If you live wherever people gather, words are mostly everywhere you look. But how often do we ponder just exactly what they're doing - not saying, but actually doing?
Three weeks ago I had ample opportunity for word pondering. Against my - not-so, as it turns out - better judgment I was sent to the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, which is located just outside Hebden Bridge - 'lesbian capital of the North' I was informed by at least two people - to spend five days with Dark Angels.
No. Dark Angels are nothing to do with James Cameron's TV series about a bike courier in post-event Seattle. That'd be silly. In fact Dark Angels run a series of courses on creative writing in business. That's pretty much all I knew when I headed up to Yorkshire on a wet Monday evening. Two trains and a very small bus later I trudged down a steep road to Lumb Bank, an eighteenth-century converted mill-owner's house once owned by Ted Hughes. Over the course of the next few hours I was joined by our two tutors, John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey; Steve, who runs Lumb Bank; my five fellow participants Lyn, Julie, Molly, Sue and Marilyn; and Ted Hughes (the cat, female, a bit butch - surely a resident of nearby Hebden Bridge?).
For five days six complete strangers would have to cook, eat, light fires and generally live together while exploring and coming to terms with a number of - sometimes painful - things about themselves as writers. This wasn't writing as therapy. It was therapy as writing.
Each morning, we'd gather in the converted barn and, with the chanting out the way - you might well laugh, but it aerates the blood and clears out last night's cobwebs, never mind the bloody chakras - we'd get down to some serious writing exercises designed to get to the meat of ourselves as writers.
In no particular order - though I suspect the order we followed was crucial to the madness in John and Jamie's method - we were asked to come up with the title and opening page of our autobiography; we had to write our version of the first paragraph of a published novel; we listened to music and wrote what we heard; we committed automatic writing and haiku to paper; we personalized Simon Armitage's Not the Furniture Game which is about Ted Hughes (not the cat, the other one); we formed an imaginary business, writing its founding story and its launch campaign. There were many other activities of a writing nature that I shan't write about here for the sake of brevity.
In-between, while we scratched our heads over our daily homework activities, there were walks, a lunch with Simon Armitage - yes, him again, much wine, piano and guitar playing and singing (not by yours truly) and plenty of time - for me at least - to realise just how complacent I'd become as a copywriter after ten years.
Give me a book and I'll slap a blurb on it in half an hour if need be. I pride myself on getting the job done quickly, pertinently and without fuss. I work on approximately two hundred titles a year so there's no time for mucking about. Yet when I started at Penguin I'd be tinkering with each blurb for days trying to come up with the right formulation of words: a decent structure, pace, tension, a good stab at reflecting the author's style. In short, putting together the most compelling proposition for our ideal reader standing in a bookshop.
Sure, I was green and was learning on the job. And with experience came all the tricks, the instant recognition of this or that requirement and, of course, a certain wisdom that speeds the process up. But wisdom too easily comes at the expense of wonder and fun. The words lose their excitement, playing with them becomes less of a joy. So you tend to experiment less and take fewer risks (if only because you know now that certain retailers and authors are - with very good reason - risk averse). In knowing the rules of the game you become bound by them. And that is never a good place to be.
My week with Dark Angels was about breaking down barriers inside myself. It was about how exciting words can be - not just what they say, but their sounds and patterns and effects, the rhythms and the sheer ruddy joy of playing around with them.
Words do so many things that we easily take for granted, and if ever we take words for granted we're no longer seeing them properly. Worse, we're no longer listening to them. So thank you, John and Jamie and Dark Angels, for bringing me back to the words.
And if you can't spend a week with Dark Angels yourself? Then get hold of a decent volume of poetry. There you'll surely be inspired by other writers, giddy with their own delight in words.
Isn't that the most wonderful place to be?