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 —>

A Highland writers’ retreat where guests learn to bring the outside in … and onto the page

 

Moniack Mhor, Scotland's Creative Writing Centre
Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre

James Morgan, Deputy Sports Editor of The Herald

THERE is the beginning of a grey mizzle, and the scrunch of autumn resonates underfoot as a few cars park up, their lights briefly illuminating a house in the distance. There is a figure in the doorway then it disappears into the warmth inside. And, now, I am that figure outside the front door of Moniack Mhor, a writing retreat of some renown whose luminaries include Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, just a tentacle-length from the banks of Loch Ness.

It took me almost four hours driving north to reach this converted steading near Kiltarlity in the Highlands. And looking back now, a fortnight later, I can’t quite remember what that door looked like. In any case, it has far greater symbolism than the mere components of its form. I took my clothes off on the step outside and stood naked in front of it, the late October chill nipping at my shoulders. Figuratively speaking, of course. Inside I found the marrow-warming embrace of fellow men and women, who had similarly left their inhibitions on this doorstep. It was not what I had expected from a five-day residential course in business writing. But then this wasn’t just any business writing course, this was a Dark Angels production.

Formed in 2004, Dark Angels was the brainchild of John Simmons, Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey, a trio of writers who were alarmed at the growing tendency to tangle up words in jargon-infested webs. The latter is the author of five books, a natural storyteller and an inspirational figure who will guide us during the week.

“On one hand we think management speak is, at its very worst, toxic,” Jamie says. “It’s bad for people’s emotional health. Yes, it’s a crusade against that but we prefer to laugh and throw stones at it. The biggest sin of management speak is that it alienates rather than connects.”

Jamie is joined by Neil Baker, a former Fleet Street journalist who fell out of love with newspapers, if not crafting words themselves. Today, he says he writes what he wants to write and for whom he chooses.

There are six students: John, another Jamie, Lana, Sarah, Cameron and myself. We will bare our souls to each other as we pick over parts of our lives like scavengers searching for untold treasures. I find myself asking what all this has to do with business writing but it is clear Jamie and Neil are following a tried-and-trusted formula.

Our first day begins in what Jamie refers to as “the hobbit house”, a white rotunda propped on stone bricks and adorned with a grassy roof. It is straight from the pages of Tolkien and will be our writing base for the week. Our eyrie provides an astonishing vista, overlooking the mountain ranges of Ben Wyvis and Strathfarrar. In the foreground Highland cattle and sheep graze on the surrounding moorland.

A Red Kite rises and falls on the wave of a northerly wind. We are encouraged to bring the outside in. The great philosophers understood that if we can empathise with our habitat we can come to know truth and truth is not found in the mangled wreckage of a soul-crushing press release or company mission statement. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, however, were strangely silent on the nuances of tone and clarity in business communication. And that’s where the Dark Angels, who take their name from Milton’s Paradise Lost, step in.

The Angels set a frenetic pace as they chuck ideas at us: from discussing our favourite books to writing the introduction to someone else’s. A pattern is established: one emphasising verbal gymnastics, quick-thinking, impossible deadlines. The key is not to overthink things – overthinking leads to ambiguity, to contrivance and self-censorship.

The tasks become quite personal. We are mining the deposits of memories long since forgotten. Under duress, it is disconcerting to rediscover those lost truths. And yet, it is cathartic, too. There are tears, most suppressed to the rims of eyelids. Others are unable to withstand the flood. This feels unsettling but it also feels necessary. We are unburdening ourselves and relearning what it is to feel empathy in what we write.

Neil quotes the poet Robert Frost’s thoughts on writing: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

After a hard day’s craft, the wine and beer is brought out. Dinner is cooked by the students. I have been paired with Lana, who works for a community foundation in London. She wants to enliven her writing in a way which contrasts with my efforts to spruce up some cod in breadcrumbs. With enough wine in their bellies, the rest of the group graciously admit that dinner has been a success.

Nights follow a familiar pattern: a log fire and a dram, ghost stories, life stories, travel adventures in far-flung corners and sing songs until the early hours. John even hosts a wine-tasting evening.

After a day of fresh Highland air, I retire to my Spartan chamber. It is monastic: a tiny bed, one table, two lamps. But this is a place for reflection and, crucially, sleep. On most nights, the former triumphs over the latter but there is a simplicity to life here that is as reassuring as the blanket that is too short to cover my feet.

The next day, the deeply personal recollections are locked away in tea chests and the Angels focus on business. There is a realisation that the navel-gazing had to occur. There has been a cleansing of the mind, a silencing of the noise in order that we can be more attuned to the task at hand. And, there is a new-found sense of what it means to appeal to the reader’s emotions.

The other Jamie, a recent graduate, has come to Dark Angels for some direction on where he might go next in his career. It is clear from the off that he has a great gift for words. During one task, he replaces a vast tract of tedious copy about the environment, waste disposal and its impact, with the word “rainforest”.

Sarah, a public sector employee, says she has become stale in her work because of the constraints it places on her writing. She wishes her employer would give thought to sending people like her on a similar course. John, a former senior officer with a local council, continues the theme.

“Everything came to be seen through a single lens and reports all came to read like each other,” he adds. “It is unconsciously Orwellian. I think people have been clogged up in the machine. It ultimately affects the way you think.”

