It isn’t often one gets to do what one wants in this world. Really, it isn’t. But this – the first ever TICE Creative Writing Explore Stage – gave me the chance to pull together two days where I could take this year’s students on an exploration of the hidden literary gems in Newcastle. And, we did so much during our allocated time that this blog is in two parts. Here’s where we began.

What do you want to know more about?

After looking at the feedback from the insight stage in schools, it was clear the students wanted a taste of where the real-life written action is – and to learn how to make a living from doing what they all love – writing.

There were requests to, “Meet someone who writes plays…” “Meet a real-life author…” “Talk to someone at a university about what a creative writing degree is really like…” So, we invited a host of brilliant speakers along to join us for our two-day ride.

Exploring marketing, copywriting and brand communication roles

The first of our two days saw us in one of the high-tech IT suites at Northumbria University‘s media department where we started the day with an exercise in unearthing a weird fact about a stranger.

This brilliant icebreaker mixed the schools – and staff – together and revealed that:

  1. a) There’s a body double from a Latvian Eurovision Song Contest flop on the staff at Marden (yes, really)
  2. b) Olivia’s headshot is held by Warner Bros
  3. c) Miss Laing is a Swiftie

Write to sell

Ice broken, it was time to introduce the morning’s guests. All the students had enjoyed the copywriting element of our insight stage, where I asked them to sell a range of expensive fountain pens using the written word. They’d got the hang of the features vs. benefits angle of sales, the psychology of persuasion, and the idea that words can be used to sell.

Welcoming Chloe Hall and Hannah Layford

This led me to invite two women who I consider to be among our region’s most dynamic and successful – and approachable figures. Chloe Hall from Bumble and Bloom Media and Hannah Layford, Instagram influencer and brand communicator. Neither Chloe nor Hannah has reached their 30th birthday and yet they both run their own, highly successful businesses and work for some of the biggest and most recognisable brands in the world. Inspiring indeed.

And they have the right ratio on Instagram, which when you’re in year nine – as well as when you’re running a successful digital marketing business – is totally a thing.

Award-winning marketer wows year nine students

First up to the front was Chloe. Winner of The Guardian’s Startup of the Year in 2014, Chloe runs marketing consultancy Bumble and Bloom Media from her home in North Shields. She specialises in digital marketing and social media and works with brands like Lindt Chocolate, The Cambridge Satchel Company, Bloom & Wild and Gü. She talked to us about just how fast the digital marketing space has changed since she started her company five years ago.

“I started Bumble and Bloom Media because – although I already had my dream job as a writer – I was so curious about digital marketing, and what it could do for brands. When I started the business in 2013 there were fewer people doing what I do and the algorithm was less sophisticated than it is today. Now we’re working with companies to handle things like voice search, SEO, the surge of influencer marketing and changes to Facebook’s organic reach.”

Exploring the future of work

Chloe pointed out that for the students in the room, there will be jobs they’ll be applying for that haven’t even been invented yet – and that none of us can predict what the job market will look like in another five years’ time.

“Just think, five years ago, there was no such job title as a drone operator, or content creators for virtual reality, social media managers or user experience designers. My advice? Dive in and see what you like. Be curious. Start your own business. Why not? I did, and I’ve never looked back.”

This idea that the future is an unknown and unpredictable place can seem daunting, even for us grown ups in the real world. The powerful urge to know what’s coming next and to be prepared for it can be mapped to the growth of trend forecasting agencies and market research firms like Mintel. To frame the future, as Chloe did, as a place that offers a wealth of opportunities for today’s businesses – and especially for the business owners of tomorrow who were in the room – created a powerful shift in our thinking for the day.

“Meeting Chloe Hall inspired me to branch out and think outside as the box as listening to her on day one has taught me there were many more options available when pursuing a career in English writing then I originally thought.”

– William, George Stephenson High School

How to craft an enviable career from storytelling

Next up to talk to us was Hannah Layford, who works to help brands communicate more consistently and effectively. With a presentation titled, “Building a career from a love of storytelling” ­– which was a thing of beauty – Hannah introduced herself.

“I’m 28, self-employed and I still can’t believe that people pay me to write for a living.”

With photographs of her travel trips abroad, her work with delicious local burger brand Fat Hippo and big brands like Aspinal of London, it’s fair to say that both staff and students alike wanted to be Hannah by the end of her session.

“Personally, I enjoyed hearing from Hannah Layford this is due to the fact she basically has my ideal job. She gets paid for travelling around the world, taking beautiful photos and writing amazing blog posts. She also inspired me because it helped me understand what I will need to develop and be able to become a blogger, like Hannah.”

