Dark Angels in Conversation Nov. 2016

Tutors, Gillian Colhoun & Mike Gogan
Tutors, Gillian Colhoun & Mike Gogan. Loughcrew, Oldcastle, County Meath | Intensive Foundation, October 2016

Gillian to Mike

So Dark Angels Ireland is official. Delighted to have run this first course with you and John. It was a rollercoaster, wasn’t it? Did we expect that? Perhaps we did. We certainly should have. That’s the Dark Angels way. The remoteness, as always, played its part and thankfully so did the weather. Despite having already tutored a course with Stuart earlier this year in England, I was surprisingly apprehensive about this one. Maybe that was because we were making an Irish debut, or perhaps it was hosting at an entirely new and untested venue. Place is such an important part of the experience, I didn’t want it to disappoint. What about you?

Mike to Gillian

I have a great sense of pride being part of the first Dark Angels Ireland with you and John. Another two countries added to the list, the Republic and Northern Ireland. And the location, Loughcrew House nestled neatly in between. Maybe that’s not the best word, because it conjures up a sense of sleepy comfort. Yes, the house was indeed comfortable, welcoming and a perfect location for Dark Angels, but there was nothing so sleepy about the course. It was a breeding ground for some good writers and fine results. As this was my first course to tutor I got a sense that we were nurturing the participants to a place where they discovered something in themselves. That’s more of the Dark Angels nature, isn’t it?

Gillian to Mike

Tutors, John Simmons & Mike Gogan
Tutors, John Simmons & Mike Gogan

That’s it absolutely. It occurred to me that Dark Angels attracts different kinds of writers to do just that: and we had all of them represented at Loughcrew. Some are there to make their business writing clearer and more emotive, while others are looking to unlock something within them that leads to more creative endeavours, like fiction or poetry. Of course, by the end of the course, our participants managed to achieve both in their own unique way. John wrote in his blog that at Dark Angels we don’t give people a map to be better writers, just the space and confidence to go and explore. I think after our time at Loughcrew, this is a perfect way to define the experience. 

I know the Foundation course was new for you as well. Did you have a favourite exercise, I wonder? Or was there an aspect of one that spoke to you personally?

Mike to Gillian

Yes, the foundation course was intensive and fairly new to me. It was a little strange to tutor something I hadn’t directly participated in before. But I prepared myself and found experience in the exercises I had covered in other Dark Angels courses. My absolute favourite was ‘Not the furniture game’, based on Simon Armitage’s poem of that name. It brought the power of metaphor surging into everyone’s writing, making it so much more alive with imagery. I remember you led the exercise asking everyone to think of someone close to them and describe what sort of drink, tree, clothing, sound they were like. The power of the exercise comes from the stimulation of our imagination, something we don’t always use in writing. The result was a kaleidoscope of images, a chilling frisson of senses as we shared the heartfelt. Of course it spoke to me personally as I participated as a writer in that exercise. It spoke to all of us because we made a connection to someone dear to us and after all, the objective of writing as John so often says, is to connect.

How about you, what exercise stood out for you?  

Gillian to Mike 

I was blown away by how everyone responded to the A to B constraints challenge. After spending time analysing the components of good and bad writing, each person wrote so eloquently and passionately on how they would make changes in their own work. They did this by beginning and ending on two given letters. I have to say Olive Hill’s battle cry for corporate clarity was fantastic. I also loved Brian McIntyre’s 62 word sestude about the roof light window in the orangerie. I do hope Emily, the owner, uses these little gems around the estate as we heard some absolute corkers.


Boned Glass Roof

It is a fish stripped of flesh
Lying there, not forlorn
But somehow willing to be vulnerable,
Splayed out in a grotesque display of death.
This glass roof is crowned by bones
Eaten until each rib is clean.
And yet it pulls a wink-eyed smile
To be left here, with only blue for company:
The eternal briny sea forever in sight.

By Brian McIntyre

Mike to Gillian

The course closed as they all do, with the participants reading their personal pieces. We enjoyed a mother at a rugby match speak to us, a mobile phone, the number three. The closing out always brings emotion into the journey; presenting nerves, peers’ applause, sighs of relief and nods of connection, uplift and downright pride.

From left to right: Tutors Mike Gogan, John Simmons. New Dark Angels Olive Hill, Fiona McArena, Lucy Beevor, Brian McIntyre, Megan Kelly.
From left to right: Tutors Mike Gogan, John Simmons. New Dark Angels Olive Hill, Fiona McArena, Lucy Beevor, Brian McIntyre, Megan Kelly.

We had all of that. We had location, talent, magic, smiles, tears, beginnings and endings.


Dark Angels in Conversation Oct. 2016


Stuart Delves one of the Dark Angels founders and associate Neil Baker

Dear Stuart

It falls on me to start the next conversation in this blog series. And I’ve kept putting it off. The problem is this: the last one, between John and Richard, was so wise and intelligent that I don’t know how to follow it. They’ve set the bar high. Can you help?

Stuart to Neil

Let’s not worry about being wise or intelligent or any of that guff.

