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Being A Mentor

My experiences of working as a mentor at a series of creative writing workshops run by charities for people experiencing homelessness

Quick links on this page:

introduction: the benefits of writing - about mentoring - article written by a mentee

workshop article publication - conclusion: what I learned from working as a mentor

Mentoring

Introduction: The Benefits of Creative Writing

When I started writing, my main focus was on getting my work published. It still is. I'm trying to make a living from writing, so publishing (and marketing) has to be a priority. But I've learned that it doesn't have to be the only reason I write.

The more time I spend running this website, the more I learn about what motivates others and what they gain from creative writing. Yes, there are plenty of people out there who, like me, seek publication. But there is SO much more to creative writing than seeing a story in print.

For example, writing can be:

  • Educational – it's a core part of learning and studying most subjects
  • Social – the writing community is full of lovely, supportive people
  • A hobby – a way of keeping your imagination and brain active
  • Good for your mental health, wellbeing and happiness – being creative can relieve stress
  • A way of processing thoughts and understanding problems
  • A way of communicating and sharing ideas with others

One of the experiences that helped me gain a greater understanding of all this, was working as a mentor at creative writing workshops run by local charities.

Mentoring

I was one of the founding trustees of the Arkbound Foundation, a charity that aims to widen access to literature and improve diversity within the publishing industry. We ran some workshops after receiving funding for our Regional Editor Network.

Regional Editor Network

We worked with Caring in Bristol (the charity supported by the preposition writing challenge) and St Mungo's, offering workshops to people who have had direct experience with, are at risk of experiencing, or are currently experiencing homelessness. The aim was to empower those from traditionally excluded backgrounds to convey their stories and create avenues in which they can be heard.

Ultimately, if the workshops went well, we hoped to contribute an article to The Survival Handbook, a book produced by Caring in Bristol that is made available free of charge.

The Survival Handbook

The book contains details of:

  • day centres
  • agencies and organisations which supply food to vulnerable people
  • medical, dental and other health services, including drug, alcohol and mental health support services
  • public toilets
  • local amenities
  • and much more

In short, it helps homeless people in the Bristol area (UK) survive.

Caring in Bristol thought an article written by someone who had experience of homelessness would make a great contribution to the book and be helpful / inspirational to their readers.

The Workshops

At the workshops, I met a variety of individuals who had direct experience of homelessness. Some were ex-homeless. Some were currently homeless.

At the first workshop, we undertook a couple of writing exercises. We started with a free writing exercise – you just write the first thing that comes into your head for about 10 minutes, starting with the line 'Today felt good because...' Then you read what you've written to the group.

This went well, allowing attendees to become used to writing, listening and sharing their words with others.

We then wrote stories for the 81 Word Writing Challenge, some of which I published. Again, we shared them with the group. Here is an example (story 219 from the 81 word challenge):

Home

by Jason

What is a home? A roof, a bed.

For me a fact, it was all in my head.

I dream, imagine my mum is apart,

Makes me feel dizzy, warm and content,

Unable to hurt, through the barrier of my head.

Keeps me safe, no uninvited plebs,

Mature, grownup and ready instead.

To share with others, the working of head,

That allows me, to continue ahead.

My family, it's mine, the future unsaid,

Because now I’m content, in my own head.

One of the workshop attendees had a real interest in writing and came to every workshop I ran. They don't want to be named for personal reasons, so I shall just refer to them as R.K. Due to their interest in the project, I thought they would be well suited to writing a piece for The Survival Handbook.

After the workshops, I liaised with R.K. via email and they agreed to try and write a piece for the book. We met up a few times over the next few months and:

  • We planned the piece, focussing on foraging and how it can help supplement the diet of someone experiencing homelessness
  • R.K. wrote a draft
  • We met up and discussed the draft, agreeing on changes, adding extra information and edits
  • We liaised by email, working on the article, refining it and sourcing pictures
  • After a lot of hard work, R.K. and I had an article about foraging that we were both pleased with

Next, you can read R.K.'s article. After that, I'll talk about what happened when we submitted the piece for publication.

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How Foraging Can Help To Provide You With Additional Food At All Times Of The Year

By R.K. who has had direct experience of homelessness

Overview

This article will look at making use of urban foraging. Foraging can help you make more use of foods that are available around you. I will share my own personal experiences, ways that you could become more aware and engaged with foraging, and resources that can help you learn more.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Care must be taken when foraging for plants / berries, as some can be poisonous / lethal and very easily mistaken as edible to the untrained eye. Always make checks before eating anything you find growing naturally.

Wild Garlic

Wild garlic plants

Foraging

Foraging is something that can be undertaken all year round. While there are less foods growing during the winter, there are still things which can be found.

