Last week the London chapter of the international writing-school revolution began with the opening of the Ministry of Stories. A few months ago, I went to Dublin and paid a visit to the Irish centre, Fighting Words. Set up by author Roddy Doyle and former director of Amnesty International Ireland, Sean Love, the centre had been open for eighteen months. Unlike the Ministry or the original at 826 Valencia, Fighting Words doesn’t run a pirate or a monster shop. Which is not to say they haven’t been focused on bringing kids into a magical world.
Sean Love’s smile is infectious. The grin spreads as he introduces me to the inner entrances of Fighting Words: two bookshelves which rotate to reveal secret doors, one adult, one child-sized. ‘It’s very Man from UNCLE’ he says, with obvious delight.
Inside, there are plenty of real bookshelves lining the open space: a couple of large rooms, an office, and a courtyard. The purpose-built centre was designed with play and magic in mind. This is a creative writing centre determined to foster the joys of storytelling in a whole new generation.
In eighteen months, Fighting Words has settled into a simple routine which aims to maximise the access of a broad range of kids to the programs offered. During term time, the mornings are given over to younger kids aged 7-12. So far, 12000 have gone through the program. They work in small groups. First, a teacher helps the kids brainstorm their ideas. This is written up as a collaborative story which is then put into a book format which each child can finish independently.
‘The class writes an original story which they see being projected up onto a big screen in the Fighting Words centre as they write. The children decide on the characters and plot and go through the story together sentence by sentence, editing as they go. An artist is illustrating the story as it is being written,’ the website explains.
The only rule is that everything has to be original. To enforce this, there’s a door in the wall marked ‘Editor’s Office’. The hatch leads to the admin office, so whoever’s at work that day gets to play the part of the mean editor who hates copying. ‘We stole the idea from 826 Valencia,’ Love says, ‘but the American children aren’t so tough. Here we can be as horrible as we like. It’s great fun.’
The afternoons are reserved for older kids, who work more independently in smaller groups with mentors to help them flesh out their ideas. Specialisation happens here: groups might focus on writing for genre, writing for performance, or even sports journalism.
On Wednesday nights there’s Write Club, a group for 15-18 year olds, attended by the occasional ‘real’ writer. Last year the club put out its first anthology, Fighting Tuesdays. The book is a thoroughly professional publication and must count as an excellent accomplishment for aspiring writers.
For younger children, getting a book to take home with their picture and ‘author bio’ on the back is also empowering. The possibility of becoming a writer never seems real until you meet one. Even two books in, I get an injection of aspiration myself in this place – and a little regret that nothing like it was around when I was growing up.
Fighting Words is situated in a new development in the old working-class neighbourhood of Dublin 1, near Mountjoy Square. The neighbourhood retains a grimness which the rest of the city has lately polished away. Ireland is struggling from the effects of the GFC. As I write, the 90 billion Euro bailout package is causing turmoil internationally, protests at home, and strong calls for the resignation of PM Brian Cowen. It is rescue money for a state which has spent every last cent in bailing out the banks.
When I visit Dublin, the city is in a kind of shock after ten years of economic growth ended badly. The Liffey is lined with glass-fronted apartment blocks that no-one can afford to live in. The Celtic Tiger is an extinct species.
The return of hard times has only made the workers at Fighting Words more fervent about their passion for storytelling. My visit takes place during summer camp. A group of teenagers are about to perform the musical they have been writing all week. None of them knew each other before the course but now they have formed quite a gang under the mentorship of a musician and a playwright. The show is a cynical and funny story about a sham marriage – my favourite part is when the politician father of the bride gives a shallow speech at the wedding: ‘I just want to say that this champagne is organic and I support local businesses.’
This healthy cynicism is reflected in the organisation. Fighting Words is entirely privately funded, and hesitant to seek government donations given the insecurity of arts funding in the current climate. Bank debts are written off by the hundreds of millions, but arts funding has been slashed. There’s not much in the way of public education funding either. 93% of schools in Ireland are still run by the Catholic Church, which has had its own very public breakdown in recent years. But with little incentive for the Church to relinquish control over the schools, the idea of independent education is still a deeply radical one.
Fighting Words is not set up to be a school, nor to replace one. The space is open-plan, light and colourful, with no clear ‘front’. It resembles an alternative classroom or a miniature art room. In the backyard there is some donated art and a small tree covered in keys which Love tells me the children are ready to believe grow there. This week there is the addition of a few musical instruments leaning against the stationery shelves.
Love tells me they don’t teach writing, but rather make the space available to share it, and provide mentors who can offer advice. They don’t offer literacy unless the kids specifically request help. They are there to nourish stories, encourage budding writers, and open up the possibility of a creative life to a new generation. They are not necessarily looking for new talent. But the centre acknowledges a need to bridge the gap between institutional learning and an increasingly specialised creative writing industry which can end in the development of an out-of-touch creative class.
At Fighting Words, they see their work as urgent and necessary. The optimism of a decade of Celtic Tiger politics has been lost. Many Irish people I spoke to professed regret about the growth years which they now see as a rush of blood to the head, an embarrassing episode of greed. The decade of unsustainable growth is now widely acknowledged as having failed. It has certainly failed to bring the lasting prosperity it promised. Along with the horrifying persistence of Catholic sex abuse scandals, the country has suffered a triple betrayal.
‘The banks have failed us, the church has failed us, politicians have failed us. What Ireland has left is its artists and writers,’ says playwright and regular volunteer Una Kavanagh.
It’s a win-win for the volunteers, as artists, to give something back to the community and find replenished energy here. There are 300 volunteers on the roll already, but the centre is always welcoming to visiting authors. The programs are booked out 12 months in advance.
Says Love, ‘We could easily be booked out for the next 5 years. We had to say stop, to give everyone a go. It’s safe to say it’s working.’ Kids come from all over the country, as far away as Limerick, Kerry and Donegal. ‘There would easily be room for three or four similar centres in Ireland,’ says Love.
There is certainly room for more such centres in the rest of the world. Like many a good idea, the 826 Valencia format has gone viral. There are now nine or ten centres in the US and a similar number in Europe, with the newest in London and another about to open in Milan. It’s becoming clear that there is plenty of energy in the writing community to make these places work.
There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about the rise of creative writing programs in universities and whether their impact is making our writing culture too homogenous. Perhaps the bigger problem is that these programs are not accessible. It is not that we are teaching writing badly. It is that this possibility isn’t open to everyone – least of all the kids who need it most.
The week of my visit to Fighting Words, Dublin was recognised as the world’s fourth City of Literature. Perhaps the resources that become available will be able to aid programs like this to continue.
It’s time we started one here. It makes sense there should be a similar project in Australia – perhaps in our own City of Literature – which takes the possibilities of creative writing to those most in need of a life of the imagination, the least privileged among us. Because if we are going to foster a diversity of new voices in Australia it is not just important to support our journals and our existing emerging writers. It is essential to nourish the next generation of human beings to see themselves as creative. This model is recognition – no, proof – that exposure to art and writing can radically change the life trajectory of young people who aren’t being given the chance in school, or at home, to expand their horizons. I would be honoured to donate my own time to such a project in Australia.