The literature development agency for the West Midlands
Impact Report: adapting during a pandemic 2020-2021
Writing West Midlands is the literature development agency for the West Midlands region of the UK, and is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. Our work encourages, supports and inspires creative writers of all ages and develops all aspects of literature and creative writing in our region. In March 2020, when the UK and much of the world went into various degrees of lockdown and we and all our fellow citizens were put under a Stay At Home order, we had to adapt our work in order to survive and continue to serve the writers of the West Midlands. Restrictions in some form have been in place and continue to be into the summer of 2021. As it stands, the venues we use for the main body of our work remain shut across the region. We wanted to document this pivotal year, which for Writing West Midlands has proven to be a catalyst for enormous change, innovation, and experimentation in the way we work. Some changes are permanent, whilst others may be temporary. In all cases, the way we have been able to not just continue working, but expand our work, has allowed us to reach and work with many more writers, beyond the geographical remit we have hitherto had in place. It has inspired not just us, but many of our writers, to expand their horizons and see what opportunities lie in locations and situations we hadn’t previously contemplated. In years to come, the 2020-21 period will, no doubt, be historically significant. For Writing West Midlands, and the writers we work with, it may also prove to be transformational.
Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive, Writing West Midlands
The 13,000 square kilometres that make up our region – from Ledbury to Lichfield, Stoke to Sandwell – are home to some 5.7 million people and a broad range of communities, some marginalised by location, education, race or class. We want all individuals and communities in the West Midlands to have access to good creative writing, and the opportunity to help create it. Stokeon-Trent
Telford & Wrekin
In March 2020, as Writing West Midlands switched to online remote working, we realised this allowed us to work with more of our writers, more closely, than ever before – suddenly, we could be in contact with many more people than previously, and in many cases more easily. In the year April 2020 to March 2021, we worked with over 106 writers on a 1-to-1 basis, providing more than 194 hours of intensive professional development. We delivered over 3,800 hours of training to young people this year alone, via Zoom training sessions, YouTube video writing prompts, Instagram weekly prompts, and the postal Spark FunSheets with writing activities for our youngest young writers. Our educational programmes continued with virtual sessions in schools, and have enabled more than 20,000 young people to develop their creative writing practice, guided by professionals. We ran online events and writing workshops, and commissioned a new podcast as part of the 2020 Birmingham Literature Festival, partnering up with Durham Book Festival for a series of video broadcasts as well as releasing a weekly podcast for 13 weeks in the autumn of 2020.
Finally, we worked with Library of Birmingham to advertise, interview and announce the new Birmingham Poet Laureate (Casey Bailey) and Young Poet Laureate (Fatma Mohiuddin), who will, amongst other events, represent the city during the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Unexpected benefits of moving online: Wider geographical access: people attending from all over the UK, as well as mainland Europe, the USA, New Zealand, India and South Africa Broadening access: captions / live captions / transcripts for podcasts and events / questions asked in Q&A / no need to travel to venues / anxiety about spaces Quicker to set up and publicise allowing us to respond more quickly to new ideas Better and more immediate feedback allowing for more informed decisionmaking from WWM team Opportunity to try new things, some of which have proved exceptionally successful: eg Spark Teen Writing Season, Teen Writers Conference, and online live Short Courses Easier to have one-to-one career catch-ups with our Room 204 writersin-development
Young Writers Our youngest writers were the most adept at moving to an onlineonly world. However, with the demands of online learning with intermittent school closures and class bubbles isolating, attendance and enthusiasm for online Spark Young Writers’ sessions has fluctuated over the year.
Our young writers’ projects are crucial to the impact we have across the region. We work with young people - from 8 to 20 years old - to develop their creative talents as writers. This year we reached 930 young people, delivering over 2,100 hours of training.
