July 2020

The Writing Squad provides workshops, 1-1 support and investment for young writers. The squad's free two year programme is for writers aged 16-21 who live, work or study in the North of England. Director Steve Dearden has been telling us about their experiences adjusting to these unprecedented circumstances, what their COVID-19 response strategies are, and how they are playing out. The Writing Squad's four-point Community Story covers:

  1. Life in Lock-down
  2. Adapting to New Approaches
  3. Considering our Comeback
  4. Navigating the New Normal

Life in Lock-down

The fallout of the crisis has been pretty awful for many individuals in the Squad, especially those who recently went freelance, and all the others who are furloughed, working from home, left up in the air by universities, or on universal credit. However, I do think it is important that we don’t lose sight of the positive narratives in the general mood of pessimism and loss - both for us as an organisation, and for some individual artists who have always worked in other low paid jobs who now have an income and time for once.

For the Squad it has been the most wonderful jolt of human and creative energy, that has had an immediate effect and will positively change what we do in the future. The situation plays into all our strengths. We have always been a dispersed. virtual organisation (I guess literature always has been even before the internet - a dispersed network of cottage industries then!) For us building is a verb and not a noun; digital is not a platform it is energy, currency, it has always been how we meet, talk, share and reach.

We have always used Zoom to enable housebound members and our writers abroad to attend workshops and Skype to do one one-to-ones - the only difference is that we are now all on Zoom.

We had a big 'Distanced Social' at the beginning of the lockdown and, taking ideas from the Squad, have put together loads of workshops led by Squad writers to bridge the time until our new programme begins in June.

We also have weekly mini goals sessions for scriptwriters/prose writers/poets, where we just set small goals - like making a submissions, finishing a chapter, getting up every day at 6am, going for two bike rides a week... whatever. Then we meet a week later to reset. We also have lots of interesting conversations about writing, or productivity/time management along the way.

Adapting to New Approaches

All these have been popular and we have worked with more Squad writers than ever before during the crisis, and a wider selection of them too. The online programme has brought in people who didn’t engage as much with face-to-face stuff, and some returning writers who we haven’t been in contact with for some time.

There are many things we have put in place over the last few months that will continue as part of out core activity in the future. Our ongoing business has continued pretty much as normal. We recruited a new Squad, thirty new writers to work with over the next two years at a meeting involving our Core Team and Squad grads. We have also been doing projects like Staying Home and A Diary of Windows and Small Things, as well as some Mail Art - there are two envelopes slowly making their way round to which Squad writers are contributing made things incorporating text.

Considering our Comeback

We are approaching the rest of the year with energy and excitement. The only negative thing for us was losing project funding, especially for the work with museums and young people in Yorkshire and more with the regeneration project in Stockport, that we were going to do in March, April, May - but that isn’t destabilising. It has also knocked our fund-raising for our Shadow Core Team proposal, as the focus of funders and charities has shifted elsewhere, but we do have £5,000 from Amazon towards the £27,000 cost of that. Development work has started for that in a practical sense, in that all the workshops during the lockdown have been delivered by Squad alumni.

ACE did a risk assessment on what would happen if CEOs of NPOs were all taken out by something, and found that the level of risk for literature would be massively higher than for other arts forms. This highlights yet again the underfunding of the infrastructure and its reliance on individuals, often the founding individuals of their organisations. So among the optimism, catastrophic loss is much more of a possibility for literature organisations than for some others.

Navigating the New Normal

In the past we have delivered between 12 and 15 workshops/writers’ meetings a year. In this period we have been delivering 5 a week. We have also recruited and inducted 30 writers into Squad 10 and they have all had their initial 1-1s and begun their workshop programme, and some have taken spare places on Squad 1-9 workshops. 87 writers have taken part in Squad activities as opposed to 31 in the same period last year and 15 of these have been people who have come to their first Squad activity in over a year.

We have also recruited Francesca Haig and she has quickly got the Squad, taking part in the prose writers’ minigoals sessons, working with grads as well as Squad 10 members and contributing to new ideas. Even some of our project work with Ignite and Stockport Cultural Champions has come back on stream. The overall narrative of the organisation is positive and exciting with, of course two essential caveats:

  • The current situation remains difficult for many of our writers individually
  • Being a lean organisation makes us effective but also makes us vulnerable should we lose Core Team members.

We will return to doing physical Squad days when we can, and physical face to face, and I’d much prefer to induct and start workshops with a new Squad face to face than online, as we are having to this time. Though even that has its advantages and make it easier to include part Squad members in those initial meetings.

Interested in contributing a Community Story of your own? Download the template HERE.

If you have any questions or are ready to send over a story, please get in touch with vanny.lambert@theaudienceagency.org