Digging for gold with Lynn Trowbridge
You all know I’m a keen advocate of seeking guidance from those ahead of us on the path, so earlier this year when bright sunshine was persuading the snowdrops to bloom, I took advantage of an opportunity to meet with a former Chairperson of The Hay Writers’ Circle. I had been with the group just under two years and heard much but seen little of Lynn Trowbridge. As Chair of the group for many years, many of our writers credited her with constant encouragement to pursue their writing journeys.
I had met Lynn briefly at one of our writing workshops and noticed how fond she was of warm and bold colours, so stopped off to pick up a little pot of spring flowers in shades of deep violet. I’d read Lynn’s remarkable memoir A Life is What You Get over the quiet months of winter and the resilience and determination contained within those pages seemed to foster the budding flowers as we drove to meet her.
Lynn extended a warm welcome, ensconced me in her cosy house in Hay and we set to for a good natter about all things writerly.
So, how did it begin with Lynn?
Lynn related how, in January 1996, she had come to hear of the group through a friend and was emboldened to go along and try a meeting. She felt rather inadequate and exposed, as we often do at our first time with a writing group, but had a life of determination and gusto to bring to the occasion. Lynn was still living in Leamington Spa at this point in her life, living in Hay for long weekends at the kindness of friends. Her visits to the group continued and she found it initially intimidating, feeling the lack of her own formal education. We talked about how an education, or the lack of it, is the platform on which we build our self-beliefs, especially for Lynn, a woman growing up on the early edge of social change. Within the group she was encouraged by several kind souls and soon had some articles published in local magazines. Kind words can mean a lot to writers; we tend to be afflicted with self-doubt. Lynn soon realised not only that she could stand proud in a writers’ group but that she very much wanted to explore this long-held ambition to be a writer.
In 2001 Lynn retired and moved to Hay permanently. She had already been noticed for her capacity for organisation and motivation, and in 1999 had been invited to stand as Chairperson of the group. She looks back with an air of wry amusement. Having been a successful manager in her career she found it hard to let go of the drive which took her up the corporate ladder, and found the group to be rather middle-class, retired and relaxed as writers. As Chair she determined to push the group’s aims and focused on the idea of regular publications of work to encourage the writers’ ambition. She began by canvassing the town for advertisements to fund a magazine and, as the ball got rolling, the group got enthusiastic about the opportunity. Lynn had a strong opinion on editing, however, and some of the members found this presumptuous. As a current member I can imagine the fiery Lynn leading them somewhat reluctantly into the fray of publication, both from in front, by example, and from behind, by encouragement. There is no doubt that a creative arts group can bring a widespread mixture of characters together and not all of them would take kindly to the business-like management skills that Lynn demonstrates even now, in her nineties.
The first edition of the magazine (the cover of which is included in the folder of our work) was finally published and momentum grew from these initial setbacks to try more. By this time the now world-famous Hay Festival had taken roots in the town. Between the group’s founder, Frances Copping, and its then Secretary, links were forged with the Florence family. The magazine was sold at the Festival and Peter Florence invited the group to perform. Lynn recalls that event as a nerve-wracking experience where the sense of being exposed as a fraud haunted her again. The dizzying swinging between being the capable figurehead and the personal writer. She remembers the anticipation, the fear that they might perform to an empty room, and the immense high that came after taking such a huge step into the public arena as writers.
Lynn was with the group as Chair until 2012. She was suffering from a bout of ill health at this time and finally had a heart attack. For her last performance at Hay she was saddened to have to cancel her own performance on the morning of the festival slot. Rumblings from within the group combined to produce a clash of strong characters and she was invited to take a reduced role. But Lynn, by her own admittance, is a leader not a follower, and so despite misgivings she left the group. Her mixed emotions about this departure gave way to a sense of relief to have the time back to herself and overall gratitude for the experience it had given her. She’d joined the group knowing she wanted to write and left it knowing that she could.
Emboldened by her experiences Lynn went on to commit her time to writing her own story, and at 91, published her memoir. A Life is What You Get is a heartfelt, stoic and emotional story of a woman who started in harsh conditions and flourished through her own determination to overcome every challenge. It is shot through with a rich vein of humour and self-deprecation. It tells of the loneliness of being self-reliant and determined, and the great value of friendship and purpose over the illusive glamour of romance. Moving on to pen Random Ramblings of a Nonagenarian Lynn also found a new role as a strong member of the church in Hay, where she felt again the pleasure in being purposeful.
Reflecting on our very different journeys as writers Lynn spoke about how much confidence a writer can gain from sharing their work, receiving critical support and encouragement. She believes that it is this sharing of our writing, fostering confidence and risk-taking, that really develops us as writers, and as people.
I felt a strong empathy with Lynn, coming from a business-minded background myself. It was a joy to share our interests in the pursuit of a goal, in self-determination and fulfilment. She was firm in reminding me not to let my contribution to the running of the group deter me from focusing on my writing and made me promise to send her some work to read and critique.
Having joined the group without Lynn it was a great pleasure to learn about how much she had contributed to and shaped the group. She is fondly spoken of by many members who retain friendships with her away from the writing circle and is recommended as a fierce stickler for grammar if you need an editor. Lynn learnt much from the group, and the group did from her. Currently the group runs on an elected committee who share responsibility and who serve for a maximum of three years. This recognises the fact that serving on committee can sometimes have the negative effect of taking time away from your own writing. Both Juliet Foster and Ange Grunsell have served as Chair since Lynn stepped down and the time will soon be upon us to choose another. It’s never an easy role to fill, for it takes some skill to herd a group of writers in any direction, and inevitably not all will agree the chosen path. Yet the group continues to thrive and grow.
What can we learn from the past?
This year the Hay Writers’ Circle celebrates its fortieth year, with our founder still a regular member. We have stepped back from publications to explore workshops, WIP groups, community engagement, and still maintain our link to the Festival where we perform annually. At a celebration luncheon to mark the careful nurturing of our group by Frances Copping, we were delighted to invite Lynn to join us and reminisce on times past. She contributed many wonderful images to our library display, running over the summer months, and stood to wish us all the very best of writing and raise her glass to Frances and all members of the group.
A conversation with Lynn Trowbridge is a bridge to the past for me and, more than just a conversation about nurturing writing, both in ourselves and others, it’s a reminder that if you pursue your passions and your goals without apology a very full life is what you get.