As we finish what has been a very different school year, I’ve been encouraged and inspired by the two First Story anthologies produced by students at the schools where I’ve been Writer-in-Residence this year – Co-op Academy Grange in Bradford and Holy Family Catholic School in Keighley. The work the students have produced this year has been outstanding, despite all the challenges. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!
The sessions that led to the creation of these anthologies were structured around themes from my upcoming book, Bea’s Witch, the story of an adopted girl who runs away from home and encounters the ghost of England’s most famous prophetess, Mother Shipton. It has been a privilege to share my current work in progress with the students.
Over a period of six months, we constructed the tale of two ordinary girls, each forced to leave their home and move to a new town. The stories created speak of family, belonging, loss, bullying, dreams and hope. My own interest in exploring these themes is personal. As an adoptive dad, I’m aware of the challenges of separation and displacement, as well as the possibilities of new families, new bonds and new stories being forged. Like all writers, I draw on personal experience to make sense of the world. As a Writer-in-Residence, part of my role is to share this process with the students – a process of drawing on reality to construct narrative, thus helping us to understand the world and, perhaps, even to reshape it. As Jeanette Winterson says, ‘The story is set in stone to break the stone’ (The Gap of Time, 2015).
The process of creating each story was a shared one – an act of co-creation. We talked through ideas as a team, building on one another’s suggestions, adding to them, refining them, as well as making them our own. We created each of the characters’ bedrooms, filling them with real objects from our own bedrooms, using the exercise to construct character. We mapped each new town, laying out big cards to represent shops and houses and schools.
Each student took our shared narrative in their own direction, bringing their real-life experiences to the page. For some, the character’s journey was exciting – a new start; for others it was defined by loss and letting go. In the anthologies, these diverse pieces are framed as a diary discovered by ‘archeologist authors’ years later. Here’s my description of the diary…
The discovery was made in the spring of 2120, a century after the artefact’s creation. The diary, or scrapbook, was found buried deep beneath the ground in Bradford Megacity, West Yorkshire, England. It took a whole team of archaeologist authors to uncover the treasure, working tirelessly over many weeks. It was a strange artefact. The edges of its leather bindings were rotten, breaking away in jagged, blistering strips. Deep lacerations and claw marks streaked its covers. Its pages were fragile, mottled and disintegrating, many torn or ripped away entirely. What remained of the parchment was discoloured, making the ink faint, illegible in places, the words hard to decipher.
The diary contained fragments of text. They were incomplete, sometimes contradictory; in part, the real account of an ordinary girl’s life; in part, a visionary dream. However, on inspection, they appeared to be by the same hand. But this is where the mystery deepens. Despite confirmation from the best forensic document experts that authorship was from the same pen, the texts themselves suggested different lives, different incarnations of the same ‘Self’, as it were. The archaeological team began to spread the rumour that the diary was the account of one single life, but lived in different configurations, spread across different, but related, universes. The artefact, they claimed, was proof of the existence of parallel worlds. At times the text provides incisive social commentary, other times, it is a patchwork of dreams, poems and stories. We now offer the full, unedited, text to you. You must make your own decisions about its meaning. Read it wisely, sceptically and with curiosity.
The anthologies will be officially launched later this year when the students are able to celebrate their achievement together. But for now, both anthologies offer a sign of hope in these challenging times, and they reveal writing’s power to help people of all ages process the joys and struggles of life.
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