Madeleine White interviews Lena Smith
Once upon a time the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham libraries decided to create a literary festival. The aim was to get a borough with very low literacy rates engaged with reading books and using libraries in an innovative way.
So, in 2011 the reading festival was introduced to ‘Get Barking and Dagenham Reading’. After a couple of hiccups, including people believing they were participating in a well known music festival, ReadFest was born.
After hosting a writing competition as part of the early festivals it became clear that there was an untapped talent pool of creative writers in Barking and Dagenham and the then Group Manager of Libraries, Zoinul Abidin was determined to find a way of supporting this. Over several years plans were developed and a funding bid was submitted to Arts Council, England to create a new library based project Pen to Print to support creative writing and secure the future of the literary festival. Unbeknown to most, including the team working on it, in 2014 it was revealed that Pen to Print had been successful and had received Arts Council funding.
When the pot of funding was eventually discovered, Lena Smith was brought in from Dagenham Library to manage the project.
“When I first got involved with ReadFest a team of eight people had been working on programming events. I was initially brought in to manage Pen to Print’s and ReadFest’s scheduling and make sure it all worked. As time went on though, and I’d embedded the annual Arts Council funding, I found myself working as a team of one.”
Thinking back to those initial years, Lena remembers the organic evolution of the project.
“I think what brought the Pen to Print to life was the core competition. Our writing workshops supported The Book Challenge. Eight books were entered and all eight were finished. What happened next was really important. Three of the eight submitted books were published with one of our writers finding a literary agent and another ‘The Gaia Effect’ winning a Raven award, an accolade for exciting sci-fi-/ fantasy. That was a real highlight.”
Lena’s passion is clear from the start and it’s easy to see how she has been able to husband this project into something the Arts Council deems as being of national interest. She believes her approach to experiential learning, on her part as well as the writers and readers, coupled with a strong belief in digital technology has had a big role to play in Pen to Print’s development.
“In 2016 we launched our ‘Real People, Real Stories’ initiative. In order to capture some of these stories, we installed a video ‘bite’ booth in libraries. This led to some powerful stories being shared with us. I loved the different kinds of experiences that we heard about. The authenticity of these stories meant we really were reflecting the different kinds of people living in our Borough. To my mind the cultures and heritage that was being shared enriched us all.
At the heart of this spin-off was the human communality of life changing experiences. No matter where you are from or who you are – illness, death of a family member and other human experiences have the power to connect us. Many of the stories were quite dark, but these short clips (generally 2/3 minutes long) reflected real life with all its ups and downs. The Arts Council loved our YouTube channel as much as we did. Interestingly enough, there was also some fiction included, as people who’d been on our playwriting course used this platform to showcase their work.
I pick up on the blended approach to storytelling and Lena elaborates:
“Other than the fact we are always learning together, what makes what we do so powerful is that we don’t say no to exploring new opportunities. The Book Challenge links to our short story and poetry workshops and competitions, which in turn leads people into other forms such as playwriting. Many people we have discovered have come to enjoy a multidisciplinary approach to writing.
By giving people tools to develop what they want to say and how they want to say it, we build on the strengths a diverse writer can bring to the table. In turn, developing writers has helped us evolve as a team and, because we are always outward-facing we are able to use these words to touch people who might never have thought themselves capable of writing, or indeed deserving of an opportunity.”
I ask Lena if she has any examples.
“Because I hate saying no when someone reaches out, I find a way of making things happen. Our Raven award winner Claire Buss, who wrote The Gaia Effect and has gone on to write two sequels and other stand alone books, is a case in point. She applied to get on our course, but it was full up. However, I managed to get another course funded and she was able to sign up to this.
Claire has developed from a shy, modest young woman into a successful writer. She inspires others though her blog, vlog and social media activities. She started with a book, but we opened up other avenues for her and she seized the opportunities that were available, creating plays, and short story and poetry anthologies. So, getting an extra course funded started one of the many virtuous circles we see happening.”
It becomes increasingly clear to me that the exponential success of Pen to Print is rooted firmly in personal development of ordinary people who have the courage to use their voices. The need to support personal growth is the driving force behind Pen to Print’s programme development.
Surely there must have been some failures though; something writers are faced with all the time? Unsurprisingly, Lena is undaunted by this.
“My attitude is ‘yes, I will make this happen’. As shown through the example of Claire, it is important not to say no unless there really is no choice. You never know what will emerge. It is our job to framework opportunity, not to have all the answers. I always see myself as the writer enabler. For us, failure is a collective learning experience, something that can be shared and passed on. By helping people to collaborate around shared visions and ideas we therefore find ourselves talking about progress, not minor individual set-backs. This turns a personal journey into much wider, connected ripple effects.”
