“Changing the Narrative”

“Everyone writes and everyone reads out loud. It works very democratically. I’d done work in prison’s before, when I used to live in London,” says Pippa as if this were as commonplace as a walk on Dartmoor.

“No, I’ve never been scared. I´m a semi-retired teacher and you find the same dynamics in any sort of classroom setting—we´re all human. There is always a funny character, a mischievous one, or the person that sits quietly in the corner and then comes out with something amazing.  After years of moving back and forth between London and Devon I decided to settle down here and do a writing MA at the University of Exeter; that’s when I started running the creative writing group at the prison. It was only supposed to be a one-off event, initially.”

Having been privy to a little background information about Pippa’s aspirations growing up—writer, film maker, peace activist, teacher—and knowing that in some way or another she had achieved all of these, it became apparent that this particular story was at its starting point.

“The prison has a severe overcrowding problem and high staff turnover. The place has very much remained the same since 1853. It is a hard environment to spend any amount of time in. After the first class some of the members of the group said they wanted a weekly session. They wanted to share and give to each other through their stories, but they also wanted the consistency. In one session a member said ‘I love the classes because of what we do, but also because it is a good way of counting how much time I’ve got left. ´

“Becoming the authors of our narratives and realising that we can reflect on, learn from, and ultimately re-write the stories that we carry with us is what gives the class its power. There is discussion, feedback, honesty and support and this brings us all together. During our weekly sessions the class becomes a democracy; surprising, funny, moving we entertain each other as we go. The group has now been running for a year and a half.  New members have joined, and some members of the group have transitioned back into society: one is busy making a name for himself as a writer.”

If you only had today to live what would you do? Eat granola, listen to the birds, hold my family close and watch the sun go down.  I might have got up a little earlier had I known this was it!