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In conversation: Doug Howatt & Richard Pelletier

This past October saw the first ever Dark Angels workshop held in America. The American Foundation Course, led by tutors John Simmons and Richard Pelletier, took place over the Columbus Day weekend near New Bedford, Mass, home (for a while) to Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass. Ricketson’s Point House (see below) was our home for the weekend. Below, Richard chats with Doug Howatt, a Californian who was first to sign up. He was joined by John Jordan, Jessie Rump, John Burwell, Claire Bodanis, and Kristen Strauss.

RICHARD:
Doug, you’ve been working professionally for a while. What was going on that made you seek out a workshop when you did? And why did you settle on Dark Angels?

Doug Howatt, Creative Director, Writing Hitachi Vantara – Dark Angel

DOUG:
I’ve always had a desire and some aptitude for writing, which I nurtured with my career in marketing until I landed a dedicated writing and editing role eight years ago. I did well but knew that professional structure would give me perspective to enhance my writing and explain or defend it more successfully. All I could find online were programs with clickbait promises that I could live the dream of freelance writing with a six-figure income and no boss. I was not impressed. Soon I stumbled on rave reviews on Twitter of the Dark Angels courses. I looked them up and was captured by the focus on business writing. Unfortunately, at the time the courses were all in Europe and, I was in California. I continued to see very positive reviews and checked back every so often until earlier this year I saw that an American Foundation course was available. I signed up right away.

RICHARD:
All hail Twitter! And your persistence! I’m wondering about expectations. You write for a large corporation. Can you explain your thinking around what you hoped to gain specifically and how that might fit into your work at Hitachi?

DOUG:
I suppose I wanted new perspectives on my writing. Certainly, my marketing career gives me good perceptions of what makes copy good and how it should fit in with the rest of good marketing. But I also know the dangers of relying solely on my own experience and my own conclusions. In the heartache of wrestling with my words, or defending them against well-intentioned “help,” I sometimes wanted more ways to think about my writing. Call them principles, guidelines and strategies to break through my own barriers and, to explain and defend my work. It’s not a matter of large versus small companies. It’s a matter of arranging the letters on the page the best way I can.

{ Ricketson’s Point House ~ photography by @jbj51merc }

Did Dark Angels fulfill these rather unspecific expectations? Remarkably so. Among many insights, I saw the value of my own personal engagement in the copy. I learned that there need not be a wall dividing business writing from literature and private writing – they all have a place in the broad spectrum. I learned that the buzzwords of “authenticity” and “transparency” have honest roots in the vulnerability and humanity we need in branded content. The course – actually, you, John Simmons and my fellow fledgling Dark Angels – gave me quite a boost for my writing at work and at home.

{ The house at Ricketson’s point ~  photo by @jbj51merc }

RICHARD:
This is great to hear — it’s what we hope for. I’ve had similar reactions, having been on both sides. I love “it’s a matter of arranging the letters on the page the best way I can.” I mentioned large corporations because it’s my sense (perhaps this is unfair) that it’s a steep challenge to persuade the C suite to embrace what we advocate in Dark Angels workshops. I wonder what your experience has been on this score. Have you been able to bring some Dark Angels magic into the projects you’re working on? And can you tell me about that in a haiku?

DOUG:
Haiku? Ever the Dark Angel instructor, aren’t you! Here you go:

Early, filled with hope.
Green light to write colleague tales.
Steps turn into strides.

You’re right that things are harder – though perhaps “slower” is the right idea – in a large company. There are more people to convince and train, and more things to write and rewrite. But the initial reaction from my managers has been enthusiastic. The Dark Angels magic has helped me frame a big new program of stories about our people, though nothing has seen the light of day just yet. I also recognize that I’ll never influence all the content that 10,000 employees produce, but I think I have a good shot at the important brand content.

Is that how you see the Dark Angels influence spread among your clients?

{ Listen: six Dark Angels, six haikus. }

RICHARD:
It varies, but we’ve consistently heard from people who been through the experience, that it was a big deal for them, even life-changing. We’re now doing more in-house corporate workshops and those seem to provide as much inspiration as the residential version. So if you had to say, and I’m asking you now to look back on our time in October, what were three highlights from that weekend that you can put into a 62-word sestude?

