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…

In Conversation: Stuart Delves & Samm Short

 

Stuart Delves

Stuart Delves and Samm Short remember how last year’s advanced course was a little bit different – blending writing and yoga in the house overlooking the sierra.

STUART:
Samm, you began your Dark Angels journey on a Starter Day in Strawberry Hill. How did you find that day?

SAMM:
Darkly fun. I hadn’t really appreciated how important a sense of place is to DA, and was thrilled to find myself somewhere as odd as Strawberry Hill House. I also wasn’t prepared for how kooky some of the writing activities were, and was happily taken by surprise by what we were asked to do, and in such wicked time restraints. I wrote, and when I got home I re-wrote, and the simple pleasure of being with language again was beautiful.

Samm Short

I think perhaps because I was teaching – for want of a better word – around that time, I’d forgotten what it was like to just write without a goal. I’d allowed a gap to forge between what I was prompting others to do, and what I was doing myself. So to write for the pure fun of it, with no product or plan in sight was like rediscovering a childhood wonder. Of course the beauty of that kind of writing is that is nearly always triggers something ‘useful’ (I re-read my website with a mixture of horror and fascination that night), – but I was much more thrilled by the fact I’d written a poem, and a spooky one at that.

STUART:
Your writing had impressed the tutors, John and Elen, and Neil also knew your work, plus the fact that you also taught yoga. So we hatched a plan. Or rather they suggested I hatch a plan. They thought you were up to going straight on to the Advanced Course in Spain. And what about adding in a bit of yoga on the fringes of the day? Well that’s what we did. Before asking you how you thought the yoga fitted in, tell me how you found Spain and Finca El Tornero – a very specially selected Dark Angels place.

SAMM:
The Finca was magical. In the evenings we sat around the fire drinking wine and listening to jazz, and it was straight out of a Woody Allen screenplay – ‘A group of ambitious writers met at an old Finca in the hills of Seville…’; it felt like anything could happen.

In the mornings we’d wake up and wander into the kitchen with the smell of fresh coffee – thank you Richard! – and then out into the sunny courtyard with pen, paper and a whole heap of curiosity.

I’d been working as a freelance copywriter and writing tutor for two years at that point, and was used to being stuck at my desk, writing hard to meet deadlines and bring in work. I rarely found time to reflect on what I was writing and whether there were ways of making it more effective, and more enjoyable to do. Being at the finca provided much needed breathing space, and a boost to my motivation.

It was also a particularly poignant introduction to Spain; after the course I drove down to meet my parents at our new home just outside Malaga. It was our last viewing before moving out there a month later, to set up a retreat centre for yoga, art and writing.

STUART
I hope that is going well and I’m sure you weave together the three disciplines seamlessly. How did you find the yoga practice combined with the Dark Angels course? You certainly had a few enthusiasts joining the morning sessions!

SAMM
It was such a beautiful way to start the day. For me yoga is a way of moving away from the self-limiting, overly-rational mind, and submerging into something deeper and more instinctual. I find it helps me to get out of my own way, and be more intuitive and present with whatever life throws at me – and as a freelance copywriter that’s essential!

When I write – whether for a client’s funding bid or a personal poem – my internal censor can kick in almost instantly, strangling the words before they have a chance to be born. Doing a physical and focussing practice beforehand can set the mind-body-heart system up so that censor has less of a grip, and we can perhaps be a little braver in our writing. We’re surrounded by words – and sometimes we need to shake things up a bit to find new ways of communicating with them.

In the morning sessions we started with a quote by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi – his words never cease to amaze me on a poetic but also on a spiritual level. And we tried an afternoon walking meditation too– one fellow writer found the missing last line to his chapter in that session, which was a great example of how these practices can complement each other.

But I’m obviously biased! How was it from your point of view?

STUART
I thought it was a really nice addition and contributed to the reflective atmosphere of Finca El Tornero. Because we choose secluded retreat settings for our courses there is always a hint of the monastic, where physical exercises were traditionally used to aid contemplation, yoga and tai chi in the East and the perambulation of cloisters in the West.

The relationship between movement and writing has often been a fascinating topic of discussion that arises within Dark Angels. A lot of people who come on our courses from the corporate world are runners. And many are dedicated walkers. I particularly enjoyed the walking meditation, barefoot in the sun kissed grass.

A tip I often give, particularly when running in-house workshops in corporate settings is “Get up from your desk. Go for a walk, around the square or park if you can, or to the water cooler at the vey least.” Movement shifts thought. Being glued to the keyboard eight hours a day is antithetical to creativity.

