The author leading a workshop

 Welcome back to Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature’s Young Voices Amplified lyric-writing workshops at Bluecoat Beechdale Academy in Nottingham! 

I’d left you at the point where we’d begun to transform our short life-writing pieces into rhythmic, story-telling lyrics. We had also started working with drums! Drums to help identify the natural pauses in our sentences that would allow us to break them down into poetic lines. Drums, also, to help us locate the stresses in our lines, to emphasize them further and make our point. And drums, of course, to add an arresting cadence to our meanings. 

Both in and out of the classroom, the setting thaw was greening the school grounds as much as the youngsters’ compositions. Having looked at lyrics by The Beatles, REM, Alanis Morissette, and more, we took the final leap of creating songs from our concise prose memoirs.


Why convert life-writing into lyrics, you say? Besides the fact that it’s not something often done in school despite its appeal to teens, the two genres are a natural fit, best displayed in the work of Bob Dylan, the only modern song-writing Nobel Prize for Literature winner (history records others, including the first non-European Nobel Laureate, R Tagore from India). 

In the past, there was no gulf to span, as songs and poems were the same literary discipline, practised by bards, troubadours, wandering minstrels, et al, straddling the worlds of words and melodies. If proof was needed of their conjoined roots, our students’ workshop creations were lively reminders. 

Like Sabrina’s operatic outpouring:

“…As the man sits on the same park chair

Singing the same simple song

‘Ring o ring o roses, a pocket full of posies’

It echoes in my mind, and I’m left wondering why

Why oh why would he make such a screech

Is there no holy speech?”

Next on the agenda was refrain-framing – key to transmuting our prose pieces to lyric! Encouraged to scrutinize their short memoirs for one or two phrases that exemplified the whole, our youngsters easily pounced on the pertinent. In redrafting these into meaningful lines and inserting them after each verse (formed from sentences we’d earlier broken down into poetic lines using drums to locate their natural pauses), we had our refrains! These not only highlighted the message of each piece, but created a choral effect. And…tadah…we had nascent songs. 

The two lyrics at this article’s end demonstrate how well the students crafted their refrains, but here’s another snappy snippet: 

“My name is Jah-Shaun, I am Dominican

My name means God, I am Dominican!”

The sun was out with the fourth slew of workshops and we were ready to burnish our verses. Explaining the techniques and need to edit written work (always!), I introduced them to two that were entertaining and creative. The first involved going back to the drums to test the flow of our words, now that we had verses and refrains, against them, and the second required a form of editing at which Tagore had been particularly adept, a Kintsugi-like doodling over deletions that made art out of scars. Unlike the revered Bengali poet’s cancelled-word art which was exhibited around the world, including in the British Museum, the point of ours was to have fun with a task perceived as tedious. 

Encouraging them to bounce sounds and ideas off each other, sitting in groups as they mostly were, I also worked individually with each youngster to lift each lyric to the level they were completely capable of, but needed a little guidance. 

The author leading a workshop

We were then ready not only to practise and perform, but had arrived at the end of our lyrical journey – the fifth and last lot of workshops. As none of the teenagers wanted large groups listening while they performed, just a couple of us huddled around, as each read aloud their riveting rhythmic stories, drumming along with them with what transpired to be amazing ease. 

The teachers present praised the students for their enthusiasm and engagement, and the imagery and cadence of their writing was just as lavishly complimented. But the students had plenty to say as well, with Year 10 stating, in their own set of three strategizing workshops, that “inspiration to produce work outside the ordinary must also come from outside”.

Wrapping up our celebratory recitals, I asked my Year 9 cohorts, “Had it”? One confided that he “didn’t know he could write like that”, while another, Lailah, agreed it had given them the opportunity to be “explorative and expressive”, even as Harmony, heartwarmingly, called it “a once-in-a-lifetime thing”. What they adored universally, however, was our creative use of drums! 

“I loved how we used drums and how easy it was because we were helped all the way by Shreya,” Jah-Shaun had the last word.

Comments from participating students and teachers

Why don’t you try keeping beat, with drum, or ladle and pan, or indeed, knee-slapping camaraderie, to these last two lyrics, vivid, wise and rhythmic, by Skye, and then, Armish?

“The day I, the day I
Dropped the pair of pink trainers 
Was the day I picked up 
The black, studded boots
The day I, the day I
Took my shot which went right in
Balls flying to the back of the net
The crowd went wild
The day I scored!
The day I, the day I
Leave the boots right 
Where they are, and go right 
Home in the fancy car
The day I, the day I
See the headlines of retirement, 
And choose settlement as 
The days are gone
But like the first day I,
The day I put on the black 
Studded boots, and excitement
Rushed through the veins of me
And the day I, day I
Drop the boots and relax 
With nothing left to do but
Say bye-bye
The day I, the day I
Pack it in because
Life is complete.”

“Some legends are told
What did their past behold?
Don’t want to live 
A story untold
I’ll share my path to glory
My passion will thrive on
A joyous fury, don’t want
To live a story untold 
The journey will be hard
But I’ll reach far, the times 
Will be hard, but with those 
To help, I’ll get back up 
With you by my shoulder
I stand once more!
A little bit of grind 
Never hurt anyone
The grinding roads 
Won’t always hold fun
With you by my shoulder
I stand once more!
Ladies and gentlemen, I shall find The shore! 
After the dive and plunge, I’ll wipe away the blood, 
Sweat, and win against the odds; a bet
For myself, as I don’t want to live
A story untold
I need you there, I need 
You, I want you, for what 
Will my future behold? 
With you by my shoulder
I stand once more!
We won’t live stories untold
Our legacies will unfold!”

Shreya Sen-Handley is the award-winning author of three books with HarperCollins: Memoirs of My Body, Strange and Handle With Care. She has co-written Welsh National Opera’s acclaimed productions Migrations and Creating Change. She is also a print and television journalist, playwright, illustrator and creative writing teacher.