Spark Young Writers Groups The Spark Young Writers groups provide a supportive and diverse network for young writers throughout the region. From Worcester to Warwickshire, Stoke-onTrent to Shropshire, we run 20 dynamic monthly creative writing groups, each led by a professional writer. In March 2020, with all in-person gatherings banned, we commissioned our Lead Writers to create weekly writing video prompts for our Spark Young Writers to use at their leisure, and shared them on YouTube and our social media channels. 1,469 young people interacted with our online writing content in Spring/ Summer 2020 From September 2020, all 20 existing Spark Young Writers groups started meeting again online via Zoom, and we added two new groups to the line up – one for the Junior age group, and one for Teens – which will remain online even once we are able to meet in person. This will allow us to continue to provide a Spark Young Writers group for those who would struggle to attend in person due to accessibility issues, additional needs, or distance from a venue.
Spark Teen Writing Season Noticing that the teen writers were eager to do more writing online, the Spark Young Writers team devised an entirely new set of online workshops for this group: from December 2020 to June 2021, six 2-hour workshops for teen writers have been offered, run by professional writers, and giving the teen writers the same training Writing West Midlands would offer to adult writers. Subjects have included: Crime Writing, Writing for Audio Drama, and Dark & Gothic Stories
We’ve provided 250 hours of online writer training to teen writers in 2020-21
“It was really enjoyable. I love gothic fiction, but I’ve never written anything in the genre so this has been the push I’ve needed to try it out.” From a participant of the Gothic Fiction session during the Teen Writing Season
Spark Teen Writers Conference
Spark Summer Writing Challenge
The main innovation for 2020-21 was the addition of a Spark Teen Writers’ Conference, as a partner event to the annual National Writers Conference run by Writing West Midlands annually for over 10 years.
Unable to meet in person, in July 2020 the usual Spark Summer School became the online Spark Summer Writing Challenge where 26 young writers received expert advice from two professional writers during five days of inspiring, thoughtprovoking and entertaining writing activities. They also had the opportunity to have one-to-one feedback on their work throughout the week, and meet other writers from across the region.
On Saturday 27 March 2021, we hosted 13 one-to-ones with teens getting feedback on their work from professional writers, followed by 3 hours of experience-led professional insights with agents, editors, writers, producers and performers on the business and career of being a writer. Over 60 young writers attended on Zoom, with feedback such as: “I found it very helpful, I find that connecting to other writers always makes me more invigorated to write and learn myself.” “Extraordinarily helpful! I’ve learnt about so many new opportunities and the advice given is invaluable. Thank you so, so much - this is probably the best Zoom event I’ve attended (frankly, I don’t like Zoom that much, but I loved this and found it supremely fun!) and I’d love to attend next year. Everyone was delightful and very interesting, and I now feel inspired. Just thank you again, it was brilliant!”
Spark Young Writers Magazine We publish work produced by young writers from across the region in our online Spark Young Writers Magazine, including submissions from our international partners on the READ ON project in the June issue. Edited by a professional writer and with a strict submission policy, the magazine is published three times a year, and provides young people with valuable experience of the publishing world: how to make their work stand out, how to work with an editor, and how to revise and develop their writing.
READ ON EU READ ON is a Creative Europe Community Programme designed to reignite a passion for reading in young people across Europe, whilst actively exploring different ways for young people to experience, share and create literature. Writing West Midlands is the UK partner. One of the elements of the READ ON project is to develop young people’s engagement with writing and reading through hands-on involvement presenting events at literature festivals. Two young people, who had worked on the Fan Fiction strand of READ ON, worked with Shantel Edwards, Birmingham Literature Festival Director, then recorded an interview with Louise O’Neill as part of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents… podcast series. Young people in four schools also had the exciting opportunity to work with professional writers in a series of workshops on plot, character and story line development. This initiative saw writers create an incredible selection of short stories for an anthology of new writing for young people called Sealed with a Loving Kiss. The anthology brought together writing from Norway, Portugal and Italy and was published by local publisher, The Emma Press.
Writer Development Room 204
Short Courses From May 2020, all our short courses, workshops and training sessions moved online via Zoom.
