Conversations with women aged over forty in Liverpool
In a forum with women aged over forty, run by Writing on the Wall (WOW) in Liverpool, music-maker Jennifer John, screenwriter Margy McShane and community artist Helen Davies spoke to Michelle Charters, CEO of Kumba Imani Millennium Centre about their lives and careers. Themes that emerged from their talk were:
Click on a theme to jump to it, or scroll down to read all.
The artists and starting out
Jennifer has always been involved in music. When she grew up there was a piano in the living room and her dad was a singer so music was always there. She loves teaching and being able to share her music with others. Music is a special gift, making us feel something because everyone has a soundtrack to their lives; for most it’ll be a record reminding them of a moment in their life. She composes music for film and is a singer-songwriter, so she creates for herself and others, singing on records and on stage, and loves every aspect of what she does.
‘As I’ve got older, I’m about sharing my creativity with other people – it feels much better when I can create a choir of people and we can all sing together. Choirs are a huge part of what I do, gathering people to sing together a huge part of my musical journey.’
Margy’s passion is for creative writing, specifically screenwriting for film and TV, which she came to fairly late in life. Margy was forty-six when she decided she wanted to do something related to screenwriting, so she undertook a two-year MA at Liverpool John Moores University, which changed her life in lots of ways and felt like she’d come home. Having finished her MA, she decided to retrain as a teacher, using the talents that she’d developed through the Masters. When she was training, an organisation called the Workers Educational Association (www.WEA.org.uk), asked her to run a course at the Swan Women’s Centre (www.swanwomenscentre.org) in Northern Liverpool. Twelve years later she is still working with the women from that group, who range in age from eighteen to eighty.
‘Magic happened in that room because we were so supportive of each other and I learned so much from those women, rather than them learning from me – about the richness of the lives that they’d lived.’
This led to Margy working with Writing on the Wall, with women who’ve had experience of domestic abuse and the criminal justice system and producing anthologies of the work – prose, poetry and songs – which they have performed at the Everyman.
‘They always have incredible stories because it’s such a blend of people. The older you are, the better your stories are because you’ve lived a life … you’re never too old to be creative and to join a group and to be around others whose lives and stories will influence and inspire you.’
Helen has been a freelance artist for thirty years. She did the ‘wrong’ degree (textiles), but when she left college she learned how to make puppets, flags and lanterns, becoming a community artist around Manchester, teaching lots of new skills and passing on confidence. Helen then had the chance to run away with the circus as an artist and bring people in from the local communities, making masks and puppets in a non-animal circus. She was invited to Belfast which was having its first carnival but needed people to teach skills in making puppets and costumes, so she moved to Belfast for nine years, working across communities and borders. In time, she worked with Notting Hill Carnival and in Trinidad but eventually trained herself out of a job and moved back to Manchester, doing lots of site-specific outdoor events including being a lantern-maker.
‘I had the chance to move to Liverpool and be a mentor – it was amazing working with students and teaching them my techniques in costume and prop-making. Sometimes it’s feast or famine and it’s time to learn a new technique. I just carry on making.’
‘Women who dare to be what they want to see’ –
women artists who inspire
Northern women writers like Victoria Wood who wrote really authentic funny, strong, northern women.
Lynda La Plante for Prime Suspect with the Jane Tennyson role.
Caroline Aherne for Mrs Merton and Carla Lane who started with The Liver Birds all those years ago, writing authentic northern women.
Poets – Maya Angelou, Carol Ann Duffy.
‘I’d say to any women out there looking to write, read some of the scripts from people like Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Gentleman Jack). For me it’s about northern women and older women characters. Find the scripts online, eg the script of The Royle Family called “The Queen of Sheba” when Nana died, because that’s a masterpiece of comedy and poignancy.’
Mary Turner who in the 1960s set up action space Mobile, bringing children in from different communities and backgrounds for education and to play together, taking over derelict buildings to do so:
‘She’s been inspirational to so many, bringing community arts into focus as a job.’
And Sue Clyde, who in the 1970s and 80s brought children from different backgrounds into museums and galleries who’d never been anywhere like that before and did art workshops and writing with them:
‘She was one of those people who’d give you the tools and the time to learn new techniques and to gain confidence.’
‘The commercial music industry has historically been dominated by men, so for a woman to be successful within it, takes a certain type of woman. All of those women whose stories I’ve heard have really been through the mill – in terms of expectations to dress in a certain way, to sing about certain subjects. So I’ve got the upmost respect for women who persevere in a career designed to demoralise them. And when they are successful, they get called all sorts of names like diva and demanding, just for being successful and being confident enough to ask for what they want.’
For her storytelling and the way she writes songs, Joni Mitchell has always been a huge influence: ‘the way that she tells stories that don’t always follow form, almost streams of consciousness.’
Those feisty women who we know went through hell, like Tina Turner who had the resilience to pick herself back up and be the phenomenal woman she is today.
There are lots of women who rose above adversity – to survive all those types of things you have to an exceptional type of women. Ella Fitzgerald, another woman who rose above all the heartache and racism of the time – these women have stood up and carried on going. ‘For that reason – for daring to be who they are without apology are the ones I find the most inspiring.’