I ask Lena about the collaboration that seems to be such a strong focus for Pen to Print.
“As a librarian, I knew about books. However, it is only by learning alongside our Pen to Print participants, that I have realised how exclusive the more established writers’ networks can be. In order to ensure that Pen to Print participants progress on their writing journey together, our courses and events are designed to help people from all backgrounds to access, as well as create, support networks of their own. The relationships formed here are very strong and often our success stories come back to help those just starting out with us. I think one of the reasons we are so successful at creating an alternative to the old school tie network and the traditional publishing journey, is because we ourselves are on a learning journey too.”
Lena goes on to describe what this new form of inclusion means to her.
“In our area we have low literacy and low engagement around reading and writing. So many of our population are told they are not good enough can’t do it. Magnetizing people through the programme doesn’t just open existing doors but also creates new ones.”
Now we have established the fundmentals – and why it is that Pen to Print started punching above its weight very early on, I want to explore how the Arts Council is looking to share the success and the learning of this great initiative on a wider level. Lena explains.
“Since 2018 we have been a NPO (National Portfolio Organisation). This doesn’t just mean ongoing funding, i.e. over four years rather than one at a time, it has also meant our little writing project has achieved trailblazer status. Everything we do is aimed at creating a tool kit that can be replicated elsewhere. This is of course why we have commissioned a magazine to showcase some of our work, as well as support the evidence base. A new website, to be launched in the next couple of months, will also support this.
In 2019, we will be working through our International Storytelling year, then 2020 will see the start of Digital year and finally in 2021, we will pull together all the learning experiences from 4 years as an NPO into a storytelling co-creation year with local people.
Exciting times, but Lena is quick to point out that there are also new challenges to be considered in this next stage of growth.
“I remember meeting up with Sir Nick Serota, the Arts Council Chair who had particularly asked to meet with us as a library NPO. We were in the right place at the right time, i.e. the Arts Council were keen to work with and promote libraries and Pen to Print had, of course, been birthed there. It quickly became clear though, that our work was seen as game-changing. By creating access and opportunity within creative writing for people from all backgrounds we were creating a momentum the Arts Council recognise as offering an actionable way of making the Arts more relevant to those who historically might not have benefited.
They love the rawness and authenticity of the voices we support and understand that us being on a learning journey of our own, serves to enhance rather than detract from the results we are delivering. So, in their eyes Pen to Print, a small team with big ideas, has captured something special. However, in order to make Pen to Print truly scalable there is lots of admin involved, which can feel overwhelming at times.”
I ask Lena about the changes this Trailblazer status has meant for her personally.
“When I started, I was part of a successful team, then there was me and now we’re back to a team of four with the funding needed to make some truly exciting things happen. So, yes, lots of changes. Sometimes I still feel that I’ve got the impostor scenario going on – a little voice in my head telling me I’m not really supposed to be here.
My greatest challenge now is to keep the spontaneity and energy that has helped us develop into what we are now but make it scalable. The greater administrative demands that accompany this, mean that I can no longer be at the coal-face as much as I would like.
I recognise though, that the only reason we have achieved what we have is that I was never ‘just an individual’. I was always a representative of all the people who have given and achieved so much. Our programme offers something for everyone and I see myself as one of the beneficiaries. No matter how young, old or what your background, at Pen to Print we truly believe that everyone has the potential to make things happen.
Lisa, who supports our community engagement work, often asks me how I managed to do it all on my own for all those years. To be honest I don’t know. But, one day at a time, I have done what I can – buoyed up by the changes I can see in the lives Pen to Print has touched. I know that my team are as passionate as I am about keeping the voices from our community and beyond alive and fresh. We hope that the launch of our new magazine and website, will allow us to build on this, gaining wider support. Our message of empowering individuals to raise their voices creating collective opportunity is one that needs to be heard.
By giving people tools to develop what they want to say and how they want to say it, we build on the strengths a diverse writer can bring to the table.
Lena finishes by telling me about how the Pen to Print approach is being successfully exported by reaching out into Newham, Redbridge and Southend. I come away understanding that at the heart of Pen to Print is a passion for finding the communality in individual stories. In this way, divisions and anger that the rise of nationalism and poverty bring with them are bypassed, and hope is offered instead. Pen to Print celebrates all that makes us, us – no matter who we are or where we come from.