in every page. This is a book made in lockdown, and though it is far from being about lockdown, it is indelibly marked by this strange, unprecedented experience.
If you’d like to judge for yourself, copies are available from Writing East Midlands for £6.60, including P&P
I’ve been doing this work for 40 years and if it remains as fresh as when I started, it’s probably also because it remains scary. That plan I made in January was about managing the specific challenges of working online, in an unknown space, but I know that if the project had happened face to face as intended, I’d have been equally anxious on the long drive from Nottingham to Boston before the first session. I trust the process, because it has never let me down, but also because it’s not mine. It’s as old as human beings getting together, talking, dreaming, playing and creating. I don’t do much more than define a space in which it can happen. I’m a convenor. The magic happens because people trust that I know what I’m doing (which I do) so they believe art will emerge (which it does).
I trust the process, but I don’t really trust myself. I know I can get it wrong, make a misstep, take the wrong path. That’s the real source of the anxiety that made me write everything out in outline. I trust the process, because it has never let me down. Me, on the other hand – well, that’s another story. There’s still plenty I need to learn, though it still seems wise to stay scared that what I do might go wrong.