‘(Poetry) might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants, ’ writes poet Jaswinder Bolina in an essay that explores connections between the writer’s socioeconomic background and creative writing classes. This statement reiterates the commonly held view of creative writing as a privileged activity, the study and practice of which is restricted to exclusive circles. Creative-writing based businesses allegedly operate within ivory towers, their gates barricaded firmly against outsiders.
Many educational institutions, especially those catering to students from lesser privileged backgrounds share this elitist view of creative writing. What is the purpose of learning to write stories and poems in lieu of potentially more useful subjects like the sciences or mathematics? Because creative writing is about the key life skill of ‘finding one’s individual voice ’, asserts William Fiennes, co-founder of First Story, a UK-based charity that enables children from economically weaker backgrounds to study creative writing with professional writers through various programmes ranging from year-long residencies to a number of regional and university literary festivals, competitions and events.
First Story aspires to help each of their students to find their personal voice which ‘sounds the note of their presence in the world’, says Fiennes, which translates into a vision to ‘foster the creativity, confidence and literacy skills of young people in UK secondary schools serving low-income communities’.
The First Story office at Omnibus Business Centre on Holloway North Road is a ten minute drive from where I work, and my first impression is of a workplace almost indistinguishable from a typical corporate office in Central London. That is, except for the bookshelves. On stepping inside, the first thing that catches a visitor’s eye is the small open bookshelf on the right side of the entrance, crammed with books by First Story writers. I spy the author names of Mark Haddon, Philip Pullman, Peter Hobbs, Emily Diamand and Tim Pears among other acclaimed names during the few seconds while I wait, before which I am introduced to the team, allocated a desk and handed a neatly printed list of tasks for the day and the rest of the week.
Stephanie Bennett, the programme co-ordinator of First Story who is supervising my internship exudes the impeccable efficiency that one associates with a multinational corporate executive. A larger bookshelf which nearly covers the inner office wall is filled with anthologies of the students’ writing, categorised by year, region and events. The only other indicator that this is not just another office is the large brainstorming board which has ‘Fundraising ideas’ printed on it with coloured chalk.
My internship duties on the first day are mostly documentation: collating email addresses from the internet to add to the national teaching school alliance register of contacts which one of Stephanie’s team members immediately starts to use in real time, optimising the template of the testimonials database spreadsheet and helping to revise an online presentation for the National Writing Competition themed ‘Footprints ’. The meticulous structure of each document and the way they are organised in Dropbox folders show the extensive level of detail that goes into planning, tracking and execution of the regular work as well as creative writing events. The regular work includes reaching out to a wider network of schools and literacy trusts to spread the word about creative writing programmes and encouraging students to participate, extending the gift of writing across the country. The beneficiary schools are selected based on specific parameters, usually those ‘in which more than 50% of pupils are considered deprived according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index and/or GCSE results fall in the lowest third of the national distribution ’.
As part of making an inspiration pack for the national writing competition, I go through the anthologies of previously published work, gleaning poems on the theme of footprints. That is when the significance of the charity’s work comes through. As I open each anthology, I am inundated with hundreds of stories, raised by a virtual chorus of fresh young voices. Robyn Hawkins writes about her shoes that are ‘black with a Velcro strap and flowers’ which have heard her ‘cries … in the playground’ and ‘the laughter of … forgotten friends’. Jordan Hunter writes about her ‘well built and strong’ hiking boots which have heard ‘magpies, sparrows, larks, hawks, sheep and hooves on soft meadows’, ‘the sound of moving from grass to pavement, or from pavement to snow’ and ‘felt mountains and mud and water.’ Sarah Tebb writes that she will ‘dance in the rain / Even if it means dancing alone’.
Many of these voices start off thin, almost hesitant and shy, and grow louder, poised and confident with each consecutive line, as though affirming Philip Pullman’s statement that ‘real writing…can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can’ which is quoted as a First Story credo.
According to the National Literacy Trust, ‘The UK is the only economically developed country where 16 to 24-year-olds have the lowest literacy skills of any age group in society.’ Research Findings of the Cultural Learning Alliance indicate that ‘students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree’, with activities listed including ‘reading for pleasure, visiting a library and leisure writing. ’ It is towards addressing this social construct that Fiennes and Katie Waldegrave launched First Story in 2007. Starting from a single writing workshop conducted in the Cranford Community College in Hounslow and observing the transformational benefits it brought to the students, they initiated this venture which envisions making creative writing accessible to underprivileged students across the United Kingdom. The idea was further inspired by 826 National, the project established in America by writer Dave Eggers to empower children in disadvantaged areas through creative writing.
Ten years since that first workshop, First Story has grown to a fourteen member team which facilitates creative writing residencies in seventy three secondary schools serving low income areas in the East Midlands, Gloucestershire in partnership with Cheltenham Festivals, London, the South West, and West & East Yorkshire. The team manages the logistics of identifying appropriate writers for each region and school, organising the workshops, collating the material produced by the students and getting them published as colourful anthologies. They also conduct the Young Writer’s Festival and Summer Residential events, and run creative writing contests including the inter-school National Writing competition in which students are asked to produce a piece of creative writing based on a specific theme, besides six-word story and hundred-word story contests among others.
