Interview: Create writer Joanna Ingham

Create’s professional writer Joanna Ingham has worked with us for almost a decade, guiding and inspiring vulnerable children and adults across the country to explore their thoughts and feelings through creative writing. As a writer of poetry, short stories and a novel for young people, Joanna has shared her love of writing with many people on the margins of society who can find themselves voiceless or without an opportunity to communicate their innermost thoughts.

As part of our Speak With My Voice project, Joanna has recently been working with a group of people who attend Deptford Reach, a drop-in centre for people whose lives have been damaged by homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and social exclusion. We asked her to answer a few questions about Speak With My Voice, her experiences at Create workshops over the last ten years and what creative writing means to her.

Why do you think engagement with the arts is important? What do you think the people who participate in Speak With My Voice get from taking part?

I think that engagement with the arts is very important for everyone. In my view, the arts enable us to understand the world, each other and ourselves better. They support our imaginative lives and help us to notice, reflect on and enjoy what is around us. From what I have observed, the arts certainly seem to have a significant impact on the people who take part in Speak With My Voice. Creating poetry and music brings them together, helps them to communicate and share their experiences, and goes some way to restoring their sense of self-worth.The project gives people the opportunity to be heard, understood and appreciated. It allows them to have fun, to offer support to others and to make a contribution to a worthwhile whole.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into writing? What opportunities were available to you, and how did you go about becoming a professional writer?

I have loved writing for as long as I can remember. I wrote poetry and stories at school and, after winning a local poetry competition at the age of fifteen, I was invited to join a poetry group. The members were very kind to me and inspired me to take my writing more seriously. I studied English literature at university, where I also belonged to a poetry group and wrote plays. I went on to work in writing theatre, where my role was to support other budding writers. Some years later, I did a postgraduate certificate course in creative writing and began to have poems published in magazines. I also got an agent after reading a short story at an event. I am now working on a novel for young people with her support. img2

What does writing mean to you? Is there a therapeutic element to creative writing?

Creative writing helps me make sense of the world and what happens to me. It makes me happy. I am not trained in the use of creative writing as therapy but for me I would say it does have a therapeutic element. I find it relaxing because it demands total concentration. There is something very satisfying and pleasing about wrestling with big thoughts and emotions, with characters and plots, and finding just the right words to contain them. When I read, I want to feel close to the writer, to feel that they have understood me. When I write, I am trying to communicate in the best, most accurate and truthful way I can.

How do you approach your Speak With My Voice workshops? How do you get the most out of the participants?

I approach a Speak With My Voice workshop as I would any workshop with a group of committed, talented writers. I find a stimulus – a published poem or a set of images, for example – and use that as a starting point. If a piece of writing or a photograph seems inspiring to me then I hope it will draw out good writing from others too. I think the atmosphere of the room is very important: it needs to be warm, open but structured if I am to get the best out of the participants. The activities I plan need to be clear, challenging but with enough flexibility built into them so that anyone – from a highly able and talented writer to somebody having a go at writing for the first time, perhaps with English as an additional language – can access them.

Speak With My Voice brings together people whose lives have been damaged by homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and social exclusion. Could you tell us of any specific experiences on the project that stick in your mind?

Many participants have come along to a workshop looking very dubious about taking part and claiming that they won’t be able to write anything. On almost every occasion, though, they have written a poem and shared it with the group. I have been repeatedly surprised and moved by their willingness to take a risk, and by their work, which has often been excellent. It is very rewarding to see people amaze themselves and impress others. img3

Do you have any favourite quotes that the participants have said?

One participant, who is in his sixties, said that he had never written a poem in his life before the project. He has now written a whole series of poems, which he clearly feels very proud of. Another participant was pleased to come back to poetry after writing it as a teenager but little since.

Have you got a favourite piece of work that they’ve created?

One participant in particular always produces stunning work. He has an original and confident writing style, a real voice, and I always look forward very much to hearing what he writes.

Why do you think it’s important that Create uses professional artists to run its projects?

I think it is important for the people who participate in Create’s projects to meet and work with artists. As artists, we have chosen to put our artform at the centre of our lives and, if we so clearly value the arts and creativity, then hopefully the participants we work with will be inspired to take these things seriously too.