Here’s a very thought provoking article from Saturday’s i paper by Terence Blacker:
In a week when the talk has been of making mathematics compulsory – presumably to encourage children to become business-savvy little wealth-creator -I have been at the dreamier end of the academic spectrum, listening to stories and poems. If George Osborne had been with me, he might have considered adding creative writing to his list of subjects which should be an obligatory part of the school curriculum up to the age of 18.
In fact, the term “Creative writing” is not quite right. It sounds self-important, a busy little industry designed to appeal to the menu people who now dream of becoming Lee Child, JK Rowling or EL James In the class I attended, there was little talk of publishers or of writing an eye-catching synopsis for an agent. The words, and the feeling s that words can convey, were the thing. I was reminded, as powerfully as I can ever remember, why wiring matters.
We were in an old Nissen hut on an ex-army base on the bleak and beautiful north coast of County Atntrim, which is now Milligan Prison. There were 14 of us sitting around a table and we took turns reading, talking and, towards ht end of the day, singing songs.
One man had written about visiting Peru, meeting a girl in a bar who convinced him to smuggle drugs back to the UK; at Dublin airport, a sniffer dog walked over to his suitcase and sat down beside it. There were poems about not fitting in at school, appearing court. Someone had written a Wonderland-like fantasy for his daughter. A slight, pale man in his 20s read a poem for his sister, who had killed herself last year.
Then there wa a strange tale of alien creatures featuring a giant red button which, when you press it, changes the world around you. The man who wrote it explained tat the button had been his favourite fantasy as s child, when he was raised in care homes.
For someone who writes for allowing, listening o a group of prisoners trying to make sense of what has happened to the through the medium of words is a sobering experience. Although there was a lot of laughter, every piece of writing contained sadness and regret, often a longing for family, but surprisingly little anger. IN most creative writing classes there is more than a hint of competitiveness. Here, there was kindness, an understanding of what it has taken to write a story, poem or song. Each reading received a round of applause. The comments and discussion were generous. There was a remarkable lack of bravado, not a hing to macho bragging.
I have, until now, been sceptical of the theory that writing something down can act as therapy. the idea that story-telling makes a person saner, happier or more emotionally evolved was hardly supported by the characters of some of those who do it for a living, after all. It was easy to see why the creative writing industry should peddle the idea of storytelling as a spiritual page: even if you don’[t get published, you will somehow be improved. I have never been convinced. But now, listening the writers of Magilligan, I was reminded how ti can order thoughts, give a sense of perspective, sometimes make sense of the senseless.
Perhaps it is time for governments to recognise the restorative power of creativity. For too long, it has been seen as a namby-pamby add-on to more important subjects. The day I spent in Magilligan showed me how people with unimaginably harsh backgrounds can articulate their feelings and thoughts through the medium of fiction. It helps them communicate and provides a much-needed empathy. These are more than merely personal benefits; they must help in the world of interview and jobs, too.
Successive government, obsessed by business qualifications and exams, have ignored the other kind of growth which creative writing provides. In he same Budget which championed compulsory maths for all, cuts in business rates will reduce still further the fuss of local councils with the result that public library closures, the great scandal of the past two administrations, will be accelerated.
It is time to press the giant red button and change this resistance to creativity. Libraries, and schemes such as the Big Book Share provide hope and potential for young and old. There is no reason why storytelling and writing poetry should not be within the curriculum, developing parts of the brain and spirit which mathematics cannot reach.”
The current government seems obsessed with following Asian models of business success, but Asians come here to learn how to use their imagination, as China in particular, has lost so much of its own history and culture, it has a huge gap in its educational curriculum. It is hard to find a top scientist who was not interested in the arts: as a break from their scientific thinking, but also because our brains have many parts, and they all need exercising to remain healthy, just as out bodies need a range of physical exercises. But Blacker omits an important aspect of what was happening at Magillican: the writing acted as a starting point for discussions, for people to engage with each other, to share ideas that went far beyond the words on the page. The reading aloud were rituals that bound them together, made them feel less alone, more connected with the greater world, so would make it easier for them to settle into society on their release, rather than leaving with a grudge against a society that had deprived them of their liberty for so long.