The overall benefits of the programme and the impact on individual students have been immense and enduring. To cite a few examples, Azfa Ali who took part in the programme at Oxford Spires Academy in 2011-2012 working with poet Kate Clanchy won the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize in 2013 and went on to study English and Creative Writing at Warwick University. She mentions how the creative writing programme transformed her from an ‘insecure refugee’ who was ‘embarrassed about every aspect of her identity’ into a confident, ambitious and ‘proud Scottish-African Muslim woman’ making her realise that her ‘voice is important in this world.’ Emily from Larkmead School who is now studying for a BA (Hons) in Media Studies at Brighton University, credits her A-levels to the creative writing programme which covered skills ranging from ‘writing assignments, CVs and job applications’ to ‘communicating in a team’. Quintin Kynaston alumna Chloe Collins is studying a Publishing and English degree at Loughborough University and credits her success to First Story. Cyrus Mwangi, an alumnus of Cranford Community College who has completed his degree thanks First Story for ‘every piece of valuable experience’ on his CV. Another alumnus Jay Bhadricha completed a BA in English and History from the University of Exeter and joined First Story as programme officer for London and Oxford.
The charity’s yearly reports showcase impressive benefits to the students in terms of measurable parameters such as improved writing skills, better school attendance, better engagement in classroom and higher grades, as well as abstract parameters of finding pleasure in writing, greater creativity, increased life aspirations and an overall increase in confidence levels .
‘There is more to the ability to write than just practical benefits, ’ says Fiennes. ‘If you’re able to write, to express yourself in your own voice, to tell stories about your own experiences, and your own world, that’s an incredibly powerful thing, incredibly validating.’ Looking beyond the statistics of success rates and the glowing testimonials from students, teachers, writers and alumni, the anthologies reveal a number of untold stories between the lines of prose and poetry. They are about writers encouraging multi-cultural immigrant students to write to remember and connect with their roots. About writing that goes beyond a tool for self-expression into an outlet for catharsis and healing issues such as bullying, poverty, abuse and racism in addition to the teenager’s stock subjects of crushes, existential angst, freedom and plans to change the world. Many of these young writers address problems of the present-day world with the maturity of grownups. A student taught to express themselves creatively, start to analyse their families, culture and histories which leads to a better understanding of their selves, and place in society. As they find their voices and tell their stories, they become aware of who they are and where they stand, which lets them see where they want to be, and plot the path to reach there. A single creative writing workshop can sometimes be the start of an entirely different life journey.
Midweek through the internship, I realised that the diverse nature of the tasks assigned to me were the norm in the set-up of First Story’s nature of work which includes arranging for professional writers, liaising with the teachers, managing writing competitions and literary events, collating anthologies, running fund-raising campaigns and promoting their mission on social media. Most of the team members are also writers, and all of them engage deeply with their work. Even lunch and tea-time discussions are on related subjects: paying respects to a senior writer who passed away the previous day and bequeathed a donation to First Story, or a friendly critique of the best six-word short stories by students shortlisted in a recent contest – ‘Brazenly, love grew amongst the briars ’ and ‘Burned the haystack, found the needle ’ among others.
In addition, First Story actively promotes the pleasures of creative writing through National Writing Day (NWD). One of my final internship tasks was to create a short requirements document for the NWD website. Research for this brought out the wide reach of First Story’s patrons and partners of arts and literary organisations across England ranging from universities, libraries, literacy centres, associations of writers, book trusts and the ministry of stories among others.
Writers who conduct the workshops find them to be sources of inspiration for their own work. ‘Creative writing can change people’s lives… It’s about learning that you, your family, your culture and your view of the world are rich and interesting and important ’, says Mark Haddon. Zadie Smith calls First Story ‘a joyful project that deserves as much support as we can give it. ’ Dave Eggers feels that ‘Every young person deserves the benefit of working with (First Story)’.
Fiennes is clear about his mission which is not to produce a new generation of creative writers but to ‘liberating a young person’s voice and engendering self-confidence, as studies show that [having] no self-confidence is the biggest barrier to academic achievement. ’
Many voices have been raised across the world in support of those who do not have a voice, or are yet to find it. By empowering these students to find their own voices, First Story gifts them an invaluable life skill as they walk out through the school gates into the world. At the end of the internship week, First Story came across as much more than the corporate office it had appeared to be on the first day. This initiative is an exemplary use of creative writing to build the future of a nation.
1. Bolina, Jaswinder. “The Writing Class: On Privilege, the AWP-industrial Complex, and Why Poetry Doesn’t Seem to Matter.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 12 Nov. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
2. Clanchy, Kate. “The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group” https:/: The Guardian, 14.Jul.2016. /www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/14/very-quiet-foreign-girls-poetry-foyle-young-poets-kate-clanchy
3. Cultural Learning Alliance, “Finding 4: Getting a Degree.” Cultural Learning Alliance, 31 Oct. 2014, http://www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk/evidence/the-case-for-cultural-learning-key-research-findings/finding-4-getting-a-degree/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.
4. Duerden, Nick. “‘Writing Really Can Change Lives’.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
5. Fiennes, William. Perf. Fostering Creativity. 5 X 15 Stories. The Tabernacle, 21 Mar. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBi-W6SMrE8>.
6. First Story. “First Story: End Objectives.” First Story, Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017. <https://www.firststory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/First-Story-Logic-Map-Feb-2016.pdf>.
7. First Story. “Inspiration for the Theme of Footprints.” 26 Oct. 2016, http://www.firststory.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2015/09/FirstStory_Footprints_InspirationPack.pdf Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
8. First Story. “National Writing Competition 2016-17.” Prezi.com, First Story, 25 Oct. 2016, prezi.com/_fyre8f8hh-l/national-writing-competition-2016-17/?utm_campaign. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.
9. First Story. “What We Do.” http://www.firststory.org.uk/description/what-we-do/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.
10. Harper’s BAZAAR. “William Fiennes Celebrates First Story with the Duchess of Cornwall.” Harper’s BAZAAR, 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
11. National Literacy Trust. “A Vision of a Literate Nation.”
http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0002/3746/Vision_for_Literacy_2025.pdf. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.