“They don’t know how smart they are. You can tell them.”

Who encouraged them to keep writing? (Photo: Unclaimed exhibition, Barbican 2019)

Much of my work involves moulding and tweaking other people’s writing into shape. But with R and C, I never fix spelling mistakes or question confusing sentence structures. I never wince when they go off topic, never strike through nonsensical ideas.

R and C are writers – nine and ten-year-old ones – who I’ve been working with at the Ministry of Stories, an east London charity. It’s quite a contrast to my day job, which generally doesn’t involve learning about a monster’s detachable limbs or the newly-discovered land of Japina. Nor does my day job often allow the luxury of focusing entirely on one person and one task. 

Most of all, instead of a working week played out entirely on screen, here we get to be in the same room. Or rather, we did until Lockdown 2. The charity had started these one-to-one sessions so it could continue some mentoring while social distancing guidelines made its usual group workshops impossible. When I returned to the centre in September, seven months since my last session, much had changed. Gone were the jumble of notebooks, the high-pitched chatter and sometimes boisterous interruption. Now, it was a place of carefully-positioned chairs, strictly limited numbers and endless bottles of hand sanitiser. For a sanctuary of creativity and imagination, it felt wrong that the first thing the children heard on arrival was a reminder to wash their hands.

Yet within each 45-minute session, there were few limitations. Unlike the usual group classes, which inevitably need some structure, the one-to-one workshops could be what our programme leader called extremely “child-led”. Poem, story, script, comic, illustration – whatever suits them best as a writer. All we mentors do is ask questions, encourage them to keep going, and suggest a structure or starting point if they need it. 

I love this idea of seeing a kid above all as a writer, even if they sometimes don’t seem to be writing much, or very legibly (we all have off-days). That ethos isn’t surprising, given the charity’s origins: it was co-founded by novelist Nick Hornby, just as its inspiration in the USA, 826 National, was co-founded by Dave Eggers, and Fighting Words in Ireland by Roddy Doyle. (There are many other similar organisations around the world – some are listed here.) 

And in turns out that the origins of 826 National do overlap with the stuff I cover in my day job. In a 2008 TED Talk, Dave Eggers describes a classic social entrepreneur’s startup story. Through relatives and friends who were teachers, he’d heard of pupils struggling with reading and writing – they came from families where English wasn’t spoken at home, or maybe had learning difficulties, and schools were chronically underfunded. “What we really need”, his teacher friends told him, “is just more people, more bodies, more one-on-one attention.”

At the same time, his New York neighbourhood was home to numerous writers, editors, journalists and graduate students who worked flexible hours and loved words. The idea actually came into being in San Francisco, when Eggers’ publishing company began sharing a workspace with a tutoring company. That made it easy for writers dropping in to volunteer an extra hour or two, and for kids to mix with professionals rather than feeling like they were being sent to a place for those falling behind at school. In a twist of fate, the building they rented had been zoned for retail, so they turned part of it into a pirate supplies shop. Eventually, Eggers says, “it actually made money”, covering the rent. Not only that, the shopfront drew passers-by in, introducing them to the work of their local charity in a way that many nonprofits aren’t able to do.

Eggers’ talk is pretty inspiring. His closing words are a reminder of what it can mean to simply give your time and presence to someone. Kids need “your physical personhood and your open minds and your open ears and boundless compassion, sitting next to them, listening and nodding and asking questions for hours at a time”, he says. 

“Some of these kids just don’t plain know how good they are, how smart and how much they have to say. You can tell them.”