Welcome to my interview with Mike Harrington from Whitehaven Writers.
Hello Mike. Can you tell us a bit about your writing group?
We are the Whitehaven Writers, based in Whitehaven, Cumbria. We started in 1998 as a Creative Writing class led by the late Barry MacSweeney and, when the County Council’s funding for us ran out, we decided to carry on as an informal group. We meet in the Senhouse Centre, Whitehaven, on Tuesdays every week between 2 and 4 p.m. We have to charge a small fee (£2.00 or £2.50, depending on the state of our funds) to cover the room hire fee.
How many members, on average, does your writing group have?
Attendance varies but it is usually 8 to 10.
Who are you and what is your role within the group?
I am Mike Harrington. The group has no formal structure or constitution but it asked me to take on the role of contact person for enquiries, listings and prospective members.
No formal structure?
Errm … structured? Us? No, we’re not that disorganised. In a typical session members will read their latest pieces in turn around the table and others will offer criticism. The pieces may be short pieces of prose or verse written for that session or the next instalment of a novel in progress. We break for tea/coffee and bikkies about three then, depending on the time left after everyone has been heard, there may be a short writing exercise. We usually set ‘homework’ for next week but it is not compulsory. Its main purpose is to provoke thought in the absence of any other inspiration and the results can be interesting.
What types of things do you cover in your group?
I’m not quite sure how to answer this question. The social side is quite important. It goes with the pleasure of hearing and discussing each other’s work. I’d say that mutual encouragement is most important. Some of us have been published and are confident writers, although their names are not household words. Others need encouragement, so criticism must be constructive. The question of how to get various kinds of material published crops up regularly in discussions.
What have been some of your most popular/successful activities?
We have no funds, apart from the kitty to cover room hire, so we do not promote public events. However, we have co-operated with tutors appointed by Cumbria County Council and Copeland Borough Council, when those local authorities were a little less strapped for cash, and welcomed people from their writing classes into our group.
What genres do the members of your group write?
Poetry or prose. The genres that our members tackle are widely varied: nature, fantasy fiction, memories of childhood during the war, outdoor pursuits and local life are popular themes at present. Novels in progress include one about life on a distant planet whose inhabitants have little of the technology that we know but extraordinary mental powers, a story about a very cynical modern young woman who is seduced by the King of Faerie and suffers frightening consequences, its sequel about her daughter who wants nothing to do with the Faerie world but is drawn into it, another about a man who inherits a property that is a portal into a world of mythical monsters and mine about a modern fell-walker who is struck by lightning and wakes up in the Britain of 68AD.
Have you ever written collectively as a group, such as producing an anthology?
We produced an anthology in 1998 under Barry MacSweeney’s guidance. In 1999 Anne Hopper of BBC Radio Cumbria recorded a session with the whole group for Jenny Collins’s programme Write Now, which was broadcast on Radio Merseyside and Radio Cumbria. We also co-operated with a local FM station that had a temporary licence and invited material for broadcasting in Whitehaven one year during the run-up to Christmas.
What kind of support does your writing group provide for its writers?
No financial support but plenty of encouragement, especially for diffident new members.
I think that's the kind of support all writers need to keep them writing. Where do you get your ideas/writing prompts from?
Apart from books and magazines for writers, we use newspaper cuttings, postcards, items of local interest, suggestions from members and we have even used Tarot cards.
If you haven't read The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino, you should. The characters use Tarot cards to tell their stories. What is the best piece of writing advice you give?
Don’t expect writing to make you rich. Do it for the pleasures of learning the craft, expressing yourself and earning the appreciation of others.
Do you have guest speakers at your group?
Rarely, because we have very limited funds and we don’t aspire to be more than an informal group. Some local published writers have come as guest speakers to talk about their experiences and work and have asked only for expenses or the chance to sell copies of their latest book.
Do members of the group get a chance to run/lead a session or part of a session?
Yes. Once a month we run a workshop and ‘volunteer’ one of our members to choose the subject and lead it.
How would someone go about joining your writing group?
Contact me if they don’t already know a member. I will answer their questions and welcome them to a free trial session. My name and contact details are held by Cumbria Arts and the local library.Mike Harrington9 Townfield CloseRavenglassCumbria CA18 1SL
Tel: 01229 717328
Thank you very much Mike.