In the colder seasons, many plants put their energy into their roots. This means that many vegetables, both cultivated and wild, won't be growing that much. Don't expect to find most of the vegetables common in shops by foraging. They tend to be a product of long historical periods of cultivation, dating back to the Stone Age.

Foraged leaves

Foraged leaves

There are many things you can forage for, including:

  • Leaves / herbs
  • Fruits / berries

The leaves of many plants can be eaten, even if you don't associate them with being edible. Dandelion is a good example.

Dandelions

Dandelions

Often, you don't have to go far to find them. However, it's best to be wary if they're growing near roads, as they might be dirty, due to pollution from vehicle engines, chemical spraying by the city council trying to manage weeds and areas where people constantly walk dogs.

Try looking for no-through roads, lanes, in bushes tucked in-between buildings, in city parks etc. Though green spaces such as parks and natural areas are used by people with dogs, they can often be suitable for foraging.

Hawthorn branch

Hawthorn branch

Below I have listed some green spaces in the Bristol area where you can forage.

  • Central Bristol: Castle Park, Brandon Hill Park, St Pauls Park, Newtown Park, Temple Gardens, Riverside Park, Royals Fort Gardens, Cotham Gardens, alongside the River Avon and Floating Harbour
  • West Bristol: Clifton Down (The Downs), Clifton Observatory green space, Victoria Square, Leigh Woods, Ashton Court Estate
  • East Bristol: Mina Road Park, Netham Park, St George Park, Eastville Park, Greenbank Cemetery, Troopers Hill, Bristol & Bath Railway Path, St Annes Park, Sparke Evans Park, Conham River Park, River Avon
  • North Bristol: Narroways Hill, Purdown Park, Snuff Mills Park, Stoke Park Estate, Badock's Wood
  • South Bristol: Victoria Park, Arnos Vale Cemetery, Nightingale Valley, Manor Woods Valley (The Malago)

Fruit in the park

Fruit in the park

My Personal Experience With Foraging

I'm in my mid-20s. I've been interested in foraging for years, but became more interested after visiting an urban farm and undertaking foraging in the area. This helped to supplement my diet. There are two city farms in Bristol – Windmill Hill and St Werburghs – and they run different groups, one of which I became involved with.

Both Windmill Hill and St Werburghs farm are located in natural habitats that had been diminished by railway works that started in the 1830s, connecting a line from Bristol to Exeter, Bristol to Gloucester and another from Bristol to London.

Windmill Hill farm was built by volunteers. It almost never existed, because the city council in the 1970s had made plans for the plot to be turned into a lorry carpark.

St Werburghs farm is situated in a valley that has been dubbed 'Boiling Wells' because, historically, locals had commented that the wells in this area appeared to bubble.

While no windmills have been proved to exist in Windmill Hill, there used to be some windmills in the St Werburghs area due to the prevalence of water that was found there.

Speaking to people on the farm who know about foraging has been helpful to me. In one of the groups, I've been picking and dealing with vegetables for cooking, as well as using other natural materials, such as wood and various types of twigs, to do building, crafts and natural dye making. I've also used animal by-products, such as wool and beeswax.

Benefits of nature green heart

Benefits of nature

What I got out of this was a helpful environment for my mental wellbeing – an option to connect with other people, learn more about local flora / fauna and some skills in making things with them, all in a calm and natural location.

During some of the more critical seasons, particularly winter, by foraging I have found:

  • Plants (small leaves): winter-cress and hairy bitter-cress (both similar to watercress), ribworts plantain and greater plantain, chickweed, hop (bitter, zesty), sorrel (that prefers cool seasons like spring, autumn), thistles (but practically they have prickly parts); some ideas of plants starting from around February: dandelions, alexanders (not to be confused with hemlock), sweet violet (but not that common), wild garlic leaves, nettle (late February, picking with gloves and best to be cooked, has a taste similar to cabbage and spinach)
  • Fruits (small): cranberries, cowberries, guelder rose (has to be cooked first), pine cones and needles (not the yew needles, mostly thrives in heathland (typically with some low-lying purple heather, and grasses)), chestnut (early winter), acorns, hawthorns, rose hips (the fruity is not the hairy bits in the middle inside)

Chestnut fruit

Chestnut fruit

Care must be taken when going out to forage for plants / berries, as some can be poisonous / lethal and very easily mistaken as edible to the untrained eye. On the whole, it's better not to forage for mushrooms at all, unless you have a guide as some can be very dangerous.

You can find examples here:

Feel better outside

Feel better outside

How This Could Be Helpful To Disadvantaged People Who Might Be Experiencing Homelessness

Having an awareness of the benefits of foraging can be helpful and aid survival. As you become more educated about wild foods, where to find them and what is safe to eat, they can supplement your diet.

