Beyond Words: beyond bumps in the road

Miranda Walker
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Miranda Walker reports on a life-changing project, supported by Cheltenham Festivals, that encourages young people with mental or physical illnesses to write


Beyond Words is a very special project in which Cheltenham Festivals and Gloucestershire Hospital Education Service work together to support young people to achieve, thrive and reach their potential through the arts, despite their medical needs. The three-year project is also supported by the St James's Place Foundation.

Beyond Words was created to improve both students' writing and their well-being, which go hand in hand. Forming part of the students' extra-curricular enrichment programme, it brings together a group of students to write over a series of months. It has been my absolute privilege to lead these sessions as the writer-in-residence during the second year of the project. As my time in the role draws to a close, I am glowing with pride for our truly wonderful writers.

All of them are experiencing a bump in the road. They are not well enough to attend school, and they are constantly managing their illnesses. Some are in pain or uncomfortable, and many experience crushing tiredness or anxiety, all of which affect their concentration and learning. They miss their friends, and all too often this leads to feelings of isolation and a lack of confidence. The extent of their life experience is curtailed, so it is common to feel left behind.

Our first workshop session took place at Museum in the Park. We began in the usual way, with me telling the group a little bit about myself and my writing. But this time I included a usually glossed over part of the story – that I began writing during a bump in the road too, when a period of illness suddenly took my life in a different direction.

I was a long-term stealth, under-the-radar writer, filling notebooks that were just for me. But I stumbled across a way still to take part in the world from which I felt I had disappeared. I had a writing voice that I could project. Out there. Without me. It could cut through and represent until I could be present again.

I didn't know then that my life would forever be changed, not by the illness as feared, but by the writing... I haven't put that voice away since, although thankfully, we are now side-by-side in the world together.

With purpose and sincerity, the Beyond Words group embraced every writing exercise I brought them, from the first to the last. We took inspiration from the amazing locations in which we met, including the beautiful Manor by the Lake, the atmospheric Sudely Castle, and the exciting Everyman Theatre. The writers diligently developed their own work at home, with growing confidence and passion. We introduced them to writers' tools and techniques, and now, at the end of the project, they wield them independently, with zeal and creativity.

Their work has been published by Cheltenham Festivals in the anthology Once upon a Place. The students were co-producers throughout: they wrote the content; selected the cover artwork and supporting photography (produced by students from the University of Gloucestershire, in response to a brief issued by our writers); influenced the layout; and saw the book coming off the printing press. They planned the book launch at Waterstones, and finally, last week, presented their work as published authors at the Times and the Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival.

As the Young Writers Showcase drew near, the students naturally experienced a little nervous excitement; this was a professional environment, with a big stage, and even BBC TV news cameras in attendance.

But as we waited to be introduced to the audience by our host - poet Anthony Anaxagorou - I was struck by the new levels of confidence shown by each of our students. One after the other, without fail, they read their work with pride, poise and undeniable flair. It was clear to all of us that this exciting collaboration has resulted in much more than a book. The benefits of this project have been immense, and in some cases life-changing.

The project will now move into its final year with its third writer and a new group of students. I'm leaving behind young writers who have grown in conviction, and now not only write bravely from the heart, but express themselves in the same vein. Writers who have let themselves be inspired, and who have been an inspiration. And as I sat in the audience and watched one of our students close the Showcase with her heartfelt, atmospheric poem, I thought about how far she had come. And how much I will miss them all.

Photos: Still Moving Media

Beyond Words is one of the many life-changing education outreach projects that Cheltenham Festivals support all year round. Find out more at http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/education/take-part/

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