Guest Blog: Chris Barkley

Chris Barkley is an award-winning fiction writer, whose work is concerned with belonging, place, myth, and reality. Since August 2022 he has been our Writer in Residence at The Alternative School at Spartans Community Football Academy. Here, Chris reflects on his first term facilitating sessions with young people and how physical activity can act as a hook into creative writing.

He takes my phone, opens Spotify, picks a Stormzy playlist. He looks at the workout I’ve blu-tacked onto the wall and nods his head in time with the beat. We go to the ground. In press up position, I ask him if he’s ready. He nods. We’re away.

Press ups, lunges, star jumps, squats, and dips. By the end of the set, we are both sweating, grinning. Then I hand him a pen. I ask him to write down whatever comes to his head, without filtering his thoughts. I say that if he can’t think of what to write, just keep the pen in motion. I want him to keep the flow state he feels when exercising, when writing creatively. This was the way to introduce creative writing to this young man; through physicality. I wanted him to feel the same freedom with a pen in his hand as when he’s on the pitch playing football. This was my first moment of real success when working with the young folks at Spartans Alternative School. The moment I understood that simply reframing what it means to write, finding the right hook for the young person, can completely shift their perception of personal, creative expression.

Graeme Armstrong was also instrumental in shifting perspective on what it means to express yourself through writing. When he came in to visit the young people, he told stories of how he’d grown up in gang culture, struggled with addiction and trauma. He spoke of how writing his novel, The Young Team, was a way of processing that experience. I know that our young people saw a part of themselves in Graeme, and were brimming with questions for him regarding his life and his writing. That level of engagement was beautiful to see; he’d written something which spoke to them, and they recognised that. Graeme’s visit solidified what we’d been working on in our sessions; that writing is a valid and exciting means of creative expression.

Just before Christmas, we took a group of the young people to my Jiu Jitsu gym, Low Tide. This was a brilliant treat for the end of the term, but also an extension of what I encouraged in the first story; physical writing. Finding a state of flow when engaging in exercise and then translating that onto the page. We are currently in the process of writing about our experience in the Jiu Jitsu gym, using the language of movement, whether that be reportage, poetry or prose.

Now, I have a group of inspired, enthusiastic and driven young people. We have a team of young screenwriters, currently creating a short film focusing on life in North Edinburgh. I have a young lad who is writing a rap, slowly growing confident enough to perform it. I have two young people who have written short stories, one about an MMA fighter, another a horror set in a bando. What I have found during my time here at Spartans, is that these young people are brimming with ideas, they only need to feel their interests are valid. Thankfully, Spartans encourages this student led approach, and as a result, I feel we have made excellent progress in demystifying, or perhaps, de-borifying, what they perceive creative writing to be.

It is wonderful to see these positive changes in the young people and I feel grateful for the opportunity to build these relationships. Thank you to the team at Edinburgh Book Fest and to those at Spartans who have made this all possible.

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