In conversation: John Simmons & Rowena Roberts

Rowena Roberts and cofounder John Simmons talk language and connection, books, storytelling, and what it means to call yourself a writer.

JOHN
It was great to see you again at the Masterclass in Oxford – you’ve now done the full set. Your final evening piece reminded us that your Dark Angels journey began with a book. You came across my book We, Me, Them & It first and that led you to Dark Angels at Highgreen. It’s actually a well-trodden path. What did the book mean to you at the time you first read it?

ROWENA
Quite frankly, utter relief!

Writer Rowena Roberts and her munchkins

My first copywriting job was based on the principle of “write what you’re told”, which gave me little creative freedom and even less personal (or professional, for that matter) satisfaction.

On the side, I wrote magazine articles and reviews on a freelance basis – and was starting to separate the two activities in my mind as “free” writing, where I could indulge my love of language and expression, and “corporate” writing, otherwise known as formal, safe, and lacklustre beyond belief.

The worst part was the knowledge that my copywriting wasn’t doing the job it was supposed to do. Sure, my standard of English and grammar and my volume of output (there’s that corporate speak again) kept my manager happy, but I just knew how bored and uninspired the readers would be – how quickly their attention would wander, and how my world-weary words would make their day just a little more dreary.

How truly refreshing it was, then, to discover your book! To be reminded that communication in all its forms is ultimately about connection – and that a little artistry, imagination and playfulness beats a lot of USPs and jaded clichés (“passionate”, anyone?).

JOHN
‘Only connect’ (EM Forster) has always been my favourite quotation. It works for me in so many ways: the need to network, to work with others, a plea for empathy, to achieve the real purpose of communication. All those ideas were behind We, Me, Them & It and then I discovered that Dark Angels courses were really able to connect at a deeper level through a shared belief in the potential of writing.

By that point I’d also written The Invisible Grail, based on a belief (from my own work) in the power of storytelling in business. So The Invisible Grail was written as a quest, one of the fundamental archetypes of storytelling. What also emerged was that books might have two purposes for writers who came on Dark Angels courses. First to introduce them to the principles, perhaps to whet their appetite, then to remind them and recapture some of the excitement after returning to work: to renew that faith daily that business writing can be invigorating, stimulating, transforming – for the writer and the reader.

Do you dip into the books after courses? Do they revive moments from, for example, Dark Angels in Spain?

ROWENA
I do – and they do.

Dark Angels was an obvious choice after our first course. What I liked most about it was that you were walking your talk – bringing so much of your personality and background into your writing of a book that advised readers to bring more of their personality into their writing at work. The book reminds us that even people who aren’t employed as writers still often write at work – emails, letters, presentations, etc – and a little creativity can go a long way towards making work a little less mundane and a little more enjoyable.

It struck me early on in our Spanish sojourn how difficult it seemed for a group of people who were mostly employed to write to call themselves ‘writers’. Perhaps because there’s no qualification or certificate awarded, we shy away from a label that implies a level of expertise we’re not sure we have the right to claim. Milton, he was a writer. Wilde, Plath, Hemmingway, Brontë (all of them), Tolkein, Capote, Angelou, that Shakespeare wasn’t bad either. Me? I ‘write for a living’.

But the books tell us that we all have an inner voice waiting to be heard, a storyteller eager to be released, a dark angel ready to spread its wings. I continue to find ideas and inspiration in the books, before and after the courses. The courses themselves introduce us to our own hidden depths; I think we all left Aracena as proud, if somewhat surprised, writers. It’s satisfying to discover that I can walk the talk myself.

JOHN
It’s true what you say about writers finding it hard to say ‘I am a writer’. We hope they go away from our courses more confident to say those words. Perhaps it is something to do with a perceived legitimacy that comes from a published book – there’s a link between ‘author’ and ‘authority’.

But of course you don’t have to write a book to see yourself as a writer. By the time people reach Masterclass level – as you now have – our hope is that essentials are in place. By that I don’t really mean ‘technical skills’ but a change in the way you think of yourself. The inner belief to say ‘I am a writer’. To have the confidence and the sheer love of the craft to want to be the best writer you can be, whatever kind of writing you do.

I hope that rings true for you.

ROWENA
I’m proud to say that it does.

And, who knows, perhaps accepting that title in our minds is the step we need to take before we can go on to write our own books. That’s certainly been the case for some fellow Dark Angels, who became published authors after taking their courses.

Will I join their ranks in the future? Let’s watch this space…

Spanish Crossings

Dark Angels founder John Simmons has just published his second novel, Spanish Crossings, set during the Spanish Civil War. This began as a story written in Spain on a Dark Angels course in 2014.

