I just received a thank-you card from my nephew Milo for a birthday present. He had drawn some creatures from his imagination; a double headed mushroom tortoise, a crocodile starfish, and a light bulb fish. I was lost in admiration for his creativity; I could no more invent a mammal than sit through the uninterrupted combined DVD back catalogues of Ashton Kutcher, Elizabeth Hurley and Jim Carrey.
So my next task makes me very nervous. I am going to volunteer at the Ministry of Stories, which is a non-profit creative writing centre in Hoxton which encourages kids and young people, aged 8-18, to develop their writing skills with workshops and mentoring.
It’s not just the word ‘workshop’, which fills me with a terror of a large circle of chairs, brainstorming, and one really loud person being annoying, it’s also that children’s imagination is so fertile I don’t know what I can bring to the party.
I arrive at the Hoxton Monster Supplies shop-front, which sells giant tins of different fears like collywobbles, heebie-jeebies, mortal terror, a vague sense of unease, and escalating panic as well as fang floss and Zombie mints.
Behind the shop is the Ministry of Stories. At the Ministry, we sit, 11 women and 4 men, aged from early 20s to mid 40s, in shy silence and wait for our induction to start. On the wall is a blackboard panel titled ‘best word in the world’ and I’m charmed to see ‘cakey’ amongst ‘joyful’ and ‘tyrannosaurus’. There’s a poster which reminds everyone to show respect, courage and imagination. There is also an office for ‘the chief’ who we later discover never appears, but speaks to the children in a disguised voice through a tannoy. Very Charlie’s Angels.
Anne, our instructor, begins by explaining that the Ministry caters for local schools and that we will follow a session just as the children do. We start by compiling a list on a whiteboard of what makes a story; narrative, characters, title etc. Anne interestingly notes that the younger children suggest imaginative ideas, the older ones suggest syntax.
Then we work on the beginning of a story. People suggest characters; such as a curious cat with a tail that looks like a question mark. We vote (with our eyes closed) on the best of three suggestions for characters, location, the lead character’s biggest fear and biggest dream. Then we start to write the story, communally. When it reaches a cliff hanger, we divide into mentor and writer and complete the story. I feel mentally blank and slightly panic stricken and chose to be mentor. I try to be encouraging, though I feel aware of my lack of brilliant ideas to contribute.
When the children complete the task, their illustrated stories are scanned and bound for them. By the time they leave, they have in their possession a book that they’ve written.
In a break, I chat to a few of the other volunteers. Quite a few already work with children, which makes sense, though I find myself wondering, isn’t teaching children all day enough? But then, I’m not exactly Mary Poppins, as you can see from my experience working as a Manhattan nanny (feature printed in the Times and filed here under Secret Diary).
Soon, we return to a large group. Anne asks for people to volunteer. I revert to being about 12, and look ‘lost in thought’, avoiding eye contact, and praying I won’t be picked. Later on we discuss child protection and various what-if situations such as what you should do if a child asks to borrow money, or wants to hug you, or refuses to participate.
Finally, we all sign a contract, to promise that we will do our best to be supportive and to work together and to show respect, ambition and imagination. I feel excited but very apprehensive.