The following article originally appeared on The Sunday Times online.
The biscuit girl’s tale makes us all crumble
A charity is using writing classes to help children find their voice, says the author William Fiennes.
It’s a dank Thursday afternoon, and 16 teenagers and two teachers have stayed behind after the 3pm bell at Wembley High Technology College in northwest London. I’ve come to sit in with the school’s First Story writing group, led by writer-in-residence Peter Hobbs, author of The Short Day Dying and In the Orchard, the Swallows.
They have a biscuit rota, and this week it’s the turn of Onyinye Ifeogwu, a girl in year 9, one of the youngest in the group. She’s brought chocolate-chip cookies and milk-chocolate digestives, and the students tuck in as Pete hands round postcards — of people, landscapes — and asks us to imagine we’re reading a book.
Halfway through, he says, we turn a page and find that the words have been replaced by a picture — the picture we’re each holding in our hands. Our task is to turn that picture back into words. I’ve got a photograph of some Inuit on a frozen sea, and I don’t know how to begin . . .
It’s surprising, how quickly the students settle to it, leaning over their notebooks. After 10 minutes or so, Pete asks us to stop writing. Then, one by one, the young writers read their work aloud, and the room fills with stories: chained-up prisoners crossing a Thames bridge, assaulted by demonic pigeons and gulls; a brother and sister arm-wrestling on a Friday evening, mum working late, metal on glass, a game that goes wrong; a woman with a suitcase, fleeing a house on a cold night when “the puffs of breath in the air were the words she’d never spoken”.
It is magical, hearing these new worlds come into being, the students listening carefully to each other and, following Pete’s lead, offering helpful, encouraging feedback, saying how much they liked an image or conversation or surprise.
I couldn’t help thinking back to September 2007, when Katie Waldegrave invited me to run a writing group like this at Cranford Community College in Hounslow, west London, where she was teaching history. I was working on my second book, The Music Room, and I was lonely in it, looking for any excuse to get away from my desk.
So I began spending each Wednesday afternoon in the classroom with a dozen students, writing and talking about writing.
The first sessions were a bit awkward, but soon we were laughing. And as the weeks went by, the students’ writing began to sing. It wasn’t just that they wrote with more vividness and clarity; they were growing in self-confidence and self-esteem, listening more intently, responding to each other with more openness and sensitivity. I began to understand what Philip Pullman meant when he said that writing “can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can”.
Katie and I thought we’d stumbled across something powerful and important. We wondered what we could do to spread this experience to other schools, especially in disadvantaged communities, so more young people could have the opportunity to write, to develop their creativity and their love and use of language, to find their voice and know that their voice has value.
That’s how First Story began. Since that initial group of 12 students in Hounslow, more than 4,000 teenagers and 300 teachers have been part of First Story writing groups. Between them they have produced an estimated 90,000 stories and poems, and published 145 anthologies that live on in school libraries and classrooms, inspiring younger pupils and raising aspirations.
There are now First Story writers-in-residence in 49 secondary schools in and around London, Oxford, Nottingham, Leicester, Bradford and Rochdale.
As part of a collaboration with Cheltenham Festivals, First Story has started working with three secondary schools in Gloucestershire. These writing groups will read their work alongside celebrated authors at the Cheltenham literary festival.
This year, with the support of The Sunday Times, First Story has launched its own national writing competition and next week the winner will be announced in this newspaper.
I’ve seen how, for young people especially, writing can be a source not just of pleasure but of power. I wish that every student in the country could have access to the sort of creative-writing provision offered at Wembley High.
This winter, Pete’s young writers have been working on 100-word stories. The submissions were wonderful, he said, and he wanted to read one to all of us before we left, a story by that day’s biscuit-provider, Onyinye, called The Single Mother:
Play with your dolls in the collapsed doll house. The one your father gave you for your seventh birthday. Detangle her knotted hair and apply her strawberry-scented lip balm. Push her arms around in unrealistic angles. Make her dance. Look at your photographs. In the corner there’s the photo of you and Father last Christmas. It’s alone in its bed of broken glass. Don’t lean on the walls. The white paint hasn’t dried yet. Don’t worry, Father will come home and finish it. I promise you he will finish it. I know it’s been six years, he’s coming.
When Pete finished reading, there was silence. And then the first gasps of a collective wow, which seemed to thicken and gather and then broke into a round of full-hearted applause.