Prologue

September 1984, Spain

Mother declared herself happy. She had not liked Madrid. In her head it still rang with the steel clang of jackboots on the cobblestones. Standing in front of Picasso’s newly installed painting Guernica, paying silent homage, had left her tearful. Now we had moved south to Seville, and her mood lifted.

Sometimes we rattled through the streets on trams but mostly we walked. Even in late September Seville was hot, the heat rising from the pavements as well as burning down from above. So our walking was strolling and our strolling was sitting in the gardens. Watching the world go by was what Mother did now, now that the world was passing her by. It seemed that way to me too, now that I was nearing my fortieth birthday.

I had been a disappointment to Mother and Spain had been the reason for her disappointment. In her youth, her beliefs and her friendships had been defined by the Spanish Civil War. In north London, particularly in Hampstead, the war had raged fiercely through the weapons of words. I wish I had heard her then, in her prime. I was left with the black and white photos of a young woman with dark hair tied back and a raised clenched fist. “No paseran!” she shouted from the centre of her eccentric group of comrades.

But I disappointed her. My political belief was warm leche compared to her hot cortado. What should I do with a degree in languages, with Spanish as my main study? Of course I came to Spain, and of course this was the 1970s with Franco still in power. I broke Mother’s forty year boycott of this country that, unseen, unvisited, she had loved despite the way it had disappointed her. Perhaps I took heart from that. Disappointments can be overcome. They do not need to last a lifetime.

I came to Spain as a lowly link in the journalistic chain. I filed stories with a reporter’s objectivity – how Mother hated that – but with increasing excitement as Franco’s time also began to fade into the history of black and white photography. He died, I rejoiced, I held my breath. I joined the people on the streets as colour returned. I was there, with shots ringing out in parliament, watching the coup failing like a scene from an opera. Then I came home.

By this time, Mother was frail. My father had long disappeared from the scene, unmentioned, unmentionable. I took it into my head to take Mother to Spain for her first experience of this country that had shaped her life.

“That would be interesting,” she said. I wasn’t sure if this was a commitment.

“I’ll pay,” I said. “We’ll stay at nice places and we can go at your pace.”

Her eyes were filming with age but there was a glint of her old spirit.

“I’m not dead yet. And not planning to be. I would like to see Madrid – and Seville. Pepe came from there.”

So he had been mentioned. Perhaps this gave me a reason, apart from filial duty, for such a trip. I could walk in my father’s disappeared footsteps.

After Madrid we took the train to Seville. Despite Mother’s rejection of the advance of age, there was no mistaking her frailty. She was in her seventies now, her skin wrinkled like overwashed fabric, her voice closer to a whisper than a shout, her gait hunched behind an invisible stick. I walked behind, to follow her pace and direction, not my own. And she gained energy day by day as we both orientated ourselves towards Seville.

We stayed in the Hotel Doña Maria near the Cathedral. The bells tolled through the night but Mother never mentioned them. Her room was rather grand, with antique dark-wood furniture and devotional paintings. Not her taste, nor mine, but she could rest in the afternoons. The idea of siesta made more sense here.

On our first morning we visited the cathedral. Mother was still shocked by its Catholicism, by the flaunting of its wealth through gold and silver. The statues of Christ, the paintings of the Virgin, allowed no questioning of faith.

“I hate this place,” Mother whispered to herself, perhaps to me.

She gravitated towards la juderia and Alcazar, instinctively on the side of the suppressed. But Jews and Muslims were not really present there. Their people had been swallowed by the past.

She loved the barrio, wandering the narrow alleyways without fear while I looked shiftily over my shoulder in the gathering darkness. We could smell rather than see the oranges deep in the leaves. Sitting on a bench in Plaza Santa Cruz, among the rose bushes, she listened to the gypsy wails and rhythmic strumming of Flamenco players getting ready to perform. By daylight she inhaled the architecture of the tobacco factory, allowing herself a secret cigarette while humming songs from Carmen.  Water trickled through the days, the trilling of fountains all over the city, the stifling air freshened by the wafting of a fan bought in a shop outside the Cathedral.

So the days drifted by. We had set no time limit on our visit but I sensed it was nearing our time to move on. Perhaps Bilbao could no longer be avoided?

It was in the Jardines de Murillo, outside the Alcazar walls, beneath the ancient, leafy trees, that Mother declared she was happy. It was a relief to me, more than I had expected.

We said good night and wished each other sleep. I listened to the Cathedral bells marking the hours. In the morning, when Mother did not appear for breakfast, I knocked on her door but there was only silence. So I had to ask the hotel manager to open her room door. Her sleep was profound but at least, I consoled myself, she died happy.

Get a copy of Spanish Crossings here ->

Dark Angels in Conversation: Amsterdam

Gillian Colhoun and Stuart Delves ran a two-day, bespoke course for Irdeto’s marketing team in Amsterdam this January. Here’s their conversation about that experience, and a follow up email from a participant that all of us live for. 