Andalucia was a great place to bring in the yoga practice. One of the things that keeps me enthralled by Dark Angels is the openness to development. The year before last in Aracena we joined the annual pilgrimage out from the town into the countryside following an ox-drawn cart bearing a candle-lit effigy of the Virgin. It was a beautiful, affecting experience. Then last year, along with your yoga, Neil took a group to an outlying village along the old cobbled and shaded donkey tracks that criss-cross the Sierra. You’re right – anything can happen. Like a good Rioja, as Dark Angels matures, the mix gets richer. Thank you Samm for helping to make last year’s course so special.

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

Dark Angels in Conversation

Writing and place
Co-founder John Simmons in conversation with Associate Partner, Richard Pelletier

John to Richard

Place is always important to any writer. I mean a number of things by that. First, the places we go where the surroundings inspire writing, such as the locations for our courses. But second, and what I’d like to talk about here…the places where – after we return home from a Dark Angels experience – we find we are best able to write.

SKAKESPEARE AND COMPANY “…an estimated 30,000 aspiring writers have bunked at Shakespeare’s over the decades, sleeping on intermittently bedbug-infested cots and benches scattered throughout the store in exchange for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing…”

I was thinking as well that people often arrive at one of our courses feeling uncertain, perhaps questioning “Am I a writer?” But in most cases they leave saying quietly but confidently “Yes, I am a writer”. So where do we then choose to write? A coffee shop in town or a shed in the garden? I’m always fascinated to hear from other writers, and to visit the houses where, for example, Dickens, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway wrote. Perhaps they shed light on our own writing practices?

Richard to John

Place is magic. I once lived a couple doors away from the lifelong home of H.L. Mencken, possibly the greatest American stylist after Mark Twain. The decision to live there was deliberate. Outside my windows: the H.L. Mencken fountain, encircled by bronze replicas of his books. What a place to begin writing, inspired by the man who said: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” (Also: Edgar Allen’s Poe’s house was a few blocks away.)

I remember visiting Monticello. I was awed by Thomas Jefferson’s writing ‘cabinet’ as he called his office. This was a space wholly dedicated to writing, to words. But you just could not escape the shackles – the monstrosity of the slave quarters.

That’s a long way from Stumptown Café, where I spent several good hours yesterday, strangely impervious to noise and music, working on my book. What sorts of conditons inspire you? And whose writing spaces have you seen?

John to Richard

I try to visit writers’ houses wherever I go – or places associated with writers. A visit to New Bedford was a perfect accompaniment to reading Moby-Dick as it’s Melville’s whaling town and the place where the Seaman’s Chapel is.

But the place I love most as a writer’s house is Milton’s Cottage on the outskirts of London (Chalfont St Giles was deep in the countryside when Milton escaped the plague there in the mid-17th century). It’s a poky little house, low-ceilinged, dark – I wrote about it in a book called Common Ground.

Milton’s Cottage

The upstairs was inaccessible except by a rope, and that’s where the women of Milton’s household had their bedrooms. Milton by then was blind and infirm, so he never went upstairs, but he wrote the story of Paradise Lost, with its scenes of Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden in this tiny space. Perhaps not having sight helped him imagine.

The lesson I took out of that is you can write anywhere. Roald Dahl’s shed and Dylan Thomas’ boathouse were very confined spaces. You don’t need to get your writing conditions spacious or luxurious, so I now enjoy writing in coffee shops, the British Museum, the Royal Academy and even on the London Underground. You forget where you are – except I find the buzz of noise and conversation in the background helps me focus more on my writing. And there’s home, of course, with different spaces. Do you have a room at home where you write?

Richard to John

(As you know, I grew up next door to New Bedford, the location for our proposed first Dark Angels America course.)

Yes, I do have a writing space at home, but it’s not ideal. I wish I could write anywhere. A lot depends on what I’m working on. Right now my new writing home is a godsend. It’s downtown, a 25-minute walk from my apartment. Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum. (I’m there so much, they put me on the website’s home page.)

Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum

The Athenaeum is a Ben Franklin idea and is a kind of private library, a ‘community of the book’ for readers and writers. This room is where I work, usually alone. (I’m writing some of this at Folio.) Bookcases packed with literature, sunlight streaming through, good coffee nearby. The staff is friendly and warm and helpful — very inspiring place. I share the sentiment of several Seattle writers who told Folio staff that they were maxed out on cafes.

You and I spent some time together at the Royal Academy working on one of these conversations. What a thrill that was. You’re a man on the move — all over town and across the continent. I’m impressed that you can write anywhere. Keeping that in mind, how do you think about your own lovely writing loft and the role it plays in your writing?

