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Gill James

Creative Writing with the U3A

There are steaming mugs of tea and coffee on the table. A plate of chocolate biscuits remains largely
untouched. Heads are bent down in concentration as pens scratch on paper or fingers fly across
keyboards. It’s so quiet you can hear the birds singing outside. There is some serious work going on

“All right,” I say. Time’s up. Would anyone like to share?”

I retired from the University of Salford in September 2016. I had been a lecturer there in
creative writing for nine years and for two years before that at the Universities of Bangor and
Portsmouth. Although I carried on writing novels, short stories and articles such as this one I missed
the interaction with colleagues and students and was drawn towards the U3A – the University of the
Third Age. There I found such delights as conversation groups for French, German and Spanish, a
philosophy group, interesting monthly talks and even a group that go out to eat curry once a month.

It soon became apparent that I should form a Creative Writing Group. There was one already
but it was full. We found a venue, a group was formed and so we met for the first time.

“We don’t just want to tell each other how good our work is,” said one.

“Yes, we want some sound criticism that will help us to get better as writers,” said another.

“Do you think it would help if we sent work to each other in advance?” I asked.

So, we came up with a few ground rules. Everyone would send their work at least a week in
advance. If we wished we could ask other members of the group to comment on specific aspects of
the work. We also agreed t’s useful to start off by telling the writer what you’ve understood. Then
you might say what works well, what works less well and what two or three things the writer might
do to improve. Each person should submit no more that 1,000 words of prose, ten minutes of script
or up to five pages of poetry.

We more or less follow the rules.

In June last year my husband and I moved to a new home very near the centre of Bury. You
can actually walk into town form our house. We also have a generous dining space so we agreed to
meet at my home. At U3A meeting you usually make a donation of about £1.50. This covers the
cost of hiring a room and in some venues this includes tea and coffee. In others you have to pay a
little extra – 50p to £1.00 a cup. It’s all pretty good value for money. This is of course on top of the
annual fee of £15.00 which give you access to your local site, the national site, a quarterly printed
magazine, news emails for your local group and from the national group and a host of resources.
There is national programme and a regional programme as well as a local one. But of course, we
retired people are very busy – grandparent duty, off-season holidays, volunteering duties and the
odd medical appointment. You can’t always guarantee how many people will be at a session and
whether you can cover the cost of the room. If you meet in someone’s home there is no such
problem. I’m happy to provide hot drinks and biscuits and I leave a collection box out for Guide
Dogs, a charity I support.

We meet from 11.00 until 1.00. After a brief exchange of writing and reading news we get
down to looking at everybody’s work. We spend the last half hour working on a writing prompt –
twenty minutes writing and ten minutes sharing. That work may then be developed for the next
meeting or folk can just send something else they’re working on. We take it in turns providing

Since the lockdown because of the corona virus we’ve carried on “meeting” via Zoom and
changed our pattern a little: we use two of the free forty minute sessions with a twenty minute gap
in the middle to work on our creative writing prompt.

Members of the group are mainly inexperienced writers. They’ve taken up writing as a new
hobby in retirement. Yet they’re coming on. One lady who constantly tells us she has no imagination
produced a lovely story about a bird being trapped in a chimney and the sweep coming to rescue it.
It was true story, and happened during the lockdown but she told it beautifully. One man is
becoming adept at writing funny scripts. Another group member brought us a delightful tale from
the point of view of one of the goats that visited Llandudno during lockdown.

We had a field trip last August when we wondered around Bury for forty minutes collecting
ideas, then sat and wrote for twenty minutes. We met up in a local café to share our work. We were
planning something similar at the John Ryland library in Manchester for the end of March but
lockdown prevented that. But we’ll do it someday.

You have to have your wits about you if you join U3A. Only a few meetings are weekly.
Most are the first Monday of the month or the third Tuesday etc. The monthly meeting for example
is the third Thursday and the Curry Group the third Wednesday. The first Monday and the first
Wednesday aren’t always in the same week. Is it a cunning trick to keep our minds active? We now
meet twice a month: the second and fourth Thursday.

Interested? You can find out more about Bury U3A at: https://www.buryu3a.org.uk . There
are a couple of vacancies in my Creative Writing group by the way. If you’re not based at Bury you
can find you nearest branch of U3A at https://www.u3a.org.uk/ . No Creative Wring group? Well,
why not start your own. That’s how U3A works.

©      Dr Gill James 2020


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