Prior to university, I would have never expected to be a part of such an extensive community project. Taking an English degree, you are told from the ‘get-go’ that the majority of the coursework is to be completed alone, that they are specific to one topic and that we are to adapt to the standard, academic ‘essay language’. However, the Writing Lives module has provided me with a refreshing platform to which I can write freely and expressively about a range of thought-provoking topics through the life of one memoirist: John Sawyer.
His life was interesting to say the least, and it inspired me both personally and academically. One of my favourite things about John is his beautiful, fluent writing style. However, I’d say my favourite aspect of John’s memoir is his attitude. Despite his literary elegance, he consistently wrote with an ironic, humorous tone, even when describing the war and his illnesses where evidently his life, and those of which he loved, were in constant danger. He always remained upbeat and optimistic no matter what obstacle he faced, which made me contemplate my own attitudes and perspectives to my personal struggles in life. If John can be positive during war conditions and daily bomb attacks, then I should be positive in situations I face. He also inspired me academically, as, through his life stories, I was able to uncover little pieces of history every week. For instance, John speaks fondly about his times in his favourite pub in Nottingham: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. He spoke about his experiences in there frequently, and gloats about how he used to reel customers in due to his singing and dancing. I was fascinated to uncover that this pub is still around today and still looks the same as photographs taken in the 1930s. Upon further research, I discovered that it is the oldest inn in England! I plan to visit John’s favourite place one day and see this piece of history with my own eyes.
From reading and researching into John’s life, I learnt a lot about the war, as he dedicates a great portion of his memoir to his wartime experiences. Reading his personal experiences made me learn about the war on a significantly deeper, emotional level, as John explains how people were conditioned to daily bomb attacks, and how they eventually became apart of everyday life. As well as war, I also learnt about the history of the working-class family, or rather, how John challenges it through his unconventional family. John was an only child, and rarely speaks of his family, yet when researching into traditional working class lives and their family values, along with reading my peers’ blogs on home and family, I found that most had a large family and had written about the importance of family and community values, such as Rosa Bell, the memoirist that my peer review partner studied. Through John, I have learnt that personal history can challenge and consequently change public history. Therefore, I feel that I have contributed a new dimension to public history and the Writing Lives website through challenging it.
Taking part in a collaborative research project has allowed me, for the first time, to be a part of something substantial. Over these past four months, I’ve had the privilege of sharing my university work with a wide, ever-growing platform, and through this platform, I had a first-hand opportunity to see and feel how an active community works. However, one hinderance I did unfortunately face was certain research limitations into the details of John’s life. This was an inevitable problem, due to John’s frequent ambiguity when it came to time and locations, as he wouldn’t reference in what year he experienced certain things nor where he experienced them. For example, when referring to his jobs, he simply states ‘a large Solicitor’s office’ (p.19) which prevented me from venturing further into this aspect of his life. I was also disappointed when I was unable to locate John’s family tree on ancestry sites due to the lack of information he provided about his parents, including their names. This would’ve been a great addition to my author blog, as some of my peers managed to find their memoirist’s family tree which added a personal, tangible layer to their blog.
Through this project, I learnt about the benefits and importance of a constant, supportive community. Each week, me and my group partner, Jenny, would either email or post a thematic blog-in-progress to each other in order for us to identify strengths and possible improvements for our blog. We also scheduled many library sessions throughout the semester to give us the time to provide each other with verbal feedback, which became a very effective and beneficial routine for us. I utilised this benefit to transform my work and make it to the best possible standard.
Having already blogged in the past, due to the Prison Voices module, I would say I had an initially high level of confidence going into the Writing Lives module. However, I wanted to improve my blogging skills, and being at the reflective stage in which I currently am, I think it’s fair to say that I have undergone a significant, personal improvement: this being my writing style. I always aim to make my work enjoyable and artistic as well as academic, hence why I study Creative Writing along with English, as creative writing gives me that artistic, unbounded freedom. However, I implemented this style which I feel made my blogs more authentic and enjoyable for my audience. Due to the fact that I am a part of a large collaborative project, other students were able to read my work, and I received a number of positive comments. This therefore boosted my confidence and told me that I should stick to my gut when making stylistic changes to my writing style.
Another vital factor to this module was social media, and despite John’s incessant criticising of technology and its boundaries, I used it anyway! Technology is at the centre of our society, and social media is a medium that connects everybody and everything together, and essentially has no bounds (sorry John!). I therefore made a constant, conscious effort to utilise social media platforms, such as twitter, in order to advertise my blog as well as my peers’ blogs. In my previous blogging module, I admittedly didn’t engage with social media enough, and wouldn’t post my work online due to a lack of confidence. However, I pushed myself through this barrier and reaped the benefits, as I have received many positive comments from my peers and the community. Social media also allowed me to not only access other blogs, but share them too. On twitter, I actively retweeted my peer’s blogs in the hopes of bringing more attention to them.
As I reach the end of my final blog and my university career, I am hit with feelings of sadness and nostalgia, but also confidence and good wishes for the future. This is my final assignment for my final module of university, and ending on this module makes it that much more bittersweet. From taking part in the Writing Lives module, I have grown to be confident in pressing the ‘public’ button for my blogs, and generally being confident in my own ability. This module also challenged my research abilities and constructed new ways of researching for me. For example, when I used to think of research, my response would be ‘google it.’ However, through the medium of social media, I could research though my peers and the public, as if I encountered a problem, I would share it online and would actively receive guidance and possible sources I could use to further my research. And finally, having a whole module dedicated to the life of one person taught me how to emphasis all my skills and narrow my research, which overall improved my skills as a researcher and blogger. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to cement one man’s story into a project like this, and I hope that John Sawyer’s life is as fascinating to the public as it is to me.
My personal transcription of John Sawyer’s life if available here – http://www.writinglives.org/john-sawyer-b-1914/john-sawyer-my-notes
My Twitter – @DanielleLJMU
John Sawyer, One man in his time, or, the first sixty years; an autobiography. 38,000 words. Born 1914, Beeston Nottingham.