– Elicia, George Stephenson High School

Adaptability is key to creative success

The most powerful lesson we took away though, was Hannah’s reflection on how life doesn’t always go as planned. After leaving University where, like Chloe, she studied English Literature, Hannah took some time out to re-evaluate the future she wanted and spent a couple weeks travelling around Northern India and Rajasthan ‘to clear her head’.

Refreshed and ready for work, a recruitment specialist suggested she try out a PR role, convincing her that success would look like Samantha Jones from Sex in the City, leading a glamorous life of parties, launches and all things fabulous. Except it didn’t.

What to do when things don’t go to plan

Instead, Hannah realised she was unhappy and went to work for Precept, a brand communications agency in Newcastle, before setting up on her own eighteen months ago after many happy years there.

Now an Associate Lecturer at Northumbria University on the Fashion Communication BA, as well as a freelance writer, brand and marketing consultant, social media strategist, MCIPR and photographer, Hannah’s advice to the students was:

“Gather knowledge wherever you can, whether it’s from books, magazines, documentaries or TED Talks. Do you want to be a writer? Start writing today – and have confidence in yourself.”

The morning session ended with Chloe setting a marketing task for the students, which they were given an hour over their lunch break to consider and plan.

Thinking laterally and logically to create something new

After lunch and moving to a lecture theatre within the university’s campus, we set to work on Chloe’s challenge:

“Imagine you have £10,000 to promote any business you want to. Write a detailed plan of how you’ll spend your budget, why and what you expect to achieve. Now do the same with a budget of £100,000.”

This task resulted in fantastic marketing plans filled helicopters, dog shows, street parties and trips to India to research the spices that create a brand’s Indian chutneys and pickles – and we kept the plans safe for Chloe’s feedback.

I really enjoyed listening to Hannah and Chloe – I found out that people create a living out of things I love to do. It was really interesting to hear how they had got to their current position, and really showed that writing opens many opportunities.”

– Eve, George Stephenson High School

Exploring creative writing as a career

Our final speaker on day one was Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Director of Learning & Teaching English at Northumbria University, Tony Williams.

Tony’s presentation, “Creative Writing & My/Your Career/Life” looked at the opportunities available with a degree in creative writing and explored the different kinds of risk and tension that come with a career in the creative industries.

After studying philosophy at university, Tony told us how he’d spent some time on the dole and some time temping, before taking an MA in Creative Writing while working full-time, progressing to a PhD in Creative Writing while working part-time. He then worked as a part-time lecturer, before progressing to his current role ­– all while writing his own works.

Try, try, try again

Tony’s route to becoming a published author started with his publishing poems in magazines during his MA, working for a decade on his first book and with the release of his latest novel, Nutcase – which came out in September 2017. He brought his fascination with writing manuscripts to life as he described the processes involved – and how the cost of parchment means it’s no longer a viable form of publishing. He then told us about the book he’s writing that’s interactive and in the form of an encyclopaedia. Arranged alphabetically, rather than in a linear fashion –he’s unsure how successful it will be when it’s complete. This honesty resonated with the students, which was evidenced in their feedback:

“Tony told us about the routes into careers into creative writing and how he chose to get into creative writing. As well as that he also told us how he wrote books that were published and how he once wrote an extensive novel, read it over and thought it wasn’t very good so it was just a large chunk of practice, which was useful information, and taught us how you might not get it right the first time and need to persevere.”

– James, Marden High School

Using the life and career of English poet, Peter Reading, as an example Tony talked about how some of us thrive on a working life that offers the stability of a 9-5 career.

For other people, however, the happiness they gain from following their creative ambitions and juggling that with earning their living balances out that lack of traditional stability. Peter Reading left his teaching job, became a weighbridge operator and worked at an animal feed mill in Shropshire, a job that freed him to think – and write his award-winning poetry. As Tony pointed out, “Not all creative practitioners have paid jobs in that field.”

Tony Williams stuck out to me because I could tell he was passionate about creative writing and what he does. It was cool to learn about the projects he had worked on and hear how he got where he was.”

– Joelle, Marden High School

When it came to the students’ questions, Tony was really helpful with advice on overcoming the blank page that’s part of the creative writing stage of their upcoming GCSEs.

“The blank page can be a scary thing. Write something on it. Anything. So that it’s no longer blank. Then you can begin without fear.”

And on whether creative writing can be taught?

“The joy of taking a creative writing course is that it gives you permission to say that you’re writing – that you’re a writer. There are techniques to learn, yes. But committing to a course means making a commitment to yourself to write and there’s real power in joining a community of like-minded people who are also writing.”

“I very much enjoyed day one as I felt like it gave us a small glimpse of how writing can go beyond education and how Universities offer many programmes that involve all types of writing.”

– Shauna, George Stephenson High School