Stuart to Gillian

Hard at work at the College Hotel

Gillian, it was great co-tutoring with you again. The first time at Highgreen Manor in Northumberland and this last time in perishing January at the College Hotel in Amsterdam. The link between the two courses, the first open and the second closed, bespoke or ‘in-house’ was, of course, Irdeto’s Solution Marketing Manager Jo Wall. Who’d have thought that six months after Highgreen she would be in touch with us asking us to tailor a foundation course for her multi-national team based in Amsterdam. It would be interesting to muse on what were the key differences between the open and the bespoke. Dark Angels have done several bespoke courses before but we’ve never really highlighted the differences. What springs to mind first for you?

Gillian to Stuart

My first thought was the group dynamic. One of the more beautiful aspects of the open courses is that people arrive as strangers and leave as something quite different. In just a few short days, they go from knowing absolutely nothing about the person sitting on their right, to sharing a bond that holds them together long after the smells and sounds of the course have dimmed. Whether it’s through tackling often poignant exercises together, or acknowledging emotions that take one by surprise, the friendships live on. Would this rather thrilling element to Dark Angels be lost in a group who already know one another? Might they be less inclined to jump in to the exercises for fear of a judgmental glance from a co-worker? Of course, I really shouldn’t have worried since all eight members of this talented team arrived with a joyful desire to be a better writer and nurture mutual understanding. Every one eager to explore underlying principles  – not to dictate or invent “rules” on writing – but to introduce ways of thinking that would make them better listeners and communicators. And from their feedback and work, they absolutely succeeded. Having done similar types of bespoke courses before, has this been your experience in the past? Where does the magic come from I wonder?

Collaborating on building a brand

Stuart to Gillian

Yes, an appetite for learning and improvement has always been there in the teams we’ve worked with before and I think that’s pretty crucial to our methodology. The Irdeto team was carefully picked and had good rapport, which enabled them to embrace the newcomers. There’s always, I feel, a greater weight of expectation on a bespoke course that the sessions will ‘deliver’, in other words help to answer key issues like tone of voice or writing within business constraints. I’m glad to say that once again we manifestly helped on this score. But I think the magic comes from the personal dimension. It always amazes me that our short course can go so deep in such a brief space of time. And I think this is because even on a bespoke course, where we apply the learning to real brand and team situations, we still run our personal writing strand in parallel. I know we get responses like ‘life-changing’ on our open courses but to get them on a closed course as well still delights me after twelve years. I know you achieved some pretty deep mining in your 1-2-1 sessions. Without betraying any confidences can you say a bit about this?

Gillian to Stuart

I felt very privileged to hear how individuals felt about their personal writing; how they could channel this rediscovered energy into their world of work. We discussed many different things; the momentum to be found in writing memoir, or the sweet liberation in tackling the most opaque technology regulation in a series of 250 word stories. We appreciated the role of graphic design and how its rules can give shape and meaning to our carefully considered paragraphs. For those writing in English as a second language, we talked about sharpening our ear to more elegant phrasing by reading more, yes, but also by listening more. BBC Radio 4 has some of the best rabbit holes to venture down where that’s concerned. And ultimately we chatted about giving ourselves permission to play with words and see where the joy of that process can take us.

The last morning was significant for me. It was fun to take a lot of what was discussed during the personal writing exercises and start to apply those learnings to the Irdeto branded content. In just two days it felt like the group achieved a significant amount as a group and as individuals. Do you agree?

Stuart to Gillian

I do. The group achieved a lot as a team, in particular furthering their articulation of their tone of voice – not only getting guidance from us but, as importantly, having their discussions moderated.  This is a key aspect of closed courses and in-house day workshops. The opportunity to have searching explorations convened and sometimes steered is as important as experiencing the Dark Angels exercises. The group also seemed to get a huge amount out of the two days personally. Ellen, the boss (who the others described as a fierce but caring mama bear) said the course ‘had opened doors I didn’t even know were there’. In her follow up email she also said-

“The words from the last two days just keep swishing around in my head… Everyone I spoke to has found this to be the best training / workshop / learning of any kind of creative writing they’ve ever come across, too.”

Luckily the air in Amsterdam was icy those two days, as it helped to mask our blushes as we left the hotel for the tram stop.

Gillian to Stuart

It strikes me that this format lends itself rather superbly to the needs of a corporate communications team. That gentle balance of exploring the individual as well as the organisation means we were able to nurture the flowers and get to the worms – lovely.

Stuart Delves, Gillian Colhoun and the Irdeto team in Amsterdam

Quotes

“Thanks again for the great course. It was insightful, intense, exhausting and fun!”

