My writers’ group is lucky enough to be involved in 10 days – Winchester, a biennial, interdisciplinary arts festival supported by organisations such as Arts Council England, Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council. The aim is to bring together artists of many different types, provide them with the opportunity to showcase their work – in Winchester Cathedral, the City Museum and the Discovery Centre – and to engage the public, both creatively and perhaps also by making them look at their city in a new way.
The theme is Chalk – and cities don’t get chalkier than Winchester. Dig down anywhere in this ancient capital of old England and its environs and you’ll find lumps of the stuff studding the topsoil. Keep burrowing and you’ll find chalk bedrock. Thanks to the filtration qualities of the chalk in the riverbed, the tributaries of our river, the Itchen, are transparent as the most precious diamonds and provide the ideal habitat for water voles, otters and white-clawed crayfish. Chalk imbues our buildings, our streets, the graves we bury our dead in, our whole history. It’s a huge subject.
Last night the writers involved – those from my writing group and another local group – came together to decide which of the several pieces each of us had written would be showcased in the various venues. We then moved on to discuss several different public engagement activities. One of these, due to include crowd-pulling speakers, raised particular concerns. It wasn’t that we couldn’t find interesting – and successful – literary people who’d be willing to speak; it was that we weren’t offering anything different from the myriad of other talks and conferences held locally on how to get published, how to secure an agent, why Mr X wrote the book he did and what made Ms Y persist with hers in the face of a full-time job and multiple rejections. That’s not to say these are not valuable topics to hear about because of course they are. However, we wanted something different: something for all those writers for whom publication is never going to happen for whatever reason and also for those mid-way along the journey, who might want new ideas to keep them going, to validate what they do and support who they are. This resulted in the idea, put forward by the director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival, that we discuss (and it will be a discussion rather than speeches) how to have a vibrant writing life – and celebrate it. Of course, this might include publication but it might also mean thinking about what else is available locally to stimulate your writing. Yes, we’ll have interesting, successful and well-known writers on the programme but hopefully they will be able to approach the event in a different frame of mind from other similar ones and to inspire in listeners the sense that the world is full of possibilities, big and small. And what, after all, is more important to any writer – indeed, at times, to any person – than inspiration and possibility.
Chalk, it seems, runs deeper than the bedrock.
For more details about the collaboration between the Hyde and Taverners writers’ groups for 10 days – Winchester, please check out our website. There’s an opportunity to send in your own work (flash fiction or poems of 200 words or less) or a chalk moment to feature on the website. (NB You don’t have to be from Winchester to do so!)