However, without cooking appliances or clean, running tap water, you have to be careful to avoid infection.

Foraging

Foraging

Conclusion & Resources

Foraging can help supplement your diet and aid your mental health. I've found being outside and looking for food therapeutic. I hope you've found me sharing these experiences helpful.

If you've got any experience with any of the things I've talked about, it'd be great to hear from you. This will give an option for future publications to be improved by giving clearer and more exhaustive information.

Robin in tree

Bird wildlife

To finish, here are some details of useful resources relating to foraging, and some events that you could attend. They include links to useful websites, offline books and any other resources that might be available in the library or a charity shop.

Urban Foraging

  • Edible Bristol is a community food growing movement and has a few sites in Bristol
  • Wild Food School is a website that has a few plant suggestions in different seasons

A few other sites that suggest plants throughout all seasons:

Bristol festival

Bristol festival

Preparing Foraged Food

Below are some websites and suggested recipes that give examples of ways you could use any foraged food.

Some examples of other events that may be attended in the local community around culture and wellbeing:

  • Easton Arts Trail (usually June) and a range of other arts trails in various areas of Bristol – there's at least one almost every month of the year
  • Redfest (usually August) is an arts and community festival – there are a couple of other accessible festivals that can be found in Bristol throughout the year
  • Bristol Doors Open Days (usually September)
  • Bristol Anarchist Book Fair and Bristol Radical History Festival (usually April)
  • Recovery Festival (usually September)
  • Freedom of Mind Festival (usually October) is a mental health, arts and social justice festival
  • Blue Monday (usually January) is a practical life and wellbeing advice event
  • Gigs and open mic music in some pubs, like The Chelsea Inn, Easton on Wednesdays, for example
  • Poetry / Spoken word open mic, like The Arts House, Stokes Croft on Fridays, for example
  • Public academic talks at the University of Bristol

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Workshop Article Publication – What Happened Next?

We submitted the article to Caring in Bristol and Arkbound (the book's publisher). Ben, Caring in Bristol's Assistant Director, said:

Wow, I’ve just read the article, and think it’s really good. I particularly like all the links and information it gives, and definitely think it would be suitable for the SH pending a few changes. Thanks for all your hard work R.K. and Chris!

Firstly, I know we didn’t specify (sorry), but overall it’s too long, and will need to be reduced back a bit. We’ve got an A6 publication with 96 pages, the vast majority will need to list services. I don’t know how many words this is, but it would be great if it could be edited down quite a bit? I appreciate this will entail more work.

Secondly, we should probably feature the warning about care when foraging soon on, just in case anyone doesn’t read it properly and gets ahead of themselves!

The original article (which is the one published above, with an amendment to address Ben's second point) is over 1,300 words long. R.K. and I undertook some edits and supplied a shorter version that was just shy of 750 words in length. It's largely the same as the article above, with some sections cut out. For example, the historical references to the local area – while interesting, the article still worked without them.

Editing

The shorter version was well received. Ben said:

This is brilliant, thanks so much R.K. and Chris for all your hard work!

We’ll update you all on the progress of putting together the Survival Handbook, but hoping to have it printed and out for distribution by end of June.

Good stuff, job done. High fives all round.

Hooray

Unfortunately, there was a setback just before the book was published. We received this message from one of the Caring in Bristol team, explaining that they wouldn't be able to use the article in the book.

We had a number of concerns regarding the foraging article and believe that the Council (who are funding the book) would not support it, as it has a number of omissions. Our concerns are:

  • We should not encourage people to forage on private/council land (listed at the bottom of article) as we/they don't have permission. Official Woodland Trust guidance says it is always best to ask permission from the land owner (potentially the council) as it can be seen as illegal:
    • All wild plants are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). It is illegal to dig up or remove a plant (including algae, lichens and fungi) from the land on which it is growing without permission from the landowner or occupier
  • The foraging article photos should have a disclaimer saying they are poisonous (wild Hawthorn berries contain cyanide and dandelion stems can cause stomach upset). Also that foraging is not advised for pregnant people. Would we also need an allergy disclaimer?
  • 'Always make checks before eating' is not clear. What checks? 'Rub it on your arm/gums/swallow a piece/eat it' for example (what was taught in the cadets)?

We should have addressed the article issues months ago, we can only apologise for that.

Publishing in Print

I understand the concerns raised and would have been happy to make edits. Sadly, we received this feedback a few days before the book was due to go into production. This meant we were unable to make the necessary changes to the article as the book's interior had already been designed and formatted. So, R.K.'s article did not appear in The Survival Handbook.

While this was disappointing, especially after all the hard work we'd put in, I realise that charities have limited budgets and resources, so understand how this situation arose. I would add we hold no animosity towards the charity and continue to support it via the writing challenges run on this website. Both R.K. and I hold Caring in Bristol in high regard due to all the fabulous work they do in the local area.

