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Remote Story Writing by Melanie Whipman

In mid-2021 HMP Thameside invited award winner author Melanie Whipman to run a remote course for prisoners to teach them  how to become authors and storytellers. After her course concluded, she wrote an article outlining her experience.

“When HMP Thameside’s librarian, Neil Barclay, asked me to run a remote ‘fact to fiction’ writing course during lockdown I was slightly apprehensive. I’d hugely enjoyed the workshop I’d held at their library before the pandemic, and I’d been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, commitment and eloquence of the attendees. However, I wasn’t sure about conducting a series of pre-recorded workshops without the usual face-to-face interaction and discussion. The remote course I ran at Pentonville was through live Zoom sessions, but here the only personal feedback I could deliver would be through a series of writing exercises the inmates would have to complete as ‘homework’. These were far from ideal conditions. I suspected that - for any human being - 23.5 hours in a small room could only result in inertia and lack of self-motivation. I anticipated a very limited response.

“My fears, however, were unfounded. When I tentatively opened Neil’s email with the first ‘homework’, I was greeted with a deluge of hand-written missives. So many, in fact, that I had to set a page limit for the next task. But the students were determined to share their stories and they worked the system. They adhered to the ‘three page rule’, but with each new assignment, margins became narrower and narrower, their script became smaller, denser, neater, and errors vanished – crossings out take space!

“I believe teaching is a two way process, with the teacher often learning as much as the students. I had embarked upon this as a teacher, but concluded as a student. Each of these small human stories gave me a fresh insight and pushed me to examine my thoughts about social mobility and the lottery of birth and forced me, time and time again to ‘check my privilege’. Yet these were no ‘poor me’ tales.

“Each story was full (as every narrative should be) of conflict and hardship but was delivered with humour and energy and pragmatism. There was no navel-gazing, no bitterness. In all my years of teaching this course (to students of all ages and abilities) I’ve never come across such a powerful selection of semiautobiographical narratives. There was poignancy without sentimentality, and each piece expressed fortitude and resilience, and was a humbling example of the ability of individuals to deal with what life throws at them. For me, these stories were confirmation of Jeffery Archer’s (Lord/London mayor/prison inmate) infamous words: ‘Birth is life’s first lottery’.

“I would be honoured to work with the inmates again. I believe with some editing and honing, and a bit of judicious restructuring, their narratives could be shared with a wider audience. Perhaps in time we could even find a way to fund a book. I’m delighted that HMP Thameside gave time to the inmates to reflect upon their lives in such a positive way – sometimes you have to look back before you look forward.”

Neil Barclay, HMP Thameside’s Librarian, commented on the prisoner’s engagement from Melanie’s course, saying:

“Melanie’s remote course was a huge success with a lot of engagement from those who participated. Running remote courses can be a risk as you can never be sure if the learners will engage in the course in the same way as a real-life session due to the modules being hosted through our DVD channels. However, we were blown away by the quality of the responses and I believe this was down to Melanie’s warm personality and teaching ethic. She was a pleasure to work with and we look forward to doing so again.”