~ Julia Broere, Global Marketing, Irdeto

“Thank you. It was a life-changing experience.”

~ Melinda Mattei, Irdeto

Fiction is the true alternative

by John Simmons

I cannot imagine that anyone reading this blog is a supporter of Donald Trump. The new president glories in the absence of books in his life, revels in his lack of reading. That might be the scariest fact about him, and it’s not an alternative fact. The adapted version of the classic Penguin 1984 cover speaks to me about the times we are currently enduring.

I’ve blogged here before that art and creativity have to be the best counters to dark forces like Trump. I’m just reading Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel The Underground Railroad set in slavery-era America. It’s impossible to read that novel then support Trump. Fiction really is the most powerful antidote to Trumpism because it nurtures our empathy for other human beings.

Last week I was proofreading my novel Spanish Crossings that will be published in April. The story involves the 1930s rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war and the child refugees from that war. When I began writing it I had not anticipated that it would have such an uncanny relevance to our current times. If I had anticipated that, I might have recoiled in horror and become more polemical. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel – any novel – has first to be a human story not a political treatise.

Proofreading has given me this strange experience. I finished writing the novel nearly a year ago and since then I’ve been concentrating on other work (including another novel). So I came to the proofreading task with fresh eyes and open mind, and I read the book as if it had been written by someone else. It’s a very weird feeling. When I came to the ending I had tears in my eyes. Am I allowed to cry at my own book? I remembered Jamie Jauncey’s favourite quotation from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Here I had been both writer and reader.

If you want to pre-order the book you can do so here >> I’m pleased to say early readers of proof versions have been very enthusiastic.

So 2017, for me, promises to be a creative year, my own antidote to Donald Trump and all his works. It is appropriate in a way that I will be running the first American Dark Angels course in New Bedford, Massachusetts in October. I’ll be doing that with my good American friend Richard Pelletier and you can read about it here >> The location has literary links to Herman Melville and Louisa May Alcott, fiction writers who linger in the minds of millions who have read them over the past centuries.

Out of the blue, and so appropriately, I was sent the image shown below by Anita Klein, who collaborated with me a few years ago on The angel of the stories. She calls this new linocut ‘Angel protecting an acorn’. It seemed to me the perfect image for our Dark Angels venture.

Straight Outta Uni

A couple of months ago, Dark Angels offered the younger contingent of 26 the chance to win a scholarship place on the celebrated creative writing in business course. Jamie Delves was the 26er under 30-years-old, not long out of university, who went to the magical Moniack Mhor to spread his writing wings.

by Jamie Delves
“Straight Outta Uni” is a funny time. The first question that occurred to me was whether I would have to reference anymore. I did a few jobs for my dad, a copywriter in Edinburgh, and found myself looking to confirm this uncertainty. I told him that some of these strange things in my head just lived in the public lexicon and I would struggle to tag them to original sources or places. They had no intellectual homes. They belonged to everyone. To my deep relief, he told me that I could discard the syntactical practice of referencing and trust the intelligence of my audience. But this question evolved in the company of others. Not just how I referenced material work, but how I referenced myself: who I am, where I want to go, where I’ve been, and why I’ve been there.

Right now, every conversation is an interview, and everything waits to be revealed. Unless you lift the curtain. The first big curtain I discovered myself lifting was a Dark Angels foundation course in a removed valley just above Loch Ness at October’s tail.

We sat in the belly of a converted cowshed, two unshifting stone walls facing each other, with a fire under our arm in the hearth, the hobbit house down the hill behind us in the darkness, and the unending lines of primeval trees crawling up the mountain on the other side, whispering to each other. But still, we were in an anxious horseshoe, flexing over the most succinct ways to communicate ourselves to each other and asking all those questions again. Why were we here? Not simply existentially, but very practically, what had brought us between these two stone walls in the Highlands to learn about creativity in business writing?

I knew exactly why I was there, but because of its barbarous simplicity it was difficult to articulate. There would be no other opportunity for me like this, to spend a week among intelligent people who are a mile or so further down the track than me, who I could enjoy meeting and learning from in a comfortable, residential environment.

We drank wine and whisky and beer and water together, two people would cook each evening, and every day we’d sit in the hobbit house with its grass roof and two log burners side-by-side, playing fun literary and writing games, one including a knife and a dictionary, and by the evening, all unfurled and meditative, our notebooks at rest, too, we’d stretch out listening to Jamie (OJ – I’m YJ) playing songs on his guitar that he’d written when he was 22 in Peru, remembered word perfectly.

Every day would start with music, too. Music made by us, all together, in chanting an early Christian incantation in either Latin or Gaelic. We would stand in the middle of the hobbit house in a tight circle, following choirmaster Jamie, and we’d stop when he stopped – the length of time we chanted was decided in the moment. Take time.

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