In the afternoon we are free to stroll the single-track roads or hire bikes to traverse the surrounding area. We are on the edge of a forest; to the east, a llama farm stretches out before us.

I am suddenly aware of how little I know of the flora around me. My companion, Cameron, a former journalist and now a translator, agrees that it would be beneficial to know the names of the trees we see. There are certainly fir trees but others are yellowing, some are brown, and they appear to be dying. I’m struck by the idea that I have been hearing but not listening to the world around me, looking but not actually seeing it.

As the week ends, I sense I have changed. There is a resolution to adhere to the principles the Dark Angels live by: to write more, to think more, to breathe more cool air and to fly high above the trees I will soon know the names of.

I have been given wings, after all.

Dark Angels in Conversation Nov. 2016

Dark Angels student, Johnny Lyons at the Intensive Foundation Course in Cornwall
Johnny Lyons at the Foundation Course in Cornwall

John Simmons in conversation with Johnny Lyons

John to Johnny

You’ve been on two Dark Angels courses now. So obviously I’m interested in hearing things from your perspective because these conversations should involve the whole Dark Angels audience, not just the tutors.
But first, because it was first, I just wanted to ask you about reading. We met when I was doing some tone of voice work with AIB in Dublin. Our first proper conversation was not about writing but about reading. You recommended a book to me – Stoner by John Williams. The best book recommendation I ever received. I hadn’t heard of it at the time, few people had, but it then became a rediscovered classic across the world. What do you get from reading?

Johnny to John

There are so many things I get out of reading. But some of the bigger ones would include the way reading can take me beyond myself and my own limited thoughts and experiences. Then there’s the unique exhilaration that comes from reading a heart-achingly sad novel like Stoner or an intellectually mesmerising Platonic dialogue or a poem by Keats or Larkin that helps me feel less alone. I also like the way reading has the power to change me in interesting and unpredictable ways, the way it can both liberate and challenge my imagination.

John to Johnny

All those things, I agree. There’s also the obvious point that reading leads to writing. It helps us to become better writers if we become better readers. So, as you know, we do a fundamental exercise on Dark Angels courses – you’ll have done this in Cornwall on the Foundation, then the adapted version in Spain. The exercise leads to writing in the style of another writer. It seems counter-intuitive but, for me, that’s an important step towards finding your own personal voice.

What it does is liberate us: “You don’t have to write as you.” But of course that’s what people do, without realising. And they do it – hopefully with increasing regularity as they write more – by paying closer attention to the individual words and sentences as building blocks of longer pieces of writing. Recognising that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’ as Leonard Cohen put it. This doesn’t mean choosing exotic words, just trying to find the right word, dedicating yourself to that pursuit. Then, broadening out from that, trying to make every sentence an event.

That’s how I now approach writing – but it’s continually reinforced by examples in books I read. Does any of this match your own feelings?

Johnny to John

I remember that exercise well. We each wrote our own versions of a famous novel ending. The amazing thing was none of us guessed correctly from the choices written by each of us – they were all credible.

Your comments about the relationship between reading and writing remind me of something the author Stephen King said – ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’.  Yet while I was always a pretty voracious reader of history and then philosophy, for some reason this never helped me develop into a good writer. In fact, if I’m honest, I was so afraid of writing that I’d get a pit in my stomach every time I had to produce something.

Dark Angels broke this chronic spell. By doing exercises like the one above in the company of supportive and like-minded people and under the helpful guidance of the tutors, I managed finally to overcome my crippling phobia of writing. It literally happened over three magical days in Cornwall. So I suppose my main obstacle to writing was psychological, a lack of confidence and once I found a way of overcoming it the sunlit uplands literally opened up before me.

Since then, I’ve been reading far more fiction and poetry as well as writing with a degree of fluency and regularity that I couldn’t have imagined little more than a year ago. And writing, in turn, has helped me become a better and less intimidated reader.

John to Johnny

You went on the Advanced course to Spain after the Foundation in Cornwall. Recognisably a Dark Angels experience, we hope, but stretching you even further. The places we go to have a certain magic, whether that’s a stunning coastal location in Cornwall or the Andalusian national park. Did you find that the places helped sharpen your own receptiveness to the writing challenges? I often think that the location is like an extra tutor.

Johnny to John

I couldn’t agree with you more. Being somewhere entirely new and stunningly beautiful has a hugely invigorating and liberating effect. Being in an unfamiliar place can help us break free of familiar or habitual ways of thinking and writing. One of the exercises I particularly enjoyed on the Advanced course in Aracena was when we took a hike into the countryside which inspired us to write a wonderful play. Yes, place can be as important as people in inspiring us to write.

John to Johnny

Reading, people, place – all things that inspire us to write. But I think you’ve also identified the most essential: simply a greater confidence in the individual’s writing instinct. It’s so easy and so damaging to suppress it. With it we are better, more fulfilled human beings. Dark Angels’ aim is to bolster confidence, to boost the belief that you and your words can fly. But how do you maintain it?

Johnny to John

There’s a three-word answer to that one which I know you’re fond of – Just do it! And by that, I have taken you to mean keep writing, keep reading and keep talking.  I think the more you can connect writing with your own well-being or, at least, with your own sense of self, the more natural it becomes to develop and maintain the writing habit. In this way, to paraphrase John Keats, writing can become as natural a part of our lives as leaves to a tree.

1 2