Louise Beech visits Life Stories in Durham

English PEN's Life Stories project is working with long term prisoners in the North East. After her visit this week, Louise Beech is still buzzing from the experience.

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Having written How to be Brave – a novel inspired by true events – I was invited by English PEN to join two writing workshops at HMP Frankland and HMP Low Newton. In these groups the men and women have been exploring the theme of Life Stories, writing and drawing in their own journals as well as doing creative exercises.

These prison writers – and they are all writers, because they write – were passionate, honest and direct. They shared with me incredible pieces of poetry, proudly showed me detailed and gorgeous sketches, and let me read short stories brimming with profound imagery and gorgeous metaphors. One woman’s description of strewn clothes like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs made me smile so much.

Sheila Mulhern is the writer-in-residence at both prisons, and she has encouraged the men to share stories in their anthology Ghosts of our Future. It was clear to me that her tireless work – obviously done with love – has been key to the unlocking of their art. Because these stories are the highest art of all, coming from truth, from pain, from hope, from desire to create.

I read a few extracts from my novel, and they in turn read the pieces they had created from an exercise where we described a past event using only the five senses – what we could see, hear, touch, taste, smell. The results were pure poetry. Remembered scenes of camping trips, learning to ride bikes, milkman rounds and car accidents came vividly to life.

The joy of seeing what words and stories can do is what kept me writing through many rejections. In the face of ‘not fitting in’ where genres were concerned, I can perhaps identify with these offenders trying to find their place in life. Of their making sense of the world through words. Of looking back in order to look forward. And I hope these workshops long continue so this magic goes on.

The prison writers were delighted to be given copies of my book, which I happily signed. And the image of them all cheerily waving to me, clutching it, will stay in my mind forever.


English PEN’s Life Stories project offers prisoners creative writing workshops focused on memoir, autobiography and journal writing to elicit personal recollection, self reflection and learning. It is supported by Big Lottery Fund, Awards for All and the AB Charitable Trust

Louise Beech’s novel How to be Brave is published by Orenda Books. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition. You can find her on twitter @LouiseWriter.

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