How a bald cat took over the classroom


The brainchild of Roddy Doyle and former Amnesty director Seán Love, Fighting Words is a writing workshop that helps children put their stories into illustrated book form in two hours. Arminta Wallacesits in on a class that will soon be extended to adults

ON THE FLOOR of the Fighting Words creative writing centre just off Dublin’s Russell Street, 20 children sit on round, brightly coloured cushions. The girls of sixth class at St Columba’s primary school, Glasnevin, are about to become published authors. By the end of the two-hour session each student will go home clutching their very own book, complete with illustrations and author photograph on the back cover. But first they have to produce a story, and before they can do that, they have to conjure up some characters.

“Any ideas for a main character?” asks Orla Lehane, the workshop facilitator. There is a bit of rustling and smiling. A hand goes up.

After some initial hesitation, the list of names displayed on the electronic screen above their heads blossoms to a healthy length and includes Bob and Philip the trouble-making twins, an extremely cross school principal, and a mother who works in an office.

“What’s in the office?” the facilitator wants to know. A desk, of course. A phone. A coffee machine. Suggestions are coming thick and fast now. “And, and,” an excited voice offers, “and she has a cat and it has no hair.”

“Okay,” Lehane bats back without missing a beat, “so she has a bald cat.”

Cue much laughter. There’s something about the conjunction of the words “bald” and “cat” that is – even first thing on a dark and damp Monday morning – utterly hilarious. Lehane smiles and asks how the cat lost its hair. Hands shoot up from everywhere.

“Bob and Philip shaved it!”

“And does she talk to the cat?”

It doesn’t take the girls long to get a handle on the modus operandi here: whatever they blurt out is going to appear on the large screen with disconcerting suddenness, typed into a laptop by a young woman who has been introduced as “the fastest typist on the planet”. An artist is also present, producing images at close to the speed of light.

As they read over what they’ve written so far, a small but critical voice pipes up.

“That doesn’t make sense,” it complains. “A bald cat. Let’s change it to ‘a Siamese cat’.” The screen changes. Everybody groans. Siamese cats are cute, but they just aren’t funny. Within seconds, the feline finds itself fuzzless once more.

Fighting Words has been up and running for a week now. Every morning sees the arrival of a different primary school group; afternoons are devoted to secondary-school sessions; and, starting from February, evenings will be given over to adult workshops on a range of topics from memoir-writing to film scripts. Its founders, novelist Roddy Doyle and the former executive director of Amnesty International’s Irish section, Seán Love, aim to provide access to creative writing skills for anyone who’s interested, regardless of age or educational qualification – and it’s all free of charge.

“The company is privately funded by a couple of individuals,” Love says. “With my Amnesty begging hat on, we asked lots of people for help. Whether it was with general legal advice, setting up a company, architectural design, whatever, an awful lot of it has been pro bono and people didn’t want any kudos for it. In fact, our experience has been nothing but positive from all directions.”

ONE PARTICULARLY POSITIVE aspect has been the level of interest from potential volunteers – a crucial part of the plan, as the centre won’t be able to operate properly without them. Each group of children spends some time working in small groups, so besides the main workshop facilitator, lots of volunteers are needed to help untangle knotty plotlines, sort out spellings or chat about cabbages, kings and the meaning of life.

“We’ve got about 300 to 400 volunteers at the moment – and, of course, we have proper child protection policies, insurance and the things that one would be expected to have so that we can be on a proper professional footing,” Love says.

Some volunteers are published or aspiring writers; others are trainee or retired teachers. The main qualifications required, however, are energy, enthusiasm and a passion for creative writing.

“We’ve been working with the teacher-training colleges to see whether trainee teachers could spend some time here as part of their course,” Love says. The same applies to artists. “We have linked in with the National College of Art, the Illustrators Guild of Ireland and various art groups, including the Graphic Art Studio just behind us. Some of their staff have come over. But we’d encourage people to come up and have a look, or check out the website. They don’t need to be writers or aspiring writers – anyone interested in creativity/arts will find a role here.”