Conclusion: What I Learned From Working As A Mentor

I learned a lot from going through this process. Working as a writing mentor with local charities, publishers and the city council was interesting and rewarding. I feel I've become more aware of the challenges they face when undertaking this type of project.

For example, the workshops were difficult to organise. Due to the circumstances of many of the people the workshops were aimed at, it was hard to inform them that they were happening. Many people experiencing homelessness do not have regular access to emails. They don't have a permanent address. They often don't have phones. So communication is challenging. Potential attendees may also experience difficulty travelling to the workshops.

We did the best we could by using posters and reaching out to charities and organisations that support disadvantaged people; those that have regular interaction with homeless people. For example, R.K. attended the first workshop due to an organisation called Step Together who informed them it was happening.

Attendance numbers at the workshops were low. But that did mean each attendee had more time to ask questions and gain feedback. So there are advantages to lower numbers. I think that's why R.K. and I managed to complete the article. If the attendance numbers had been higher, it may not have happened as we wouldn't have had so much time to get to know each other and develop a working relationship.

Gears

Through all of this, I also learned about the benefits of writing beyond being published. While I was initially frustrated that the article wasn't included in the book as we'd intended, in hindsight it helped me consider what I did gain from undertaking mentoring and the many facets of creative writing.

I saw how writing could lift the spirits and boost the confidence of workshop attendees. Not just R.K.'s, but all the people who were there. In addition to the people who had experience of homelessness, there were also organisers and representatives from the charities at the workshops. The feedback from all of them was very positive. They were visibly happier once they'd undertaken some writing and shared it as a group.

Since undertaking the workshop and considering this, I've thought more about how writing makes me feel. The answer? Happier. More relaxed. Less aware of time passing, my phone notifications and other distractions. I can literally feel my stress levels reducing as I enter a creative frame of mind and start writing fiction. My problems and worries fade away.

Next time you sit down to write, consider how it makes you feel. You might be surprised.

Through helping R.K. write their article, we became friendly and still send an email to one another on occasion. I think I've probably gained as much from the experience as they have.

To finish this story, I will add that R.K.'s post has been published and shared, which is what we originally intended. Not published in a book, but on a website. And shared with you :-)

Big Thanks To R.K.

I'd like to say a big, "Thank you," to R.K. for allowing me to present their post, the story of our journey and what we gained from the experience of working together.

And thanks to all of the other people, organisations and charities that enabled this to happen.

If you have any comments, please leave them below. If you are interested in writing for my blog, please check out my submission guidelines and then get in touch.

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Sarah M
This was very interesting, both the foraging article itself, but also how you describe the process and its frustrations. Very reminiscent of some of the difficulties I have encountered when trying to involve people in research about their lives and localities. Also, as someone who has started 'doing creative writing' again since retiring from working as a researcher I feel very committed to the idea that creative writing offers many benefits beyond publication and earning a living. (Although I admit I do also want to achieve publication.) For me, for instance, there's the pure pleasure in being totally absorbed in something you are doing (so that could be anything but writing is one of the things that really works for me as it sounds like it does for you), as well as the opportunity to reflect on what is passing through my mind through the process of writing it down. The fact that this is mostly a load of rubbish is fine too...

Chris Fielden
Thanks for your comment, Sarah. I agree with you - I'm beginning to realise how many facets creative writing (and all creative pursuits) have for the individual, even if they don't share it with anyone. Of course, there is a lot of joy to be had from sharing something you've created, especially if it's well received, but the act of simply creating is beneficial in itself. Well, that's what I've started to realise, anyway :-)

Charmian S
RK wrote a very thoughtful and informative article that I very much enjoyed reading. It was helpful for those who would like to try foraging and very interesting in general. It's good to see how writing and mentoring can give such benefits to both parties. Even though the article wasn't published in the intended way, there was a great deal to learn from the experience for all, including myself. Thank you to RK and to Chris.

Chris Fielden
Thank you, Charmain :-)

Louise G
This was an interesting article - mentoring, foraging and the challenge of getting into print. I found the whole process and R.K's article interesting including the feedback received.

From small seeds...

Chris Fielden
Thanks very much, Louise :-)

From small seeds indeed...

Cath A
I agree about the delights of writing, even if no one else ever reads it. It keeps me happy in my retirement. My local writing group recently had a very satisfactory discussion about how we'd hate being best-selling authors because of all the stress of marketing, book-signings, having to speak at literary festivals and all that. We felt quite smug about our obscurity by the end.

Thanks for all the great advice.

Chris Fielden
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Cath. It's always interesting to hear what others gain from writing :-)