WRITING EAST MIDLANDS IS TEN YEARS YOUNG 

“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” Dr. Seuss

It honestly does feel like last week, a tiny office in the Broadway Cinema, a phone, an empty A4 pad, and a desktop computer the size of a Mini Cooper on which the BBC news provided information vital to the setting up of a literature development agency, and the cricket scores.

“Hello is this Writing East Midlands?”- some guy called Mollart – “I’m a writer… I need help. I can’t tell you how pleased I am you’re here.” That was, in Sue Townsend time, 10 ¾ years ago and the moment we opened for business.

The usual form for retrospectives such as this is to trot briskly through victories; the number of people, like our first caller, we’ve helped get deals with agents and publishers through our mentoring programme, or the many who have run their own organisations, projects, and events with our support , the hundreds who write more confidently after attending The Writing School in Leicester or Nottingham, the thousands who’ve been inspired at festivals and events, or revived by a shot of creative adrenaline administered by The Writers’ Conference, or a Routes to Writing workshop, or a timely manuscript critique. I’m sure we’ll follow this up with a colourful infographic but what that won’t show are the people, often from difficult life circumstances, who’ve found something unexpected, and precious, at a Residency, or a workshop, a Writers’ Den, a Saturday group, or a Slam. “It’s saved my life” is a something we read on feedback forms more often than can easily be dismissed as a figure of speech.

We are very proud of these things and would like to claim that they’ve happened as a result of meticulous planning and excellent delivery. The latter, yes – for sure. The former- may be not so much. As a youngish man years ago I remember trying to impress my future mother-in-law with our life plan and her waiting patiently before sticking a pin in my balloon. ‘I think you’ll find events, not plans, shape one’s life Henderson.’ And she was right. The truth is at WEM we’ve found a ‘way’ rather than a ‘plan’ to respond as best we could to the world around us in a bewildering decade.

We started with a brief from Arts Council England to support the development of writers, and facilitate more literature based activity in a region that was perceived to have less going on than some others. Now, we are as concerned by equality of opportunity, lowering barriers to taking part, kicking things off here and there, and helping people to help themselves. We still use shouty words like ‘excellence’ and ‘ambition’ and ‘success’ but also quiet ones like ‘lonely,’ ‘inclusion’, or ‘sharing.’ This, perhaps, is a reflection of how difficult the decade, the catastrophic cuts to public services and their impact on the glue that makes communities work, has been for a great many people. The arts, literature, in our case, are now tasked with improving social cohesion, with diversity, and with well-being. It has been a big change and one, now I look back at it, which has provided WEM with its identity.

I’m hugely proud of the 30 or so Lyric Lounge spoken word festivals we ran between 2009 and 2016 inspiring many people from all walks of life to write or perform in public for the first time. And of the work we did with Roma young people in Leicestershire in 2014-15 challenging racism and stereotypes in their brilliant play What are they Whispering, and of Write Here Sanctuary which enabled Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Nottingham, Derby and Nottingham to counter hostile attitudes in a lovely anthology called Riding on Solomon’s Carpet. Most recently there’s been The Elder Tree, a region wide project bringing creative writing opportunities, and as importantly, social engagement, to older people in Residential Care Homes and Community Centres which is probably the most demanding, yet rewarding, of the seventy or so projects we’ve done. Then there are the Carers who have found respite in creative expression, long-term prisoners in HMP’s, people saying the things they need to say in Hospices, women surviving domestic abuse in refuges, people wandering around our water-lands, woods, and peaks, or the large towns and small, calling up lives lost and new ones gained, and others writing at their kitchen tables for reasons unknown.        

So, we are a literature development agency first and foremost, but one that has become increasingly interested in the capacity of writing activity to make good changes in people’s lives. We have managed to do this while supporting writers in building careers, running great projects, and getting national recognition is some cases, or making small yet positive experiences in others.

And there is a hell of lot more going on now in the East Midlands literature than when we started. Nottingham is a UNESCO City of Literature. Nottingham Playhouse, Leicester Curve, Mansfield Playhouse, Derby Quad and Northampton Royal and Derngate all champion new writing in several genres attempting to reach all parts of their communities. Leicestershire LPT NHS Trust is a trailblazer for using literature for well-being, and First Story is doing amazing things for young writers in schools. Where once there was really only WORD! In Leicester, ‘Blackdrop’ in Nottingham and ‘Sugarshack’ in Derby putting on live literature, there’s now Bright Sparks, Nottingham Black Archives, Derby Poetry Festival, Wordwise, Twisted Tongues, Nottingham Poetry Festival, Find the Right Words, Word Furnace in Northampton, Word Jam, Crosswords, Kavya Rang, Woke Women, Word of Mouth and Slam Jam in Lincolnshire, and loads of others. Mouthy Poets have left deep footprints for young writers to follow and have sparked a dozen careers. Leicester Writers’ Club and Nottingham Writers’ Studio provide fellowship and support to their members. The Centre for New Writing sprang up at Leicester University sparking great projects like Grassroots mapping the contribution of diverse writers to the literature culture in the region and Colonial Countryside re-appraising the often troubling histories of our stately homes. Alongside these, each University has growing creative writing courses and students who regularly make contact to intern with us or volunteer at events.

All of the above have been our partners in one sense or another and so I’d like to think we’ve played our part. For this I’d like to thank them and the many writers from all sorts of backgrounds and aspirations, for supporting our work and each other, and the venues, and producers, and musicians, and technicians, and link workers, and administrators, and old ‘uns, and young ‘uns, and Arts Council England and other funders, and the people who have given their time generously on our Board and Steering groups who have kept us going when we might not have, and for me, most of all, my heartfelt thanks to the amazing colleagues who have been such fun to work alongside for the last, wow, is it 10 years already? What shall we do next?

– Henderson Mullin – Chief Executive, Writing East Midlands, January 2020