For the past six months I’ve been writer-in-residence at St. Mary’s College in Hull, working with First Story, a charity promoting creative writing in secondary schools. The premise is – 1) Do creative writing with your selected kids, using their stories with their voices and experiences. 2) Put a real live anthology together for real live publication.
As a sort-of* genre writer, I was wary of coming at the workshops with a SFF slant, but also wondering if and how I might bring this to the table. But as it turned out, it wasn’t my decision to make. Almost immediately on running through the 20 questions style intro session, we’re thick into talk of things I recognise: Manga, Hogwarts, The Hunger Games, Tolkien, and a whole range of recent YA genre books that I’m not (but should be) familiar with. I realise science fiction and fantasy is already embedded in these kids’ lives.
I soon learned that some of these kids are going to write about zombies, aliens and monsters regardless of what I ask them to do. Or at least, to be mindful of that kind of thing. Maybe it’s because that’s their foil for the world. Growing up in the age we do, with dictatorship, terror and rampant inequality looming on all sides, it’s only too easy to be thinking in terms of apocalypse. Zombies. The end of the world. Colonising space. Perhaps thinking like this is just a sign of the times.
But more than escapism, there’s a negotiation going on. I was impressed by how savvy my bunch were personally, socially and even politically. They bemoaned Brexit. They had a healthy wariness of Trump and the state of America at the moment. There was much more LGBT awareness than would have been acceptable – nor even comprehensible – when I was at school. And as someone who is always looking to justify the genre I write in* I can’t help but think that this open-mindedness is something that goes hand in hand with reading SFF.
That base premise: “Imagine a world where… ” is a powerful one. It means that, if you can get lost in these stories, you can accept another way of being. You can understand, tolerate, appreciate – and even learn to love – a whole different way of life. A different culture. Race. A species. You can question the way things are, and wonder at the way things could be. In the spirit of SFF, these kids can, and regularly do Imagine a world where…
One of the great things about doing First Story as a writer is that you actually get to do some writing. Having your head stuck up the next overbearing project can be a bit of a slog. But in these sessions, I freely wrote things I otherwise wouldn’t. And I found that writing with these kids, we got into a happy place. A kind of inclusive, optimistic but concerned kind of environment, where no-one is really worrying about genre and all that blarney.*
Perhaps surprisingly, the resulting collection is very light in terms of SFF writing. What we did in the end get from our writers is their stories with their voices and experiences – with or without monsters and zombies and outer space – as appropriate. Good, free spirited writing and liberal use of the imagination. Which is the main thing, no?
Imagine a world where the glorious future generation join together to write brilliant, inclusive and expressive stories, which may-or-may-not incorporate SFF-and-that’s-fine…