Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ministry of Stories

I went to a training session on Tuesday to become a writing mentor for the Ministry of Stories, and had a really lovely evening. The training was well judged and enjoyable, both for those of us who'd done a hundred of these kinds of things before and for those who were newer to it all. The Ministry is based on Dave Egger's 826 Valencia project in San Francisco, which I first read about in an interview with Eggers in the Guardian last year. It was only mentioned right at the end but I'm going to quote it here because I immediately fell in the love with the whole concept:
[Egger's] passion also led him to establish 826 Valencia, a place where children can come after school for help with their homework and to learn to write stories; it's right across the street. It's a screen-free zone, run pretty much entirely by volunteers, and has been so successful that the model has been rolled out across America (there are now branches in six other cities) ."Shall we go over there?" he says.
We scoot across the road. When Eggers and his team signed the lease at 826 Valencia Street in 2002, the landlord told them the building was zoned for retail; they could put their tutoring centre at the back but out front they would have to sell something. Eggers hit on the idea of pirate store. Not a kitschy place about pirates; a store for pirates. Every 826 now has a shop up front: they're welcoming, the children love them and they raise funds (in Brooklyn, it's a superhero supply store; in Boston, it's a Bigfoot research centre). Today, the children are just arriving, which, as Eggers says, "is pretty cute to see" – though perhaps it's more touching to watch the volunteers, who come in all shapes and sizes, and who give their time so willingly.
It's in the pirate store that I fall into a swoon of happiness. When I was small, a favourite book told the story of a bunch of pirates who were not much good at the stuff with planks and cutlasses; they suffered from seasickness and, on one voyage, contracted mumps. As we survey the scene – the staff, young and smiling, invent all the stock themselves – I think how my pirates would be right at home here, shopping for peg-leg oil, emergency treasure burial sand and tins of mermaid repellent/bait ("Sprinkle a small amount of this substance into the sea. Sometimes they come closer, sometimes they swim away. It's complicated"). (Cooke, 2010)
The Ministry of Stories has a Monster Supply shop, on Hoxton Road, along the same principles, selling supplies to Monsters with humans allowed in on sufference, and the writing centre is behind, offering workshops for school groups and drop in sessions after school. Nick Hornby is supporting it so they've had some good publicity, and are now going to be one of the new National Portfolio organisations which gives them security for the future.

The shop is brilliant and, as I say, is an attention grabbing concept, but now I've actually been to take part in sessions there I am a fully signed up disciple of the working methods of the centre itself, which to be honest for me had been rather cast in the shade beforehand. As part of the training session we were taken through a version of the workshop. The participants work as a group at first, coming up with characters and a setting for their story, suggested by anyone in the group and then democratically chosen by a secret ballot of hands. Even as adults we went down a slightly bonkers though predictably left wing political route of a monster banker (a real monster with a good heart, but with monstrous humans as colleagues) and his "personification of money" colleague, Buck, a grubby man with hay fever dressed in a suit made of dollar bills. I imagine children are far more imaginative. After the story has been co-written up by the group up to a suitably cliff-hanger stopping point, participants go off with their mentors to finish it off themselves. Normally it's 2-4 children or young people per mentor but we were one on one for our practice go.

It was amazing. I took the writing role, and my mentor, Ben, was obviously only just giving it a go for the first time so to start with it felt a bit obtrusive. I'd normally not want help and would just sit in the corner getting on with on my own (apparently this is a common pupil type), but once we'd both got used to it, it was incredible having this supportive and enthusiastic presence next to me. We'd talked about open and closed questions so it didn't feel he was helping me write the story (which as I'm stubborn and like doing things for myself would have been no good at all) so much as just enabling me to have the confidence to get on with it, encouraging me to keep going rather than self-edit too much, and asking good questions when I got stuck. I used to write creatively all the time as a child but at some point along the way I think decided I was clearly no good and so nowadays, bar a bit of experimentation with blogging like this, hardly write at all. Whenever I try I don't get very far. However, on Tuesday, I was completely fired up with enthusiasm and if I had had more time, think I might even have finished it. I'm not saying it was a work of art, far from it, but it's the furthest I've got with a story for years. It was fun hearing other people discussing their different versions, too. I almost wish I could find a way to pose as a twelve year old and go along as a participant not a mentor - I hope they start some adult classes some time. It's a completely different experience from being taught, which is half the point.

Just for fun, here is my end to the story. I forgot to take the typed up beginning which we did as a group, so to set the scene: the monster banker is called Tom and his secret desire (which has not yet become apparent in the story but was decided on by the group) is to convert all the monstrous humans into real monsters and start an ethical monster bank. They're on a team building weekend in a forest, and Buck is tying a barrel to a plank, up a tree, with Tom in the barrel. All you can see of him is his four hairy feet. Just before my story begins, Buck has given an evil laugh and Tom has cried for help to the gaggle of bankers below. Remember I wrote this in only about 20 minutes, ok?!
 There was a deathly silence broken only by the noise of raindrops falling through the leaves. Tom wished he could see the bankers but his head was stuck in the barrel.
Buck gave up trying to tie the barrel to the plank and laughed again. He gave the barrel a nudge. Tom screamed. "Help!" he shouted. "Heeeeeelp!
This had all gone terribly wrong. He'd had all those dreams and hopes for the weekend. He'd wanted to convert the horrible human bankers into monsters. He stared into the darkness of the inside of the barrel. A tear ran down over his furry cheek. He felt as though he'd failed. He would never manage to start his monster bank. He thought about how he could try and get out and whether he even wanted to try.
Meanwhile Buck was getting bored. Tom had gone awfully quiet and he'd wanted a bit more of a reaction than this. He kicked the barrel a bit harder and it wobbled to and fro on the branch. Nothing. "Er... Tom... are you still in there?" he asked aggressively. He was starting to feel a bit anxious, too. He needed people like Tom. He was nothing without bankers. He couldn't shove Tom off the branch, because then he might die, and then what would happen to Buck?
"Erm, yes..." said Tom, slightly plaintively. "I'm still here. I want to get out, Buck." Buck scratched his grubby head. Suddenly he felt an itching. At first, he thought it was just that he hadn't washed his hair in a month, but it somehow felt shaggier and thicker than normal. His feet itched too, and his hands. The dollar bill suit was straining at the seams. His gold plated buttons were bursting. Something strange was happening!
 And there I had to stop.  Go and check out the website - if you've missed it above. They're great.

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