From May 2020 to March 2021, we: Developed 3 online writer training offers: 5 week live teaching; 2 hour writer training sessions (both via Zoom); and self-led online lessons via Teachable Commissioned 22 short courses Delivered 1,553 hours of writer training Employed 14 writers to run online short courses Trained 46 writers to run online writing sessions via Zoom and Teachable
Room 204 is our writer development programme which enables writers from across the West Midlands to develop their skills through mentoring, networking, performances, and one-to-one career support. Each year 15 new writers join a cohort now made up of over 145 poets, short story writers, novelists and playwrights, all of whom receive ongoing support.
The first online Regional Writer Meet Up, June 2020 In Spring 2020, our Chief Executive Jonathan Davidson took the opportunity of the first national lockdown to get back in touch with all 145 writers who have been part of Room 204 since its inception in 2012, and offer them all a catch up online meeting.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, we have: Delivered 194 hours of one-to-one development with writers Offered 15 workshops and training sessions online solely for Room 204 Welcomed the 15 writers of the 2020 cohort entirely online Recruited the 2021 cohort of Room 204
From a participant on the online short course: Further Adventures in Poetry with Liz Berry, 2021:
“Thank you for such a wonderful dose of inspiration - my head is now buzzing with ideas! It has also been so wonderful for my wellbeing to sit with other poets and writers in such a welcoming space and create and speak together. This has been the best workshop series I have ever attended, I cannot recommend you to others highly enough!”
From a participant on the online short course: Write a Radio Play in 5 weeks with Helen Cross, 2020:
“That course was the highlight of the lockdown. Can’t thank you enough for organising it. Such a treat!”
We facilitated four Regional Networks: Independent Publishers, Literary Translators, Literature Festivals, University Creative Writing Courses. We ran a Creative Writing Careers Seminar at Birmingham City University
We mentored local publisher Nine Arches Press, including assisting with recruitment for their Dynamo Poetry Development Scheme. We ran nine Birmingham International Literary Salons online via Zoom
We ran the process for selecting the Birmingham Poet Laureate and Birmingham Young Poet Laureate. We managed regional applications for The Literary Consultancy Free Reads Scheme.
Room 204 20-21 cohort meeting
Festivals & Events All our events and the entire Birmingham Literature Festival moved online for 2020-21. We delivered our first ever digital festival which ran from October – December 2020, creating a 13-episode podcast series (Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…), a 31-day Twitter Breakfast Poetry project, 6 online creative writing workshops and 5 video events. We collaborated with Durham Book Festival for the first time to deliver 4 events with authors Layla Saad, Caleb Femi, Laura Bates and Alistair Campbell and with poetry press Nine Arches on a live National Poetry Day Cabaret event. We offered two of our young writers the opportunity to interview bestselling novelist Louise O’Neill in partnership with Creative Europe project READ ON.
Delivering the festival online, at no cost to audiences (with the exception of the creative writing workshops), enabled us to make the festival more accessible than it has ever been before. Removing the cost and geographic location aspects of our events meant we were able to remove some of the traditional access barriers. We also ensured that access was at the forefront of the ways in which we delivered our content, providing closed captions for video events and transcripts for all podcasts. Our 2020 festival programme was truly international, reaching an audience of nearly 5,000 people in the UK, USA, India, South Africa and beyond, making the festival the most accessible it has ever been.