John to Richard

Strangely, perhaps, I use it sparingly. I keep it for best, as my mother would have said. That means Friday nights – reserved for writing for the last three decades as a now ingrained habit. So of course it’s now Friday evening and I’m in my loft, writing this to you. Outside the window a big black night sky, below at the horizon the lights of London; inside the loft I’m listening to Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano while writing. As opposed to writing ‘anywhere’, this is my space, I’m enclosed and I find it easy to concentrate here in a way that is never as intense at any other time or any other place in the week. This rounds off my week – but time zone differences, you still have much of the day before you.

 Richard to John

Above Loch Torridon

Time and place — among the eternal concerns of writers. Lovers, too. It was a couple of hours drive from Moniack Mhor. The last nine to ten miles on a winding, one track road with steep drops on either side. I’d just become a made man in our little society. Heart full, head happy. And I found myself, with my love, my wife, in a glorious cottage high above the Loch. Soon I was writing outside, in the swaying, rustling trees. And the breeze that day, let me tell you about the smell of the wind off the water, and the warmth of the sun, and the way the sunlight sparkled and fell on the worn planks under my feet…

Dark Angels in Conversation December 2016

lucy
Lucy Beevor at Loughcrew, Ireland on an Intensive Foundation course.

Dark Angels Associate Partner Gillian Colhoun chats with student-writer, Lucy Beevor.

Gillian to Lucy

It was wonderful to spend those few days with you at Loughcrew. Tell me, did you have any expectations of what you wanted to get out of the course?

Lucy to Gillian

Ah, Gillian, they were magical days! It was fantastic to meet you, John and Mike – three of the Dark Angel magicians – and my fellow white rabbits, Mike, Fiona, Emily, Olive and Megan.

My expectations?….I tried not to have any expectations at all. I often imagine myself forwards into all sorts of situations and then get disappointed when what I’ve convinced myself will happen doesn’t (I obviously haven’t mastered the technique of visualisation, ahem). So, this time, I made a conscious effort not to anticipate what I would get out of it.  It would be a step into the unknown. 

Having said that, I did get rid of a concern early on – that ‘it was a course for people writing for business’. How would that be relevant to me, when here I was, turning my back on 20 years of writing for organisations, and wanting to dig deeper into my own fictional writing, poetry etc? I was really lucky to speak to you about the course well in advance,and of course was inspired by Thérèse Kieran, who writes poetry and has done the Foundation and Advanced courses.  She assured me that the course was as relevant to me as it was to two marketing consultants, a strategy director, start-up business leader and mobile app developer (my fellow white rabbits).

Gillian to Lucy

You’re right. Dark Angels is like a lighthouse to many kinds of writers. Perhaps that’s part of its magic, not knowing how the mix of experience, exercises and sensibilities will work together.  I was particularly interested in your thoughts since I know you’ve participated in different kinds of creative writing workshops and courses. How did the Intensive Foundation course compare with those?

Lucy to Gillian

The immersiveness of the Foundation course sets it apart from other courses I’ve done. You created a ‘bubble’ for us – a beautiful location, we didn’t have to think about any practicalities – food and drink were all provided (copiously) – and you rolled us on from one writing exercise to the next.  We didn’t have space to hesitate so I kept leaping in; there wasn’t time for me to let those gremlins jump into my mind and undermine what I was doing so I kept going. I thought the course was beautifully planned.

Also you ‘magicians’ didn’t critique our work at all. That was another difference. The writing courses I’ve done – weekly classes, one-off workshops and a weekend workshop –  have had an expectation of the tutor judging participants’ work, to varying degrees. You, John and Mike were very supportive but you weren’t there to tell us if our writing was good or bad. Instead, it seemed that by managing the different experience and sensibilities of the participants, you created a space – a laboratory perhaps – in which we could each experiment and test and pull and stretch our own styles of writing, see where it took us.

Gillian to Lucy

Your analogy of experimenting in the laboratory feels like an accurate one. I’m glad you felt that Dark Angels provided a safe space to go and explore aspects of your writing without fear of judgment. 

I always think that a testament to any kind of creative immersion is if it inspires us to write more freely. Have you managed to find time to write anything since you have returned?

Lucy to Gillian

Yes! And the freedom I’ve found has come from the constraints I learned on the course.  Particularly summarising what I’m trying to write in 12 words.  That really helps me get to the nub of the pieces I’ve written since.  Oh and I’ve just completed a prose sonnet (inspired by yours) that I’m submitting to a competition. So yes, definitely writing. Thank you.

Ed. note: Lucy’s prose sonnet, inspired by Gillian’s prose sonnet, was inspired by Jamie Jauncey’s prose sonnet, which was inspired by Richard Pelletier’s prose sonnet, which was inspired by Sherman Alexie’s utterly amazing prose sonnet, called Sonnet, with Bird. You can read it here —>

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