Finding Our Voices Through Creative Writing

Special Focus : Culture and Identity: What Makes Us Human
Access and Inclusion May 20, 2019

Writing is a practice as old as some of our ancient civilizations – it has been taught and practiced for centuries and long served as a gateway for creativity. Creative writing is not all that new, has developed massively within English-speaking countries and is gaining momentum around the world. Using creative writing with youth as a way to tackle social or economic inequalities is rather new, and the Labo des histoires is just one example of this on-going trend.      

I participated in the launch of the Labo des histoires[1] (Story Lab in French) eight years ago in Paris. Along with a group of culture and education enthusiasts, we were convinced that something was missing in the way writing was being passed on from generation to generation. Most cultural activities enjoy dedicated facilities where younger generations can learn to master an art, explore an interest, or simply develop their skills. Music academies, theatre schools, or art colleges can be found all over the country and cater to a wide variety of audiences. In addition to their work, many non-profits target underprivileged areas to ensure that these activities are accessible to all.              

In France, the writing lacks both the institutional facilities and the non-profit grassroots network. This restricts the youth’s relationship with writing to the educational environment. Of course, many French students, like students around the globe, develop their taste for writing in the classroom through the teaching and mentoring of their educators. But for those struggling with school, or who simply need a different approach to find their voice (and writing), consequences can be devastating. The one we observe most frequently is the negative appreciation that youth have of their writing – and creative – abilities which often carries into their adult life.      

Writing can be fun, and serious

Inspired by the work of the 826 networks [2] in the US and elsewhere[3], we offer on a daily basis, free writing programs to children, teens, and young adults. Our activities are open to all on a first-come-first-served basis. We try to ensure that they are accessible to those who most need them, conscious that activities like ours can be magnetized by areas where socio-economic indicators are above average. This is why we focus, in priority, a significant part of our work on audiences (juvenile offenders, allophone communities, youth in hospitals or foster care, illiterate young adults) and territories (rural areas, disadvantaged neighborhoods, overseas territories) that we have identified as underserved.

Writing can be an effective remedy, notably for youth who feel their voices aren’t being heard, as it gives student writers a tool to explore their identity and possibly advocate for themselves and their communities. Educators who wish to engage in such activities should make sure that they are both fun and serious. Beneficiaries must enjoy themselves. They must ask, at the end of a creative writing workshop: “What, it’s already done?” or “Can you just leave me five extra minutes to finish my story”.

Is the sky really the limit?            

In 2017, we took more than 8,500 young writers on a writing mission to the International Space Station (ISS). At the time, Thomas Pesquet – an ESA French astronaut – was spending six months in the ISS. He agreed to launch a creative writing competition[4] 400 kilometers above our heads, inviting French-speaking youth to revisit Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s, Little Prince. On April 12 that year, celebrating Yuri’s Night and the first human to launch into space, he read two short creative stories depicting the Little Prince’s travel to a new planet.           

This creative experiment should give us the collective confidence to envisage bold projects bridging creative writing and some of the concerns of our youth: climate change, new technologies, socio-economic or territorial disparity. Empowering young people to write their stories is becoming a reality. In the future, it should become a priority.