Ditch the brief. Forget the phone interviews. 26 board member Neil Baker is now writer in residence at the London Community Foundation. And he’s here to tell you about the creative freedom, inspiration and stories uncovered in staff kitchens that come with it.
I wrote a piece for the 26 newsletter back in 2012 about a weekend I spent as writer in residence at a music festival. It was a fun experience. Creatively rewarding. Personally challenging (oh, the toilets!) And something I wanted to have another go at.
I quickly followed it up with a residency in a bookshop, writing on-the-spot stories for its customers. That was fun, in a terrifying way. But it was only a one-day project. I wanted something more substantial, a residency I could properly reside in.
So now I’m writer in residence at the London Community Foundation, a charity that supports grassroots projects across London – from women’s shelters, to homeless drop-in centres, to dance clubs for the elderly.
My role involves writing about these projects and helping the Foundation with its wider communications. I’ve got plans to run some writing workshops too.
How’s that different to a normal client relationship? I’m a freelance writer, communications bod and work-shopper, after all.
Well partly it’s about how I’m doing the work. My only real brief is to ‘get under the skin’ of the organisation, to uncover its stories and write them as well as I can. Being given that kind of freedom – responsibility, even – has inspired me to raise my game.
So I’ve done things I wouldn’t normally do: sat in on team meetings, mooched around their staff kitchen with my eyes and ears open, and made an extra effort to interview people face-to-face, when a phone interview might normally suffice.
And when I’ve visited Foundation-funded projects, I’ve gone with just my notebook, pen and a few simple questions. I don’t have any particular outcomes in mind. I don’t have to worry about teasing out features and benefits or whether everyone is staying ‘on message’. I just sit down with amazing people and ask them what they do and why it matters – how it changes lives.
But the difference that makes this a true residency, rather than a great freelance gig for a dream client, is that I’ll be developing my own creative work, inspired by my time with the Foundation.
I don’t know what form this will take, and it’s entirely up to me. It strikes me that the three words London, Community and Foundation are ripe for exploration. After I visited a homeless centre in Kingston and the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton my head was buzzing with short story and poem ideas.
I’ve only been working on this for a few months, but I can feel the residency changing the way I think about the rest of my writing projects. The Foundation has been delighted with my efforts so far, and I think we’re both excited to see how things develop. I’d recommend this kind of relationship to other 26ers.
Fancy a go?
Before you start a writing residency it’s important to agree what both parties – writer and host organisation – want to get out of it, and what each is prepared to put in. It’s good to leave room for flexibility and change, but you need some ground rules.
The National Association of Writers in Education produces an excellent, and very comprehensive, guide on how to plan and develop a residency. It includes ideas on the kind of host organisations you might approach. You can download it here.
The guide defines a residency as: “A project where a writer is attached to a specific place or organisation or community over a period of time, and is asked to facilitate and create new work and to explore and develop relationships.” Sound fun? I think so.