Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Writer for hire

So there I was, the hired writer, in the middle of a group of six young men (aged 15 – 21) who had all been (or still were) in the care system.

Our meeting was part of a longer term project which helps young people manage the transition from care to independent living, and broadly, the plan was to create some content for a newspaper they were putting together. Unlike a lot of young people out there, care leavers don’t necessarily have anyone to hold their hand through the maze of practical and emotional challenges facing them, and the newspaper was going to be a vehicle both to give them a voice, and to pass on their experiences to others.

It’s a great project, and having worked with children in care before now, I was delighted (if nervous) to take part. I’d never met these particular young men before and I really had no idea how they would respond to a middle-aged writer of fiction for teenage girls strolling into their residential weekend, expecting them to be creative.

As it happens, it was a day of two halves. Three of the boys were motivated and keen to express themselves in story and spoken word. The other three were not. 

What I had to offer was more like ‘work’ than play and most of their time with me consisted of discussions about smoking, weed and fighting, with misogynistic rap songs playing too loudly to allow for discussion. They flexed their muscles, swore a lot, dislocated their shoulders for fun, talked about dealers, and preferred ‘chilling’ to writing. I wasn’t in any position to lay down the law.

But you know what? After a while, they got bored and started to ask questions. “What’s it like being a writer? … How long does it take to write a book? … What’s it like when you get rejected?” And somehow we drifted into interview mode and they agreed to work with me on a one-to-one basis. One of them ended up writing a poem so raw and so real it bought tears to my eyes. Another one came up with designs for the cover of my new book. The third one told me about his favourite recipe that he’d learned to cook – a twist on pasta bake – and I’m having it for tea tonight.

At some point in the middle of the day, I was asked to read the young men an excerpt from my book – Where Bluebirds Fly. It’s the story of a teenage girl with mental health problems who is taken into care at a residential school. So okay, there are some obvious similarities, but Where Bluebirds Fly has always been (in my mind at least) a story for girls, aged 10 – 14. I really didn’t expect six young men, aged 15 – 21 to like it. But every single one of them sat there and listened, without even a whisper. And when I’d finished, they told me it was, “class”, “really good” and “brilliant.”

By the end of the day, not only had all six of these young men given me a day to remember and treasure, they had contributed something meaningful and important about their lives which they could share with other care leavers. I am immensely proud to have been a part of that. 

If you would like to support this project, you can do so here.

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