The Beaumont Leys Story Café was set up in September 2011, in response to a request from some members of the already flourishing book club at the library. At the time I was not working, and was looking for voluntary work within the fields of literature and writing to boost my CV and help me start a new career. I was in the right place, at the right time!
From the outset I said that I didn’t want to ‘teach’; although I have done loads of writing courses in my time, culminating in an MA, I didn’t feel especially well qualified to do so. I wanted the group to be a place where people who wanted to write could meet up, find stimulus and share their work in relaxed surroundings. It’s different from the many other courses and groups available in the city because it’s free, and you don’t have to commit to coming to a certain number of classes. You don’t even have to do the homework unless you want to!
We meet in the library for two hours every fortnight, and have a steady membership of nine keen writers ranging in age from early thirties to late seventies. Having said that I didn’t want to teach, for the first few months my job as leader of the group was to help the members get to grips with the basic skills of creative writing. Using exercises we explored – among other things – what makes a story work, how to create characters and plots, how to observe, and why it’s good to ‘show not tell’. I wrote handouts for the group to reinforce the teaching. We tend to concentrate on short fiction, but we have also dabbled in poetry, memoir and biography.
Now that everyone is more confident we spend most of our time sharing our work and discussing it. Each session starts with everybody reading out their homework, or another piece of writing they would like feedback on. To begin with, some people found this uncomfortable, but the group is so friendly and supportive that everyone now does it without a second thought. Because the group is quite small we always have time for everyone to read, and we can spend as much time as necessary giving feedback and discussing ideas that come up. There is usually plenty of laughter, too. If time allows we then do an exercise or two to flex our literary muscles, often writing from a prompt. At the end of each session I set the group an exercise for homework. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable exercises started with the group working in pairs to choose a pair of advertisers from an internet dating site and then think about what might happen if they went on a date together. Then they went away to write separate stories about that date. Less popular was the requirement to produce a piece of writing that contained no adverbs or adjectives. Each exercise is designed to focus on a particular skill, but people are free to interpret it as they wish.
2013 saw two exciting events: we completed and printed a collaborative novella, ‘Soldier of Fortune’, and published an anthology of the group members’ best pieces, ‘Coffee and Cake’. We secured a community grant from the Everybody’s Reading festival to publish the anthology, and launched it with a party during the festival. Funding from Everybody’s Reading has also enabled Leicester Libraries to pay me for my time for certain periods; otherwise I continue to offer my services on a voluntary basis. Beaumont Leys library staff have always been very welcoming and supportive of our group, and we appreciate being able to meet in such congenial surroundings.
I now combine running the group with paid work as a shared reading practitioner for The Reader Organisation, but I don’t envisage giving it up, it’s so rewarding. The Story Café is here to stay!