On the 4th of February this year, I reached out to a number of cancer charities. My hope was to have conversations about helping them raise awareness through impact stories. I wanted to help them shine a light on the amazing work that they do. It was also my attempt to do something positive after the passing of my friend Ruby to Rhabdomyosarcoma. One of the first charities to get back to me was Aberdeen based CLAN Cancer Support. Stars aligned and I visited Tina at CLAN House later in February.
Tina’s main interest wasn’t in impact stories though, instead, she wanted to explore the possibility of running a storytelling workshop for one of their support groups. This particular support group was for children aged 7-10 that had recently lost a parent to cancer. My initial feeling was that this was outside of my comfort zone. Of course, that was fuelled by that familiar foe, impostor syndrome. Who was I to work with a group of kids still grieving the loss of a parent? So far, so Kev.
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I wanted to do this. What was great for me was the fact, that right from the outset, both myself and Tina from CLAN acknowledged that this was new territory. I didn’t pretend I was an expert. That created a really safe space to take a flexible approach to how we worked. We agreed that I would travel up to Aberdeen and deliver a one-off session. The whole idea was for the team at CLAN to observe so that they could run future sessions themselves. Then of course, Covid happened.
I honestly thought that this would permanently consign this opportunity to the ‘nice idea that will never happen’ pile. In August, I received another email from Tina, this time, asking about the possibility of running a virtual session. After a call, a cunning plan was hatched.
The initial plan was for a block of four, thirty minute story sessions delivered via Zoom. The goal was to get the children to come up with a story idea and build on it every week. At the end of week three, one of the children asked if we had to stop after four sessions. I opened it up to the group and asked if they’d like to continue for a bit longer. This was met with lots of enthusiastic nodding. That was a real moment for me. They then asked if we could have a longer session, so starting the following week, the length of each session was extended to 45-minutes. I spoke with Tina and offered to double the sessions from 4 to 8 at no additional cost. That was agreed and we continued our storytelling journey together.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. After session 5, I noticed that only one of the kids was regularly updating their story. The energy was also a bit lower than I would have liked. I think some of the children were finding it hard to build on their story and there was a risk that it would start feeling like ‘homework’, which was absolutely the last thing I wanted. At the start of our week 6 session I decided to try something new.
“How would you like me to write a story for you?” Immediately the energy changed. There was an excitement. I explained the idea, which was essentially this. I would ask each child in turn for a character. I’d ask for a hero, a sidekick and then three baddies. I’d also ask for a location, an object and an overall setting for the story. “How does that sound?” I asked. Lots of nods followed and broad smiles.
With their agreement we started right there. I went round the group asking each one for the next ingredient of the story. It was absolutely brilliant and couldn’t have gone any better. They didn’t just give me characters though - they gave me rich details of each character. As the excitement built to a crescendo I confess it became a wee bit like herding cats!
By the end of the session I had the raw materials for the story. My plan was to complete the full story for session 7. But, again, I thought there was a better way, one which would give the children another opportunity to influence the story. Instead I wrote three quarters of the story, around 1,600 words. All that remains is one final scene for the children to help me with. On this weeks session, our penultimate one, I read the story so far to my collective of co-writers. Of course, I added some silly bits and went to town with different voices and generally ‘hammed-it-up’. Seeing their wee faces light up when one of their ideas was mentioned was just brilliant. You could see a sense of pride in them.
After reading the story-so-far version, we talked about the final scene of our story. There were so many ideas, but we finally narrowed it down. My job in the next week is to do my writing partners justice and write an ending that they’ll love. It won’t be easy, but I’m up for the challenge.
Unquestionably, this project has been a real highlight for me this year. It’s been a privilege to get to know the children. Despite everything they have been through and the grief they’re still processing, they’ve turned up every week with enthusiasm and big smiles. And, it’s those smiles that make me happy. Our goal from the outset was to provide a fun distraction and a creative outlet for the children to explore. Together, we’ve achieved just that.
What I take from the experience is a pretty big life lesson. It’s OK to not know exactly how things are going to play out. And, it’s absolutely OK to make changes, try new things and learn as you go. This freedom was only possible because of the attitude of Tina and the team at CLAN Cancer Support. Without their continued support this whole project would not have been the success it has been.
And, of course, this whole experience reminded me of the resilience of children and the power of story.
You can find out more about CLAN Cancer Support and the incredible work they do by clicking here.