DOUG:
1. I was astonished to learn that our guest speaker, author and brand expert Larry Vincent, uses unlikely literary forms such as the Malayan pantoum to discover and develop messages for his clients. He asks writers to work a brand’s top messages into the complicated repeating form and frequently finds fresh ways to express the brand’s ideas. This really is applying literature to business.

2. I discovered the power of my own words when I read them aloud to the group and more than once found myself choking up, with tears flowing. It shows the safe environment you and John Simmons created that weekend and the strength of the writing exercises you gave us. Of course, we laughed a lot, too. Quite a lot, in fact.

3. The biggest highlight for me was a rediscovered passion for writing. Yes, I learned tools and perspectives that I can apply back at work. But seeing other writers – masters and word wrights – playing with words and ideas, discussing literature and how words work made quite an impression on me. It changed writing from an intellectual challenge back to an emotional joy.

Richard:
Thanks, Doug. This was brilliant and fun. We’re running the American Foundation Course again next fall, so tell your friends. 🙂

{ Interior of Ricketson’s Point House ~ photo by @jbj51merc }

In conversation: Craig Watson & Stuart Delves

Co-founder Stuart Delves gets Craig Watson to deliver the big reveal. How a piece of well-crafted business writing led him to Dark Angels and a set of experiences (‘the people, the places, the playing with words’) that have become one of his life’s highlights.

STUART:
So, Craig. You’re probably a first in having completed all three levels of Dark Angels courses in the space of a year. That’s quite remarkable in itself. But what’s also rather fascinating is that you’re a lawyer working within one of the big banks. Not the stereotypical lawyer I have to say (whoever that might be!) but nonetheless a corporate bod, 9-5. Obviously writing
is a part of your job. But what drew you to Dark Angels?

CRAIG:
As some deep thinker, like Yoda or Mister Miyagi, once said: “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” And I can’t help but feel that Dark Angels sought me out. Or hunted me down? When the call came, it was through the medium of life insurance.

My corporate gig often involves reviewing customer communications from a legal perspective. On this occasion, I was looking at a bunch of letters designed to check customers had bought what they thought they’d bought. I’ve looked at hundreds of bits of customer-facing literature over the years, dozens of them relating to life insurance, but these were different: they’d been drafted by a Dark Angel.

They contained all the usual ‘legal’ mistakes, of course. But they were crisp, clear and – above all – human. They were so nicely put together that I felt bad about having to change anything. It would be like dismantling the Forth Bridge of life insurance letters. Now, Stuart, you’ve been my tutor on all three courses, so you know I like a challenge. This didn’t call for brutal edits. This didn’t even call for sensitive tweaks. No, this called for kintsugi; mending the prose with my legal-writerly gold.

I got to the meeting early and was surprised when over a dozen folk arrived: Compliance, Risk, several species of Marketing bod, and the writer – an agency guy up from London. It was me to go first. I respectfully set out my concerns and offered my carefully-crafted suggestions designed to cause minimal disruption to the text. Then everyone else piled in, ripped apart the letters and sent the poor chap off to write the inevitable compromise that keeps the client happy but lacks the flair of the original (an experience you’ll be all too familiar with!).

I was impressed, though. Impressed enough to visit the agency’s website and read the guy’s CV. I discovered he’d recently completed the Dark Angels Masterclass and I was intrigued. Over the next two years, I loitered heavily on your website, read John Simmons’s books, stalked Jamie Jauncey at the Edinburgh Book Festival and met you for the first time in the front room at Highgreen, fired up for the Foundation Course.

I’ve always seen it as part of my job to reconcile legal accuracy with the need for straightforward, engaging copy. But there was something in the Dark Angels philosophy that resonated with me. The idea of bringing your(full)self to every writing task. Of embracing the creativity in constraints. A colleague once suggested I was a frustrated marketer. I wasn’t really, I was a frustrated writer. Then, as you say, within the space of the next year, I’d completed the transition from pasty mortal to Dark Angel. Now I am a writer. And I’m a heck of a lot less frustrated.

STUART:
Thanks for your fulsome answer Craig. I love ‘legal-writerly gold’.
In my mind’s eye I see a pen with a sharp nib. What were some of the highlights of your Dark Angels journey? Maybe one highlight per level, 75 words on each? “Thank God for some more constraints,” I can hear you say.

CRAIG:
I’ll see your 75 words and raise you 17 syllables.

