Ta-ra, Festival of Words

Photograph: Nottingham Post

Photograph: Nottingham Post

About three years ago at an AGM at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio we asked members what things they would like to see happen at the studio and within the wider community. Quite a few members, such as John Lucas and Michael Eaton, mentioned their desire to see a city-wide literature festival. To our astonishment, we realised there hadn’t been one for over thirty years.

Plans were quickly drawn up and in 2013 we put on the inaugural Festival of Words in collaboration with Nottingham City Council and Writing East Midlands and the two universities. The festival had many flaws in that we had over programmed, events competed with each other, and we were simply a little too ambitious. But this was hardly surprising given how long we had had all waited. There was no funding, either, which meant we ran completely on goodwill and the incredible effort of many volunteers.

2014 was a completely different beast. We went for a more devolved approach whereby both universities planned and coordinated specific events that saw the likes of Ali Smith and Will Self on the streets of Nottingham. We received a grant from Arts Council England (up to 15k) and at the very last minute additional funding came through to put on an international series of talks from writers from afar afield as Hungary, China, and Afghanistan.

It was an incredible week (with additional fringe events that are still going on, such as Judith Allnatt talking about her WWI novel The Moon Field) and was generally very well attended, which the first festival was not. In between the meetings and emails there was also time to be creative. For the first Festival I did a literary walk with Michael Eaton and for this one ran a game of Masterbwainz, whereby we brought back dead writers from Nottingham’s past to raise awareness of local literary history.

There were teething problems with the festival which were inevitable given the small turnaround in which we had to structure the programme and market events, but overall I think it was fantastic and something I feel very proud to have been involved with. There are still areas in which we need to improve; in particular defining roles and how we communicate internally and externally. Agreeing on the identity of the festival and its function is important too, but we’re nearly there in that we are a Festival of Words rather than a Literature Festival. And the website desperately needs tarting up so it has a bit of magic. These things are possible with time, the thing all of us are chasing.

I stepped down as a director of the Festival on Wednesday because I feel as if my work is done. Although stepping down doesn’t mean I’m free. There are still ways in which I will be involved but not at the forefront or in an official capacity. More of a gobby backseat driver.

The Festival is in great shape and with a bit of preening here and there will become a handsome devil. NWS is already represented by Anne McDonald so there is no need for two of us to be involved. At NWS I have slowly tried to devolve roles for the Board and Anne’s role has been working on the Festival, so it makes complete sense for her to carry on in this capacity. And she has done an incredible job and deserves full credit, alongside Jacqueline Gabbitas, Sarah Dale, Pippa Hennessy and many many others. Nottingham, you don’t know how lucky you are.

There are quite a few reasons for stepping down, which I expressed with a few people prior to the festival. Firstly, I am worried that the local literary scene is getting too incestuous. I have too many ‘hats’ on and this could create the impression the literature scene is closed off. It’s not. You get sucked into a lot of things through being the Chair of NWS. Secondly, wearing too many hats can create a conflict of interest which can lead to miscommunication. Thirdly, the devil is in the detail. It is simply not possible to give things your full attention when there is so much else going on. My priority is now with the UNESCO City of Literature bid – which is something that, in many ways, has been born out of the festival as it helped to bring organisations closer together. And lastly, I’m sick to death of emails and meetings and so need to trim these away a bit to concentrate on my two very needy children who I love dearly. They are Dawn of the Unread and Being Arthur (The Sillitoe Trail: II).

 

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Digital storytelling at Game City

gamecity-titleOctober has been a pretty stressful and bizarre month so far that has involved a bwain eating contest, interviewing Will Self (a man whose brain is so large it could feed a starving nation), collecting Jon McGregor’s old desk for the Nottingham Writers’ Studio (and resisting the temptation to sell it on eBay), LeftLion going monthly, sourcing patrons for Nottingham’s City of Literature bid, dealing with various tantrums in the world of digital comics and attempting to read the Booker shortlist before a friend at book club (pleasure).

But now my attention is fully focussed on Game City, or rather it will be after this blog. Game City is just gorgeous fun. Over the years it’s seen a SEGA Recital on solo piano in 13th Century Church, turned Market Square into a desert, and proved that gaming isn’t just about consoles by creating a playable meal. It’s nine years old this month and I’m well chuffed to be involved.

On Wednesday I’ll be giving a blather on ‘digital storytelling and Dawn of the Unread’ and discussing how multiple narrative threads enable a more complex understanding of literature as well as providing various routes into a text. Technically, Dawn of the Unread is not a computer game but multiple narratives are a theme of gaming culture and so this gets me a free pass. Dawn of the Unread does have a gaming element to it in that readers have to perform certain tasks in order to progress through the comic, but there aren’t any end of level bosses – unless you include illiteracy as our equivalent of Bowser.

I could harp on about why Game City is so brilliant for ages, but here’s two reasons. Firstly, anyone can give a talk. They have an open submissions system online where you pitch ideas. This makes it incredibly inclusive to the local environment. Secondly, it uses a simple scheduling tool called Sched which enables users to easily plan out their week, add events to calendars, and download to your phone. Sched also enables you to view all of the profiles of people attending your event so you have a good idea of numbers (23 signed up so far) as well as an awareness of who your audience are so that the talk can be adapted accordingly.

The Nottingham Festival of Words has just finished and I’m slowly starting to relax again. Although the literature audience is very different to the gaming audience, I think there is so much that we (the organisers) can learn from Game City, particularly the fun and simplicity that seem to define their approach and project management.

I’ll be dragging Paul Fillingham along with me, so if you have specific technical questions you’d like to ask about producing work across platforms, don’t be scared to put your hand up. Wed  29 Oct, 2-2.30pm. Game City website