This week I was fortunate enough to once again be part of the fabulous First Story Young Writers’ Festival. On Wednesday and Thursday over 800 students gathered in the gorgeous grounds of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford to take part in workshops and performances led by more than 30 writers from across the UK.
I have written at length before on this blog about the amazing First Story programme, how they enable amazing writers to go into schools to work closely with young writers, how at the end of two terms of workshops they publish anthologies collecting the students’ work, and how they put on an amazing summer residential for almost a hundred students. First Story is a beautiful, brilliant thing and being part of that is easily the best part of my working week.
The Young Writers’ Festival is where the First Story year begins and it’s as inspiring and exciting as everything else First Story does. It marks the beginning of what will be a year that fosters and celebrates writing, creating a community of writers, first within each individual school, then within the region at the regional events in the spring, before each student taking part helps fill this year’s bookshelf with a host of First Story anthologies, each school’s collected stories taking on a voice as individual as each of the young writers who will contribute to them. Yes, that’s right, by the end of their First Story year, these young writers become young, published writers.
Ironically, this year’s festival (like all the others before it) was too brilliant to really do justice to in words, but I’ll try by listing some of the highlights of the two days.
Poet and spoken word artist (and all round top bloke) Andy Craven-Griffiths performed his poem ‘Books are Awesome’ and introduced a number of First Story alumni who spoke beautifully to the new recruits about how life-affirming and life-changing taking part in First Story can be.
Over the two days, in addition to giving inspiring keynote talks about the power and pleasures of writing, Patrick Ness and Sally Green also gave generously of their time chatting to the students and signing books into the afternoon.
On both days poet and playwright Caroline Bird introduced the afternoon readings with a passionate speech about the importance of saying something rather than just talking, which she then beautifully illustrated with a large dash of silliness involving cream crackers and volunteers from the First Story staff and students. And in between all this goodness, a whole host of workshops, performances and CPD sessions provided entertainment and inspiration for all those attending.
Just over a week ago at the First Story Writers’ Skill Sharing Day (a kind of groovy INSET day for the First Story Writers) the author William Fiennes, one of the founders of First Story, talked about the importance of the students being encouraged to write about the things they want to write about in their own unique voice. That is what First Story is all about, showing young people from all across the country that their voice matters, then giving them a platform with which to share that voice, whether its in the Friday Story email and blog post, in each school’s published anthology, or the opportunities to read work to others within workshops groups and share that writing with larger audiences at the Festival, Regional events and the Summer Residential.
In the closing session of both days of the Festival, the amazing young writers about to embark on their year of First Story shared the stories they had written in the workshops during the day. We heard stories about octopus hearts, stories about meeting Embarrassment personified, about injuries received or given, stories attached to names and places important to the young writers, anything and everything they felt like writing about. Each day’s reading session was the perfect end to a perfect day of writing. Each day of the Festival began with around four hundred students, teachers and writers, writing together in what just might have been two of the largest writing workshops ever, and ended with readings from work produced during the day. The Festival, like everything else First Story does, is, from beginning to end, all about inspiring young writers to write and share their work with those around them.
So, to that end, I’ll finish this post by pointing you in the direction of a piece of brilliant writing produced by one of the students at the Festival: ‘Writing’ by Megan Lange. Go read that, then imagine 800 other pieces, just as brilliant and just as individual, all written over two days. Imagine 800 voices all saying something worth saying. That’s what makes the First Story Young Writers’ Festival, so very, very special.