‘It’s never too late to be who you might have been’
– why women’s stories are important
As women, we tend to hold things together, putting other people before ourselves which is double-edged as we tend to hide our light. But it also means we’re caretakers – we think about other people before ourselves.
For those women who are mothers – and not all women want to be or are – we nurture meaning and create a foundation of life that considers others before ourselves. Women I talk to who are over forty, if children are leaving home, are reconsidering their role and time for themselves.
There are stories we need to tell – about the roles we’ve been assigned or the roles that we’ve chosen to follow. And with that comes some wisdom in reflection, when we’ve got time to look back and take stock.
‘I think that women’s stories are particularly important because in a world that’s dominated by male stories and decisions, we need to see that the work women do is of immense value. It’s probably what keeps the world spinning.’
From the point of view of a writer, if you look at women over forty, you’ve lived a life haven’t you? Most of us have hit a few problems on the way and have some life experience. Some of the women we work with at WoW are in their seventies and have lived long lives, encountering problems.
For someone wanting to write a dramatic script, the key is the ‘problem’; your protagonist always has to have a problem otherwise there’s no story. If everything goes perfect for you, where’s the story; the audience is going to be asleep in the first ten minutes!
‘From the women I’ve been around, you get better the older you are. I like the idea of educating by stealth if you’re engaging someone through a story.’
‘As you get older you gain more confidence. We’re such a vital lifeforce.’
When you’re older you’ve learned from your mistakes and your weaknesses. Being over fifty, it’s knowing yourself more and knowing you can say no and what you want whereas in the past I might have thought I need to please people more.
All of you are activists in your own field.
‘Through conversation, listening and in dialogue we learn from each other.’
All those other sectors and women with different professions and vocations will have a different experience than us. It can only make life richer; we can never stop learning from each other because it makes us more empathetic and teaches us something.
‘The onus is on the likes of us as artists, because we’re the interpreters of the stories. These stories are given to us to help other people to do what we do and to tell those stories.’
One of the women from one of the WoW group is in the finals of the novel-writing competition. I’m probably more excited than she is! It’s seeing people progress with the skills we’ve loaned out, passing those skills out and these stories are getting bigger.
As George Eliot said: ‘It’s never too late to be what you might have been’.
You care less when you reach fifty. I’m nearly sixty and I REALLY don’t care anymore! Being honest and open, telling it how it is. I’m glad we get braver and to tell people exactly what we’re feeling.
Have things improved in your field?
Yes. In screen writing, the central character was always male, but we’re starting now to see more strong female protagonists in film and TV.
I’m seeing more female producers, but not enough at the top of their game in terms of decisions. What I am seeing is more activism – more organisations dealing with the issue of inequality that’s making a difference, and hopefully that will have an impactful ripple effect, ‘but we’ve got a long way to go’.
Yes, I’ve stood my ground and make mistakes and I know now not to say yes to everything and to seek perfection. I’m taken more seriously now because of the work I’ve done. In the past, I’ve had managers where all they’ve done is point out what you haven’t done rather than embrace what you have done. I now manage artists and ‘it’s important to be pointing out the good things people have done’.
Communicating through art
There are two ways to write: for a public audience, for broadcast that you want everyone to hear; and then there are things close to home that you want to keep private, so keep a personal journal. In the future, when you’re ready to tell that story – five or ten years down the line – it might inform a piece of writing that you want to share. Or you may decide to dramatize the story, have someone else be you in the story and even change the ending.
My public writing is about empowerment because it’s about community and bringing people together. But my private writing is very personal. As a teenager, my writing was my catharsis, a bit tortured. In my band the stuff we write about is more narrative – a beginning, middle and end, more deliberate. The stuff that’s personal that I just need to get out is just for me.
The creative process is all about needing to learn to keep the faith; that the first draft isn’t always it. The writing’s all in the redraft. The giving up is often in the beginning.
‘I’m inspired by you as exceptional women that have grown against adversity.’
Jennifer has shown us how music can bring us all kinds of memories. And, as Margy says, it’s women supporting each other through which our experiences we can grow. The expression of women’s stories and the sharing of them also brings the sharing of skills. Gaining confidence, learning from mistakes and understanding weaknesses but gaining our strength. Jennifer says to listen to learn from each other – you can be inspired by anyone’s contribution. And we need to find against all –isms in our industry. Sharing, hearing and acting. ‘We’ve all got really important stories to tell – it may only be a sentence that connects with someone else.’
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Writing on the Wall uses creativity and creative writing to promote and support learning, engagement, education, employment, equality, diversity and inclusion. Our exciting writing development projects include the 2023 Liverpool City Region Culture and Creativity Awards nominated Write to Work, Creative Heritage and Superheroes: Words Are Our Power programmes that support adults, children and young people develop new skills to aid them in accessing opportunities in education and employment, giving them new ways to express themselves and engage in their local and wider communities. We also host two annual literature festivals, WoWFEST in May and Black History Month in October, which welcome local, national and international writers, activists and artists to the city. Find out more about our projects and opportunities.