Back at the story, the bald cat is now called Cornelius and the twins have flooded the school. The story also has a title: “Double Trouble”. When there’s a disagreement over plot developments, or when two strong possibilities emerge, Orla Lehane asks the girls to close their eyes and raise their hands to vote for one or the other. Skilfully, she negotiates the tricky balance between creative anarchy and moving the project along. Did the flooding happen because the boys went berserk with a fire extinguisher, or because they stuffed a load of books down the toilet? It turns out to be no contest. “Books down the toilet” wins hands down – or hands up – and unleashes a gurgle of laughter around the room.

“They’re dynamite for a Monday morning, aren’t they?” Roddy Doyle has been sitting on the floor, his back against a pillar, enjoying the fun. What does he think about all these talented young rivals? Are they a threat? He throws back his head and laughs.

“Well, I might just rob their stories before they get a chance to finish them,” he jokes. “That’s the only reason I’m here.”

Seriously, though, the idea of a creative writing centre was inspired by the work of his friend, the novelist, educationalist and human rights advocate, Dave Eggers. In 1998 Eggers founded McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house, now located in San Francisco, which publishes books, a quarterly literary journal and a short-film DVD quarterly. In 2002 he opened 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring centre for young people in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Doyle has spent some time observing how things are done at 826 Valencia and plans to produce at least one annual Fighting Words publication. But he’s going to diverge from 826 Valencia’s policy of tutoring only children. For the adult programme he has already signed up Gerry Stembridge to do a course on film writing, and Lia Mills to give advice on producing a memoir. Doyle himself will talk about fiction and there will also be workshops on editing and presentation.

“It’s about every aspect of producing a book or magazine, blog, whatever,” he says. Where did he get such a great name? “It was a quick decision. We needed a name to open a bank account, or for charitable status, or something like that. We came up with this one and it seemed good, so it stuck. Interestingly, the people in San Francisco said they’d love the name but they wouldn’t be able to use it because it’s too political. Here it’s just a standard phrase. We saw the humour in it as much as anything else; they would have been worried about donations to the cause, if the cause was called Fighting Words.”

It’s the flipside of the bald cat conundrum: words have the power to assault as well as amuse.

At the other end of the room the girls from St Columba’s have arranged themselves at small tables and are writing up a storm, ensuring that Double Trouble will have 20 different endings. Some are happy. Some stray to the dark side. One author has grounded the twins for a year. A whole year? What about Christmas? Her expression softens.

“Well, maybe they’ll be allowed to have Christmas,” she concedes.

Her friend is finishing a sentence about Mr Wu. Who? She looks at me as if I really haven’t been paying attention. Mr Wu, she explains, is the school principal.

“I’ve been very surprised at the way it has worked here this morning,” says their class teacher, Priscilla Flynn. “The children who would be more inclined to participate in class, or who would be interested in their writing, didn’t necessarily say too much in here – whereas those who wouldn’t normally have much to say for themselves did speak up. That was quite interesting, and really good for the class.”

When they return to school, she adds, the workshop experience will go with them. “We’ll reflect on it, maybe have a look at the characters, do research profiles, maybe even write a sequel.” Her young charges are, she says, keen readers. “They’re very into Jacqueline Wilson at the moment. Funny stories, I suppose, really. That’s what they like best.”

IT WILL BE fascinating to see what kind of stories emanate from Fighting Words as its programme unfolds over the coming months. According to Love, both primary and secondary level sessions are now heavily booked up to the end of the school year.

“Schools and groups should contact us to register their interest as soon as possible,” he says. “Adult courses will begin from February, and people can register for those online. It’ll be on a first-come, first-served basis, but if people don’t get the tutoring they want first time around, it will come up again. Keep trying, and they’ll get it eventually. We’re here for the long haul.”