‘It’ll shine when it shines’ as the title of an old Ozark Mountain Daredevils song went. Tell me, how did you find co-tutoring the advanced Dark Angels course this September in Spain?

Neil to Stuart

Tutoring that course was a wonderful experience, humbling really. A group of people arrived as strangers – a little nervous, not knowing what the week ahead might involve. They left inspired and full of confidence. In quite a deep sense, they seemed renewed. And they developed this powerful bond, based on the writing and the experiences they’d shared. Here’s a confession. At times I felt a little jealous – seeing them stretching their writing in new directions, discovering things about themselves, surprising each other; I wanted a bit of that creative spark too. But then on the last afternoon I sat down and wrote a short story from scratch. So the energy they were creating must have been infectious. And how was it for you?

Stuart to Neil

It felt a bit strange, even slightly unnerving, heading to Spain with the prospect of running the Advanced Course with two new tutors. For the past ten years John, Jamie and I have run the course together and have grown comfortable in our relationships and secure in the apportioning of teaching and pastoral responsibilities. I’d already had experience of teaming up with new tutors, Mark in France and Gillian at Highgreen, but I was aware that the inter-relationship dynamics with three as opposed to two was a multiple of six. (Happy to go through this higher math over a tumbler of Cruzcampo sometime. Anytime! Preferably in-situ.) As it turned out, it was fine. More than fine. It was great. I had to take overall responsibility not just for the delivery of the course content and its contextualisation, but also for the domestic and travel logistics. So there was a fair bit of mentoring, guiding and overseeing. It was more stretching than previously, which was good. There was also the chance to run exercises that had been John’s preserve before – especially the Shakespeare Sonnets, which I really enjoyed facilitating. But the key thing for me was that it felt really fresh running the course with you and Richard. We were blessed with a lovely group and late summer sunshine but your perspectives, new exercises and personalities rejuvenated the experience for me. I particularly like the twist you’ve taken on the Saturday morning research trip. This is the second time you’ve done it, having trialled it when you were ‘shadowing’ last year: share a bit about what this entails Neil. The Sierra de Aracena is a beautiful, magical landscape and walking out into it with a group is a wonderful way of engaging with it.

Neil to Stuart

Good to hear you felt stretched, and that you enjoyed the experience – Dark Angels as creative yoga. Yes, it seems my walk into the countryside is becoming a bit of a fixture. And I’m very happy about that. The people who live in and around Aracena have a very close relationship with the land. The horse is still an everyday mode of transport. Many people own a pig or two. And it’s a landscape that is both beautiful yet unforgiving. There’s a scorched harshness to it that I like. On our walk, we find interesting, creative and sometimes rather strange ways of connecting with the different sights and spaces we encounter along the way. Sometimes we walk in silence, tuning our senses to the environment. At other points we sit and do simple writing activities. The aim is to seek inspiration – both from the land and from the experience of walking through it. Just to ask with an open heart and a curious mind, and see what we get back. Sometimes all you need to move your writing forward is a pencil, a notebook and a pair of stout shoes. As we walk and write, we’re connecting with a great tradition of wandering souls, from Wordsworth to Basho to Dickens – but our walks end with a cold beer. Perhaps the country walk is like a Dark Angels course in miniature. Now, since getting home from Spain I’ve had lovely emails from people telling me what an incredible time they had, how they plan to fan this spark they’ve lit in themselves. But there’s also a sense that some of them are trying to fit back in to the world of work and busyness. What might you advise, for the returning Angel?

Stuart to Neil

Dark Angels takes you out of your ordinary working life. We deliberately choose retreat-like settings, whether these are in the Sierra de Aracena, the Northumberland moors or in a closed community setting like Merton College, Oxford. The retreat is from the hurly burly, to give you time and space to reflect and dig deeper than usual into your inner resources. The retreat is also into your self, of course. Along with every outer journey there’s an inner one. What you bring back from Aracena or any of our other venues is a greater awareness of yourself and your capabilities, expressed through language and story, for that is the medium we work with. In some cases this might, on return, constitute a challenge in the culture at work. In other cases there is often a greater sense of freedom and ‘permission’ to communicate more authentically. If the former, don’t panic, reserve that greater confidence in who you are for when it’s appropriate to show it. Seek out those opportunities. Make them happen. If the latter, step out, go forward. In either case, know that you’re now part of a fellowship of Dark Angels: so keep in touch, support each other, continue the journey.


Dark Angels in Conversation Sept. 2016


John Simmons & Richard Pelletier

One of the founding Dark Angels, John Simmons, speaks with US associate partner, Richard Pelletier

Richard to John

13 years on – how do you feel about Dark Angels?

When Stuart and I first talked about a residential writing course aimed at business writers, we probably had quite limited ambitions. I guess we had in mind ‘copywriters’ and, coming from that background as well as ‘branding’, there were tricks of the trade we could share – as well as rebel a bit against the dead jargon of branding.

As it happened, particularly during our first course in Devon that I later described in one chapter of the book Dark Angels, it turned out to be so much more. What we discovered is that ‘writing’ is just a means – but what a means – to tap into the deepest emotional wells inside us. And by doing so you explore yourself and produce writing that connects powerfully with others – in business writing, in all forms of personal writing, and that actually the boundaries between those ‘genres’ are artificial.

