Those carrier bags of notes and blogs and scribbles on pads in the corner of my bedroom. Notes from three years of working in the Criminal Justice System. Stories of men with changed lives. Diagrams of what I’d taught in class. Diaries from the first week I went to work in the prison system. I thought it’d be a matter of compiling them all onto the page and that would be the book.
So, I got organised, I got Scrivener, I got to work. Over Christmas 2018. I bought a whiteboard, marker pens, filing boxes, highlighters and paperclips. The stripy ones. Oh, and post-it notes! Lots of them in yellow and green and blue and purple.
I sat on our cold floorboards, a soft blue rug under my bum and sorted the boxes of notes into some sort of order. As the hours passed and the different piles grew, I saw I needed help. I did some research and asked around. “I’ve signed up to Jules Swales Writing Program” my friend Christine said. I watched her summer face, behind her thick dark rimmed glasses, on the small screen of my phone as she waxed lyrical about the writing coach she’d been working with. I was doubtful. I didn’t think I needed a writing program. I thought I needed a sorter outer, someone who’d take what I’d written and put it all together. “I’ll think about it” I said.
One thing led to another, as these things do, and before I knew it, I’d decided to sign up to this Jules Swales online writing program. Something about her intrigued me, maybe I’d learn a thing or two. I wondered if it would work online. If I’d be bored listening to other people read. If I’d be good enough. If it was right for me. If, if, if…. All those doubts, all that uncertainty.
“Write like you talk” Jules said. Her dark hair framed her pixie face. I could see the squirrels in the tree through the window behind her. I sat at the big screen of my Mac in my front room thousands of miles and another time zone away. Eight squares on the screen with eight faces ready to learn, from around the world. It had to be more complicated than that, I thought. I sat still on the black swivel computer chair, pen in hand. Fresh page of my notebook open on the desk in front of me. A wrapper of sweetie paper lay crumpled on my floor. I felt panicked, sick, worried. “What does she mean?” I thought.
I’ve done several of Jules’ classes since then and she didn’t sort me out, but she did help me uncover my voice. My own voice, not the writerly voice I’d tried to have. And then she helped me take that voice and let it show up in the world in a variety of ways that surprised me.
She taught me how to dig deep and use the experiences of life as a pallet to draw from, and how to write myself onto the page. She taught me how to listen to myself and find a way to show my reader how I felt.
But I still remember that first class back in January 2019. I remember being wrapped up in scarves and jumpers against the cold British winter. I remember each week being in awe of seeing every student develop into powerful writers. I remember tears and laughter and intimacy. I remember the wonder of my own words spilled out onto the page. I remember the gentle and firm guidance of our incredible teacher.
It wasn’t always easy. Some days I wrote crap. But I did the work, the practice, the exercises. And I showed up, ready to learn, hungry for feedback, keen to listen. And each week I developed my voice, we all did.
And now the book is finished. It was way more work than I’d thought back then in 2018. There were things about writing a book I wasn’t even aware of. It’s been an incredible journey.
With deep gratitude from my genius to yours.