When you think of a writer’s group, how do you picture it?
I’d always assumed it would be a bunch of lonely old women wanting to be Catherine Cookson or something resembling table nine from The Wedding Singer.
With this in mind, when I stepped through the door of Holmeside Coffee, home of Holmeside Writers, one Wednesday night in 2014, I wasn’t expecting to hang around long.
Holmeside Writers will be celebrating its fourth birthday this month and Holmeside Coffee is moving to exciting new premises inside the Museum and Winter Gardens so I thought now would be as good a time as any to pen a blog about the group that changed my life.
The group was created by Iain Rowan after a discussion with owner of Holmeside Coffee, Joe Collins, about the desire to make the coffee shop a cultural hub. It hosts a book club, a monthly film night, various other cultural events and with the undisputed best coffee in Sunderland, it is the go-to venue for any creative meeting in the city centre.
By Iain’s own admission, he was only expecting a couple of people to turn up and was pleasantly surprised to find over half a dozen at the first meeting and it is testament to his approach that a number of the ‘originals’ still attend.
Iain is a published author and has travelled as far as Mexico to talk about his work. He has recently acquired a new agent and is the brains behind the successful Sunderland Festival of Creative Writing. He was asked to write a chapter in the fantastic Culture in our City book and is involved in many groups attempting to forward the cultural agenda in Sunderland. You’d think he would arrive wearing a top hat lording it over us but this is why they group works, Iain doesn’t have an ego.
We are encouraged to shout about our achievements, and there are many, however it doesn’t matter how successful any of us become, we all know that we are still learning and the group will offer up the advice that we need.
Over the years we’ve had a few people turn up whose only intention is to brag about their achievements and plug their wares, they don’t tend to last long. We aren’t ego strokers.
We value experience and the insight that brings but an experienced writer is no more important than the person who comes through the door brandishing their first ever short story and looking for feedback.
Everybody is encouraged to have an opinion and share their work but equally, it is fine to take a back seat if you don’t want to speak. There’s no pressure and all feedback is given in a constructive manner which is just as well considering some of the rubbish I’ve dished up.
The group includes writers from a variety of disciplines, novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, short story specialists and even the dreaded performance poets. It would be impossible to list all of the achievements of the group in a short blog so apologies for those I’ve omitted or forgotten but here’s a taster of who we have in the group and what we have achieved. It is also fair to say that a lot of these achievements would probably have happened regardless of the existence of Holmeside Writers but I don’t think anyone would dispute that it has played its part.
Iain was shortlisted for the 2016 Northern Writer’s Award and Bath Novel Award in 2017, Ray Hopkins, Jamie Richmond and Glenda Young were long listed in the Sunderland Short Story Awards. Robert Carr won ‘Regional Audience Favourite’ for his debut short, Road in the Sunderland Shorts Film Festival.
Jay Sykes won a New York Radio award for his radio drama ‘Sea Burn’ and along with fellow Holmeside Writer, James Whitman, picked up ‘Community Development Project of the year’ at the Community Radio Award for ‘Mackem Craic’.
A number of us have appeared on Jay’s radio show, Arty Parti and me, Ray and Glenda have all appeared on BBC Radio Newcastle to talk about our writing.
Iain, Ray, Jamie, me and Rachel McAleese worked with internationally renowned artist Beatriz Olabarrieta at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art on her project Plot Bunny. When describing the project, The Guardian described her as working with ‘cultural figures’. That’s us, Holmeside Writers were described as cultural figures by The Guardian.
Lisa Burns is Group Leader of Cuckoo Young Writers in South Shields, bringing on the next generation of writers and she will be one of a number of the group who have been asked to run workshops as part of this year’s Creative Writing Festival.
Jamie Richmond has published his first novel and has many more in the pipeline.
One of Ray’s stories was chosen to be used as part of the Found Object project with the National Gallery For Contemporary Art where stories were inspired by photos provided by national artists and then transferred into a artistic booklet. They are now a collector’s item so if you see one, grab it while you can.
Whilst Glenda Young doesn’t get to as many meetings as she would like, she epitomises all that is great about the group. She is successful but modest, is always on hand to offer advice and is happy to listen to advice when offered. She has secured an agent and a book deal, has been shortlisted for blog of the year, has numerous short stories published in women’s magazines including a weekly soap in People’s Friend. She has published a number of unofficial companion books for Coronation Street as well as writing the official ITV Deidre book. She still somehow finds the time to volunteer at the lighthouse and be funny on Twitter.
Tom Smith, Lisa, Iain, Ray and Erin Turnbull all secured places on the prestigious Writer’s Block mentorship programme.
Tom has had work accepted by BBC’s Newsjack show and has written various plays and sketches as well as working on his first novel.
Hester Dowling performed her poetry at the Summer Streets festival and a number of the poets regularly perform at spoken word evenings.
A number of us had stories published in the Wear’d Tales anthology and from that I have read my story to a number of children at the historic Hylton Castle.
One of the highlights of the group was last year when Atlas Theatre performed scenes that a number of us had written. Apologies for those I miss out but it included scenes from me, Ray, Iain, Jamie, Clair Davison, Martin Wallwork and Andrew Jenks.
Many of us were quoted and pictured in the Culture in our City book which shows how well respected our group is.
Probably the biggest success story of them all is Jo Burns who wrote one blog about velvet and was whisked off to London to work in the fashion industry.
A special mention must also go to the elderly gentleman who turned up once, was aggrieved to be asked about what sort of things he wrote and replied “the occasional letter”. He then had a nap and never returned.
I’m sure you’ll agree that it is quite the list of achievements and throughout it all, Joe and Ashley of Holmeside Coffee have kept us supplied with fantastic coffee and cake and provided the creative environment that has helped us flourish.
My career trajectory is well documented, from struggling to finish my second novel, I walked into Holmeside Writers, finished Idle Threats and Life In The Balance. I’ve sold thousands of books, some as far as Canada, Australia, America and Japan. My fourth is on the way as well as a book based on my successful modern etiquette blogs. I’ve appeared in Literature and Creative Writing Festivals. I packed my job in and became a full time writer.
I’ve been a regular in the papers, on the radio and even swore on the TV news. I’ve run workshops for children and adults and as part of Putting Southwick On The Map I spoke to over one hundred people about writing and was live streamed to over nine thousand people.
I’ve been the subject of many an Echo Facebook comment, I’ve made some new friends and possibly stayed out a little later and drank a little more than I intended.
I blame Iain and Holmeside Writers for all of the above.
Whilst I do try and keep my ‘writing friends’ away from my ‘real friends’ and some of them do look a little like table nine from The Wedding Singer, I’m sure I’ll not be the only one thanking Iain for setting up the group and calling for four more years.