University of Salford Manchester

Writing lives

Dr Ursula Hurley and Dr Judy Kendall of the School of Arts and Media have developed writing workshops with communities and community groups to support people in developing their self expression: 'Writing Lives', developed in partnership with the Broughton Trust, is a community storytelling project. It develops creative writing with people and communities as a way of expressing their past and present, and has resulted in a self-sustaining model of community arts practice with the aim of:

  • Empowering people and communities to gain confidence in self-expression;
  • Developing a listening and responsive model of participation, which ensures participants feel ownership over their involvement, which is tailored to meet their objectives, rather than being pre-structured and ‘imposed’;
  • Supporting a diverse range of voluntary sector organisations in engaging people and communities;
  • Evolving partnership models which do not end abruptly with the initial project but endure and deepen beyond the research grant period.

Confidence in self-expression

Ursula's interview and poems in the journal Erbacce (2007) and her chapbook, Tree (2009), analyse dislocations of self and the interaction of memory with the urban environment. Judy’s collections, The Drier the Brighter (2007) and Joy Change (2010) address the interactions of culture, place and poetic process. This common concern for poetry as an expression of individual and communal relationships with history, identity and locality informed the initial design of the Writing Lives project. The aim was to provide a supportive space in which participants could explore a range of identity and community-related issues in creative and innovative ways.

At first the groups consisted almost exclusively of young mothers. Ursula’s research on gender and its influence on creative writing processes and products (Continuum, 2007) directly informed the delivery of the sessions, which focused on shared experiences and expressions of parenthood, and children’s literacy. At the request of participating parents, the project funded the commission of a book artist to support the group in the production of books for their children.

Issues of personal and collective senses of place and belonging arose as the groups gained in skill and confidence, articulating the need to express the experience of living in Broughton, Salford - both positive and negative. Judy’s research-informed collaborative community arts practice (Ordsall, 2009 and white peak: dark peak, 2010) directed the development of creative activities designed to facilitate the expression of individual and community perceptions of locality, resulting in a collective exhibition of digital cartography at MediaCityUK in 2012.

Participation expanded, ranging from young mothers to those over 50, with multi-cultural and multi-national membership, some with English as a second language, or with literacy issues, and some with mental health issues or physical disabilities. As the groups progressed and gained greater confidence in creative expression, some participants began to reflect upon issues of identity and self-esteem, exploring autobiography as a means of dealing with difficult experiences. Ursula’s  research into the processes of autobiography and their relationship with personal well-being, offered strategies for participants to find a voice, to gain agency over challenging material in a safe space, and to express themselves without making themselves vulnerable.

Ursula and Judy developed a listening and responsive model of participation, which ensures participants feel ownership over their engagement, which is tailored to meet their objectives, rather than being pre-structured and ‘imposed’. Participants were self-selecting. There was no attendance or registration fee, and people were welcome to ‘dip in’ to sessions without making a formal commitment to attend regularly. The researchers worked in collaboration with locally-based writers to shape provision according to participants’ expressed needs and ambitions (for example, working with a book artist to create work to share with their children).

Participant perspectives

‘I’ve never thought I could see it in black and white. A book I have done for my own son.’

‘With this, it was about me. I learned a lot about myself. It re-affirmed my feelings and passion for community work and I now want to get a job in community work.’

‘I would like to continue with the classes as my life has changed though them and they help with my confidence.’