John to Richard

Does that make sense from your more recent perspective?

I think so, yes. The curious bit about the whole experience is that it appears designed to invite ‘copywriters’ in for a fresh look at business writing and to travel into some other realms as a means of exploration. The beautiful thing, of course, is the point you’ve made. It turns out that the boundaries between personal writing and business writing are truly artificial. Whether it’s realised at the time or not, I think the power of the immersion is the lit fuse—the slow, steady dawning of a realisation. That in spite of the fact, we’re not ‘teaching’ per se, there comes a deeper connection to one’s self and others through words and writing. And this applies to every kind of writer. It’s powerful stuff.

Richard to John

Small bore political fictions have become massive whoppers. The 350 million per week going to Brussels; and the great fantasy wall across the southern US border are two cases in point. Epic lying is the new normal.

What do you think this might mean for how brands communicate? As writers, what should we be thinking about in terms of guiding our clients in a world where trust is so low, and the propensity for the gargantuan lie is so great?

It’s no surprise that the Big Lie works. The Nazis knew it was effective, and no doubt it will continue to be so. But personally, and from the point of view of brands that want to be liked and admired, truth is always the better option. The best brands are built on the authentic, knowing that it’s commercial disaster to be caught out telling lies – whereas politicians have a shorter term objective of winning the next election. As consumers, we respond to authenticity in a brand, which builds over time, and as writers, we should always aim for that, if only to sleep more easily.

John to Richard

It seems to me too that exercises like ‘Seven deadly sins’ that we do in Aracena are the best antidote to corporate humbug – just expose it by laughter. But other exercises tap into other emotions. Do you find that Dark Angels is about enabling people to explore a wider range of emotion – and to enjoy that in the words they use?

You’ve teed this one up rather nicely, John. Yes, no doubt. Although ‘enjoy’ might be a tricky word here. Dark Angels is kind of a lovely stealth operation. “We’d like you to write 10 lines that begin with…” and time and again, writers take pen to notebook and travel to the deepest, most tender part of themselves. With a bit of guidance, a few prompts, and some sensitive, caring souls, writers can surprise the hell out of themselves. I think this is why we keep hearing, “this was life-changing.”

Richard to John

David Whyte is an English-Irish poet, philosopher and a corporate consultant. His corporate work began when a CEO said to him, “The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered.” At a recent Dark Angels gathering, you mentioned that David Whyte and his work may have inspired the creation of Dark Angels. Tell me more.

Back in the late 90s, I went to a couple of workshops by David Whyte, and I read his book The Heart Aroused, based on his time as a poet-in-residence at Boeing. I found his reading mesmeric and I took encouragement from his experience. It seemed there was a role for ‘creative writing in business’. I’d already started running my own workshops using techniques from fiction and poetry, and this seemed like validation of the approach. Now, 20 years on, I see it not as a possibility, but as an essential for a 21st-century business. After all, businesses now recognise the need for creativity to thrive in the current world. Words are the most available creative resource we have. All businesses can use them more creatively to connect better with all the people they need to connect with.

John to Richard

We’ve had a good few days in London. You’ve had your first experiences as an associate partner running a Dark Angels course in Spain and Strawberry Hill. As you now fly back to the US, what would you say to a corporate client – does this approach work? And because, as you know, I love a constraint, can you answer in no more than 50 words?

There’s no doubt about it. For any business, the clearest path to new relationships begins with a deep investigation into how they use words. Dark Angels helps corporate writers unleash the power of words—in an authentic voice—to serve the brand. Days of miracle and wonder often follow.


Dispatches: 11 life-saving tips for copywriters heading out to sea

by Richard Pelletier

gaping void

{cartoon by Gaping Void}

They are the beloved ones. The ones who know how to work with writers. Who know good writing when they see it. Who know that good business writing is incredibly difficult to produce. They profess their love. They say things like, “Love this, but can we move that sixth line up a little?” We love them to pieces. And then there are the other ones. Who don’t quite know how to work with writers. Who don’t quite know how hard it is to create good writing in a business environment. We love them, too, but they are, sadly, a bit harder to love. Like your strange uncle Bob.

Herewith, an instruction manual for writers sailing into the murk. Who think they’ve boarded the tiny ship of order, only to learn they’ve been cast into a vast sea of chaos; the agency or firm with zero experience working with writers. For purposes of illustration, our fictional firm is Ace. Continue reading “Dispatches: 11 life-saving tips for copywriters heading out to sea”


Tales of passion

by Jamie Jauncey

On the second night of our recent Dark Angels advanced course in Spain, once they had all settled in, we decided to ask the eight students to take just a couple of minutes after dinner to say why they had come. Two hours later we were all still sitting there, candles guttering low, wine bottles empty, enthralled by what we were hearing.

Well fed and watered, people were opening up in a remarkable way. Everyone had a story to tell and in almost all cases the decision to come on the course proved merely to be the latest chapter in a chain of events that had begun years or even decades previously. Continue reading “Tales of passion”

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