“One of the advantages - we had participants from Scotland and Bermuda - not to mention the poet in Bogota! It went well with the participants [and] we’re going to go on meeting to complete the ‘project’!” Poetry in Translation workshop 8
We delivered: 6 free online Regional Writer Meet-Ups for new writers to network with more established writers and meet the WWM team 13 podcast episodes on the new Birmingham Lit Fest Presents… podcast feed, released weekly from October to December 2020, involving 33 podcast guests 5 (so far) monthly podcast “shorts” from writers commissioned by BLF to reflect on the experience of over a year of the pandemic in our Monthly Writers’ Blog (published online and distributed by email and social media) 4 online video literature discussions, in partnership with Durham Book Festival 31 daily poems throughout October, via Soundcloud and shared on social media, with 2,196 listens at the time of writing (May 2021) 6 online writing workshops in the festival period in October 2020 3 free creative writing workshops with Professor Thomas Glave to help people write about their experience of the last year and start writing again
We also worked with Historic England and the 6 other Regional Writing Development Agencies to bring writers to forgotten high streets across England: High Street Tales. Our chosen high street was in Wednesbury, where writer Maria Whatton spent time during a local lockdown in December 2020, then a national lockdown in January 2021, speaking to local high street users via Zoom to get stories about the place and hear what they thought of it. The result was a short story – Flying – which formed part of an anthology available online and in print, a podcast episode in the High Street Tales podcast feed, and an online event in March 2021.
We worked with the West Midlands Readers’ Network to run The Librarian’s Virtual Toolkit Conference online in November 2020, with over 200 librarians from across England watching via YouTube and many hundreds watching after the live event.
We worked with BBC Arts and Nine Arches Press to apply for funding to host the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival in September 2021 as part of Coventry City of Culture.
Beyond the West Midlands Nationally:
We took part in the national arts surveys After the Interval and Culture Re:Start, as part of a national effort to understand audiences’ shifting attitudes to reopening. Birmingham Literature Festival audiences were surveyed in June 2020, November 2020 and March 2021, with over 500 responses every time, feeding into a national picture but also giving us invaluable insight to inform our choices and decisions for future programming.
We signed up to the Culture Central More than a Moment pledge, created as a response to the Summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, to tackle anti-Black racism and increasing access/representation of Black creative professionals within the arts
We sent our own survey out to writers in June 2020 to see how they were coping with lockdown, and how we might help. We had over 100 responses, which informed how we tailored our programme of work to support our networks of writers. 10
We offered informal and formal mentoring for literary publishers in the region, alongside our regular networking meetings.
We liaised closely with universities in our region teaching creative writing, offering a range of opportunities to their staff and students. We continued to work as a lead partner with the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival (due to be presented in Coventry in September 2021)
We continued to manage the West Midlands Readers’ Network, running a successful conference (The Librarians’ Virtual Toolkit) and commissioning short stories for readers’ groups
Online and digital creation: As a result of working online, the Child Safeguarding Policy, Writer Self-Declaration Form and our child Safeguarding Code of Conduct were all updated. A new Child Safeguarding Agreement document for parents/ carers and young writers was drawn-up.
We developed online poetry projects, including the Bloodaxe daily Breakfast Poems distributed via Soundcloud and social media
Our websites writingwestmidlands.org, birminghamliteraturefestival. org and sparkwriters.org were completely rebuilt and updated to allow us to showcase our online work and provide improved and integrated online booking for events, short courses, workshops and Spark Young Writers sessions.
We worked collaboratively with other regional festivals to commission and provide online literature discussions We created audio and video writing prompts for Spark Young Writers, shared on YouTube and social media We created, commissioned and produced a remotely recorded Birmingham Lit Fest Presents… podcast series
We ensured the accessibility of online events, with many being free to attend/watch, transcripts or captioning available, and travel/distance from the venue no longer an issue 11
Photo credits: Lee Allen Paul Stringer Patrons: Liz Berry Stuart Maconie Sathnam Sanghera Kit de Waal Board of Trustees: George Bastow Nikki Bi Lisa Blower Olwen Brown (Chair) Maeve Clarke Hannah Clifford Helen Cross Professor Gregory Leadbetter Dr Ceri Morgan Professor Femi Oyebode Carol Phillips John Roberts Staff: Emma Boniwell Olivia Chapman Heddwen Creaney Jonathan Davidson (Chief Executive) Shantel Edwards Peggy Long Jonathan Davidson can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
writingwestmidlands.org @writingwestmids Design by Keith Dodds / Printed by ClarkePrint
Adapting during a pandemic