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Adventures of a Children’s Writing Fellow – One Year On…

Monday 5th October 2020 at 11am 0 Comments

Kelly McCaughrain, Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland Image: Kelly McCaughrain, Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland

Kelly McCaughrain, Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland, reflects on her first year in post and why it’s important to stay creative during these challenging times. The Fellowship was created as part of Queen’s University and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s joint ten-year Seamus Heaney Legacy Project supported by the Atlantic Philanthropies and the National Lottery….

I called my novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds because the characters spend the whole book doing things no one ever thought they could. The title conjured the idea of leaving your comfort zone and doing the impossible. Well, I began my term as Children’s Writing Fellow for NI last year feeling like a distinctly flightless and terrified debut author, but halfway through I’m already amazed at just how much has happened. I’ve visited secondary schools, creative writing groups and book groups, promoted libraries for special needs classes, taken part in the Kids Lit Quiz, attended conferences and lectures, spoken at book festivals, judged story and essay competitions, written newspaper articles, made videos, and survived (live!) radio interviews. I’ve got to meet hundreds of young readers and writers, and I even attended the announcement of Cressida Cowell as Children’s Laureate at the Globe Theatre in London.

But what I’ve spent most of this year on was helping secondary schools set up creative writing clubs for their students. Working with young writers is my real passion so it was a tremendous gift to have the time, funding, assistance, and support of the Arts Council, Queen’s University Belfast and the Education Boards to make this happen.

When I began my first year as Children’s Writing Fellow for NI I really didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect to be ending the year in lockdown. Perhaps I should have known something absolutely mad would happen to round off a year that was characterised by new experiences. My creative writing clubs project, The Blank Page, was conducted largely online, via a blog. The thinking behind this was that it would exist long after my time as CWF, so schools could continue to use it. But it turned out to be a huge stroke of luck, as when lockdown happened, I was able to keep posting.

So my part was relatively easy, but I feel for the teachers who have had to deal with much more daunting circumstances, and will continue to do so for who knows how long. And I feel for the young writers too. Writing clubs are important because they provide a young writer with time, space, and a community to support their writing. Lockdown may have robbed many of them of all of that.

One of the reasons I wanted to encourage schools to set up creative writing clubs is that, with a jam-packed, assessment-focused, and fairly rigid curriculum to follow, creative pursuits often get relegated to the bottom of secondary school priority lists, and depend on enthusiastic teachers crowbarring them into the school day. This coming year, schools will not only have all the usual pressures to contend with, but stressful safety concerns and the fallout of months of disrupted schooling piled on top. I really couldn’t blame them if optional, non-assessed creative activities get shelved altogether. But actually, those creative activities are more important now than ever, and we should remind ourselves why they’re so beneficial.

Personally, I quite like the idea of creative writing being included in a normal school week, but remaining outside the curriculum and assessments. Because in my experience, most kids don’t write because they want to be good at it, or to make a career of it, or get a qualification. They write to examine new ideas, explore their own inner landscape, experiment with language, relieve stress, vent their feelings, and hold on a little longer to the imagination of childhood. They write to find out who they are and how they feel and what they can be. And I think these are probably the most valuable things anyone can learn.

This year is going to be hard for everyone. My own plans for the second year of my fellowship have had to adapt and I have as little idea what this year will bring as I did when I began last year. For teenagers worrying about new school arrangements, vulnerable family members, and the exam results that their whole futures might depend on (besides all the usual worries of adolescence), a creative outlet might make all the difference between coping and not coping.

And it doesn’t have to be complicated. There doesn’t have to be a lesson plan or a learning outcome. Quite often all a young person needs is some time and space devoted to creativity, and the permission to try, to experiment, to fail and try again.

So I hope schools and parents will continue to encourage and celebrate creativity this year, and give anxious students the chance to while away time in daydreaming, doodling, scribbling, and scrawling. For me, this year is going to be another one where I discover I can do things I never imagined, and I have no doubt I’ll emerge exhausted but proud of myself. But it’s also going to be a strange year, and I know that what will get me through it will be the time I spend alone with my characters, my blank pages, and my wandering thoughts. I hope every young person in NI will be given a similar creative space in which to breathe.

For further resources, tips and ideas to help your teens explore their creativity check out theblankpage.kellymccaughrain.com

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