Award-winning novelist and long-serving First Story Writer-in-Residence, Anthony Cartwright reflects on what he’s learned as a writer and practitioner after eight years of delivering our programme with five different London schools.
‘It’s you, isn’t it? You become the butterfly,’ one student said to another in the group.
There was silence.
‘Yes.’ The young writer nodded. Followed by a little more silence and then murmurs of affirmation and encouragement.
This was a small moment in the life of a First Story group in a hectic and noisy secondary school in London. The moment could pass without much more comment except that it seems to encapsulate everything that First Story does so well – everything that it offers to the young writers, the educators, and the professional writers involved. It was moment of realisation, reflection and respect that emerged from a discussion about metaphor; and from a piece of writing about a personal experience that we had shared as writers and readers, as we did every week. And really it had come about because of just that: because this was now something we did every week for an hour or so – become writers, readers and editors – we shared something about ourselves and slowly, over time, felt the affirmation and encouragement of the group.
That creativity grows from a combination of things: patience, habit, hard work, a few laughs, biscuits, and a desire for respect for yourself and others. It isn’t just a lightning bolt of inspiration – it’s a realisation that develops over those weekly sessions. I love that First Story takes a long-term, nurturing approach to students’ writing that result in beautiful, published anthologies of work.
That we all have our own real, authentic voices and stories to tell is maybe the best lesson I have learned from First Story. I know that the project is the kind I would have loved the young people I taught when I was a classroom teacher to have been part of.
Working as a First Story Writer-in-Residence has been a real joy. I have learned a huge amount as a writer and practitioner across eight years and five London schools. From the amazing student writers I have worked with producing, of course, but also the incredibly committed teachers, staff and other writers at First Story, all of whom have offered support and ideas that have helped produce some great writing.
I have also seen the impact of the events that First Story runs. The annual Young Writers’ Festival – first at the University of Oxford, currently at the University of Cambridge – and the regional Connect events – at places like the Courtauld Gallery or University College London – have left impressions on students who might not have previously thought they belonged at such places.
I came to being a First Story Writer-in Residence from being a classroom English teacher – and perhaps at first questioned how much I belonged as a ‘real’ writer. That we all have our own real, authentic voices and stories to tell is maybe the best lesson I have learned from First Story. I know that the project is the kind I would have loved the young people I taught when I was a classroom teacher to have been part of. First Story offers the space for reflection and creativity – not always easy to create in the busy curriculum – and the space to develop your own authentic voice and hear the voices of others. And they are a lot of fun!
I am conscious too of what First Story offers the teachers and professional writers involved. Editing the anthologies has allowed me to develop a new set of skills. Plus, my involvement as a writer has led to opportunities such as working on a community project with English National Opera Baylis. I worked with three groups of adult learners in East London, culminating in a performance at the London Coliseum. It was another project which sought to open doors for people who previously might not have thought they belonged in such an environment (if I’m honest, myself included). As a judge on the BBC Young Writers’ Award, an opportunity which came to me because of my work for First Story, I got to see the extraordinary range of talent that young writers have across the country. First Story is there to nurture that.
It is the hope that is important, and that is what writing and sharing and reading each other’s work can offer. That First Story is a project of hope is something we should celebrate.
What all of these projects share is collaboration and teamwork – something that is sometimes overlooked in creative work. That reading and writing are collaborative acts themselves is a central tenet of a First Story project. This is exemplified by the production of the anthology with the range of writers, editors, proof readers, illustrators, publishers and so on – some of whom are students and adults in the school, and some are professionals and volunteers helping to share the process and be part of the team producing books with a genuine readership. The anthologies are a celebration of the work – offering affirmation and encouragement in the way those murmured responses to the writing about the process of becoming a butterfly had been. They’re a huge act of trust by everyone involved.
It is tempting to write something like we all become butterflies as part of this process, but that would be too trite. I know the writer who shared that writing was troubled, and that the metaphor, I think, was a projection: a hope for some transformation to come. It is the hope that is important, and that is what writing and sharing and reading each other’s work can offer. That First Story is a project of hope is something we should celebrate.