Richard Forster’s drawings and installation – Levittown – which explores suburbia and suburban lives and values, proved to be really inspirational for our writers this month. We gathered at the De La Warr Pavilion to view the exhibition, and started by writing our responses to the physical, psychological and social spaces that Forster’s drawings evoked. What did these spaces feel like to occupy – either imaginatively or in reality? How did it feel to be drawn into them? And what 5 words would writers use to describe what the artworks were about for them.
It seemed that we all had strong reactions to the suburban life depicted. Many writers expressed a strong desire to get away, so claustrophobic did the row upon row of identical houses appear. We shared our own experiences of suburbia – and explored some of our words: conformity, uniformity, identity, repressive, stultifying, unforgiving. We chatted too about the contrast between the qualities Forster highlights in his work, and the idealism with which Levittown and other similar new-towns were built in the 1940s and 1950s. Our ideas ranged from the oppressiveness of architecture, to the fixed notions about gender, race and class at that time in the USA (where Levittown was built) and in the UK, where the utopian idea of the garden cities – still seemed to give way to the dystopia of lives blunted under social and cultural pressures.
Finally we mused on the idea of ‘little boxes’ which Forster explores through links to the 1960s folk song by Malvina Reynolds of the same name: ‘Little boxes little boxes and they all look just the same.’ Each of Forsters’s grids of drawings includes an image of someone from Levittown’s 1950s era. For their first writing exercise I asked them to free-write for a few minutes on all four people, exploring their ideas of the kinds of gender, educational, economic, physical, social, spatial, psychological boxes that they imagined the 2 female and 2 male subjects might exist in.
Next writers chose 2 of the 4 to explore further as characters. Our second writing exercise use repetition of the words I want… and writers were left to free-write again, a stream of consciousness in the first person, repeating the words, delving deeper and deeper into the wants, the hidden desires and secret dreams of the people in the pictures. Everytime they stopped, feeling they’d got as far as they could, I encouraged them to continue – and we were all amazed at the writing that came out. When we use repetition in this way, it’s always surprising, and exploring the wants of a new character is a great way to get to know them too.
Before we stopped for tea and cake, we curated all these wants together into a collaborative art-work, writing them over blown up reproductions of Forster’s drawings, so that eventually we covered one whole window in the De La Warr with a large composite image of Levittown, with each house reverberating with a voice, shouting out its secret hopes, dreams and desires – escaping the box. You can see complete details of this installation here.
After tea, writers settled down with the characters that they’d started to discover through the earlier exercises and began writing a short story. We used Richard Yate’s short story, ‘A Convalescent Ego’ as inspiration for this. Yates is a master at chronicling the restrictions of suburban life of that era – and it’s always helpful to draw on the structures and ideas from great stories when experimenting with our own writing. So we used the basic premise of a suburban character in their home and of a small and unremarkable inciting incident (in A Convalescent Ego it’s the breaking of a soap dish and cup) – to then allow the character to try and imagine escape or make an actual attempt to break out from the restrictions of their life, home and relationships. We had a longer writing period for this – and writers were still scribbling in their notebooks as they went home, proof to just how much inspiration the Forster exhibition and subject matter had been. Look out for these stories on this blog soon.
“As always, brilliant and imaginative.” Pat
“Absolutely brilliant. This was my first workshop. I would definitely come again. Thank you for having me!” Sophie
“Excellent, creative workshop. Wendy Ann is astonishing in her ability to do something new and interesting at each workshop.” Judith
“Absolutely fabulous workshop. Great stuff – inspiring!” Hilary.