Highgreen (Foundation):

a little word trip / from random point advances / to where I started

Aracena (Advanced)

by a sunny pool / I find that I am happy / to write my sorrow

Merton (Masterclass)

rewriting copy / Middle English rhyme royal / invincible now

It’s difficult to edit highlights from 12 days that I can still replay in my head like a film (by Woody Allen, according to Samm Short). The whole experience has been something of a life highlight. The people. The places. The playing with words.

Each of the examples I gave relates to an individual writing exercise, set on or before the course. We all know it’s important to exercise our writing muscles. And Dark Angels is like a boot camp but with booze.

The middle example stands out, though. I’ve never had trouble making myself laugh but, when you find yourself writing through tears – and embracing it – you know you’re getting somewhere. Our job as writers is to connect with others, and that’s much easier when we’re ready to connect with ourselves.

Anyway, that’s where my Dark Angels journey took me, and I’ve since had cause to revisit.

STUART:
Thanks Craig. Not only from the above but from correspondence following the courses I know that your personal writing has benefitted but what has been the effect on your writing at work?

CRAIG:
I’ve been trying to do a lot of what Dark Angels does for a while. But, even after the Foundation course, I felt much more confident about pushing things further at work. How concise can we make this? How clear could it be? How much crap can we actually cut?

And I’ve seen tangible results. When I rewrote the customer letters for a project recently, call volumes dropped by almost half for the group most likely to ring up.

The original letters weren’t ‘wrong’. They just erred on the side of not leaving stuff out. If there’s a sniff of law or regulation involved, that’s common.

We think it’s safer to include things. It’s certainly easier. What stops us writing well is fear.

Anyone who’s ever reviewed or received overlong communications knows:

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda)

And we writers should always remember:

“It’s OK lose to opponent. Must not lose to fear.” (Miyagi)

There’s wisdom, if ever there was!

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 ->

Crossings

 

Dark Angels Masterclass, Oxford 2017

by John Simmons

My Dark Angels partner, Jamie Jauncey, was struggling to translate the title of my novel Spanish Crossings into Spanish. ‘Crossings’ has more than one possibility. Perhaps it would be even trickier to translate it into Basque, that mysterious language of the country where much of the novel originates.

I was thinking about origins in more than one way too. My own family origins; the origins of Dark Angels; the university’s origins in the 13thcentury in the buildings where we were staying. This was a rich mix of emotions because I was running – with my Dark Angels co-founders Jamie and Stuart and new associate partner Elen – the fifth Dark Angels Masterclass, possibly for the last time. And it was also publication day for Spanish Crossings.

We had a talented group, ten fine writers with the Dark Angels spirit. By which I mean we set them writing exercises, often with seemingly impossible constraints (not least of time) and of course they all rose to the challenge.

Oxford itself was a large part of the experience. Place is always important to inspire writing on a Dark Angels course and this time that seemed more true than ever. Visits to colleges, to museums (Ashmolean, Weston, Pitt Rivers), briefs inspired by fantasy and reality inspired an amazing diversity of writing. To be moved to laughter, then to fears and tears, by a ghost story was just one of the writing feats. (Hats off to Jeannie.)

 

From a purely personal viewpoint, I had the added poignancy of an ending combined with a beginning. Thursday was the official publication day for Spanish Crossings so in the evening I was asked to give a reading and talk to the group after dinner. I concentrated on what writers might learn from my own experience of writing the novel. The importance of:

  • The opening words, particularly if they can suggest the theme (“Mother declared herself happy”.
  • The focus provided by the concentrated experience of a Dark Angels course (I had written the Prologue during one of our courses in Spain).
  • Structure providing the framework to shape and direct the writing.
  • Research, particularly provided by books and visits to significant locations.
  • The stimulus of family stories, memories and photographs.
  • The story behind the story.

I have told some of that story behind the story in previous blogs: the Spanish Civil War; the bombing of Guernica; the evacuation of 4000 Basque children to Britain; the adoption by my parents of one of those boys. Eighty years ago. Since I had written those blogs, more information had emerged about Jesus Iguaran Aramburu thanks to the help of new Basque contacts via Twitter. My special thanks are given to @gurimousen and @uaiartza who enabled me to track the story of Jesus Iguaran a little further.

Now Dark Angels moves on to the next courses www.dark-angels.org.uk and now the novel Spanish Crossings is published. You can get a copy here goo.gl/9jVJCM I’d love to hear what you think of it. And I’d be interested to hear any translations of the title into Spanish, Basque, French or any other language. For what is a translation but a form of crossing?

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