On the 26th day of every month, 26 – a newsletter to inspire the love of words – hits the screen. Below is this month’s issue, which I helped edit. And a deipnosophist, since you asked, is someone who excels at dinner table chat. If you meet one, will you let me know? We’re always looking for new members at 26, deipnosophists and otherwise. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in joining.
Don’t be Cynical
Yes, it feels like Siberia out there. Yes, the 26 web site has been hacked. We may be down, but we are not out. This month, the 26 newsletter can be read in its whole form on this email. Keep scrolling people. We have tales of foundlings and northern skies, adventures from Amsterdam to Baltimore, from St Petersburg to the San Pedro prison in Bolivia. Ben Payne of Ministry of Stories tells Elen Lewis his best writing advice (don’t be cynical) and the story of Both, the Explorational Dog. And finally, our second in the 26 Recipes series from Lizzy Nichol – carrot, orange and turmeric soup. Yes, please.
Spotlight: Ben Payne
The co-director and co-founder of Ministry of Stories speaks to Elen Lewis about his favourite writing advice ‘don’t be cynical’, the way children teach us how to take creative risks and the story of Both, the Explorational Dog
What is your day job?
I’m Co-Director and Co-Founder with Lucy Macnab and Nick Hornby of the Ministry of Stories. It has been my full time job for just over 4 years now.
What are your private passions?
I’m not sure that this is very private really, but I am passionate about supporting more children and young people to be more confident about writing and to really enjoy writing in whatever form that excites them. I believe a lot of this comes down to the experience of writing you have as a child and the people you have around you when you’re young. For me, when I was about 9, I wrote a story in long-hand that I gave to my Dad for his birthday. It was called “Both, the Explorational Dog”. Two weeks later, on my birthday, he gave me back 50 copies of it, printed and bound. The surprise and boost that this gave me stayed with me. It probably has rather a lot to do with what I do now for a living many years later. In many ways, I think it’s this kind of experience that we try to give the children who come to MoS.
Describe what you do in 26 words.
I try to creatively think, long-term plan, raise money, build national and international relationships, have fun and do admin. Sometimes, that happens all in one day.
What do people get wrong about you?
Sometimes, children think I am “The Chief” of the Ministry of Stories, but I’m not. Nobody has EVER seen The Chief. The Chief is our big boss and lives mysteriously behind an office door, on which is helpfully written “The Chief”. The Chief only communicates with us and the children who visit MoS via an equally mysterious tannoy system. Notoriously grumpy, The Chief is nevertheless endlessly surprised by the amazing writing that the children create when they come to the Ministry and is usually impressed enough to publish it. And, no, this isn’t a double-bluff … I’m NOT The Chief.
What can all writers learn from the kids who come to the Ministry of Stories?
How to take creative risks. (I think it was Einstein who said “Anyone who never made a mistake, never tried anything new”. Maybe it’s even more simple than that. Grayson Perry has written above his work bench “Creativity IS mistakes”. We often ask children to do things that we would probably find difficult to do ourselves eg. “Write about what you did in the holidays” (How interesting would that be if you wrote it?) “Read out what you’ve just written in front of everyone else in the room.” Writing is already daunting for many children, just as it is for many adults. By 7 or 8, many of them have already absorbed the idea (from adults) that you can make a lot of mistakes with writing. The joy is that (unlike adults), it doesn’t take a lot to remove that fear for a lot of them. So I think our children teach writers to remove the critical mind-set. It’s this mind-set which creates the fear. They teach us to think about what’s possible, not to concentrate on what’s not possible.
What’s your favourite example of a child gaining confidence through creative writing?
I have two. (You can choose one, if you want, I guess!) Early on in our work, we were able to pair a boy with severe dyslexia with a screenwriter who was dyslexic herself and who also had a dyslexic teenage son. The screenwriter mentored the boy for a term and because in a way, they spoke the same language, the boy was able to write and see published his first short story. Like many dyslexics, he had a remarkable imagination, but had never been able to get a piece of writing down before. It was a major achievement for him. The other is from when we first experimented with speechwriting with one of our after-school groups. We brought in a professional speechwriter to work with the group and, at the end of one of the workshop sessions a boy approached him and asked, “So let me get this right. You get paid to do this? You get paid to write speeches for other people.” When the speechwriter said yes, he thought for a moment and said, “I could do that.” I think these two stories give a sense of what we’re about – supporting those children who, for whatever reason, find writing a challenge, but also providing “light bulb moments” where they see the real possibilities that writing could bring them in later life.
What’s your favourite piece of advice for good writing?
When I first started working with other writers – as a literary manager in a theatre, I asked a friend and somebody who had also done this kind of job for his best advice about how to do it. He said simply, “don’t be cynical.” That’s always stayed with me.
What are you working on right now?
For the Ministry – I’m very excited to be working on a project in which local young people will write their own original comedy scripts for TV, which we will produce later in the year.
For myself creatively – I’m working with a choreographer on a dance show created from the stories of young men and women who have worked in battle zones as professional soldiers. It will tour nationally later this year.
How can we help?
There are two ways that 26 members can really help the Ministry of Stories. We always need trained volunteer writing mentors to provide the one-to-one support that we believe makes the difference to young people with their writing. If you have spare time and you think you can help, go to the link www.ministryofstories.org/volunteer and it will guide you through the process of signing up. If you don’t have time, but you want to support our work, we happily accept donations, small and large! Please email email@example.com for more information about this.
26 Under a Northern Sky – last call for writers
We have room for a few more writers to join us on board our northern musical writing journey. We’ll match each of our 26 writers with the name of a station between Newcastle and Glasgow and the title of a Nick Drake song. These should be your inspiration for a creative piece that you can perform aloud in under 3 minutes and 44 seconds – the duration of Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky’.
We’re putting in a bid for funding from Scot Rail to help us make the actual journey to launch the project, with a tentative date of 25 April. You don’t have to be able to join us for that to take part, but it would be great if you can.
To sign up, or ask any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Fancy taking part in this year’s Wordstock?
We’re on the lookout for 26ers to run workshops at this year’s Wordstock on Saturday 17 October. Perhaps you can show people how to write to constraints, give advice on how to go freelance, or help fellow 26ers spin a sparkling speech. Whatever your skills and ideas, we want to hear them.
To find out how to get involved, please email your workshop suggestion to Sarah Farley at firstname.lastname@example.org
We’re afraid our website has been hacked so we’ve taken it down to protect your details and our content. As it happens, we’ve been working hard to launch a shiny, new website anyway, so this will probably go live sooner that we planned. Until then, you can keep in touch with all things 26 on Twitter and Facebook and we’ll let you know as soon as we’re live. We’ll be in touch soon,
The 26 web team
1. To cut with rough and heavy blows
2. Gain unauthorised access to data in a system or computer
3. Cough persistently
4. To horse ride cross country
5. A journalistic drudge, as in Johnson’s definition of a lexicographer
With thanks to Nigel Grant and Stephen Green for more definitions.
The Virtuous Circle: Why Creativity and Cultural Education Count
Tickets to the talk ‘The Virtuous Circle: Why Creativity and Cultural Education Count’ on 4th February are now sold out. See you there. And if you missed out on a place, we’ll report on the talk in next month’s newsletter.
New training terrain?
It was fun last year organising two different training days on Listening and Persuasion led by Dick Mullender.
What other courses can we offer 26ers?
So, 26ers, I ask you:
1. What sort of training would you like to be offered by 26? Your suggestions can be as literal, or as lateral, as you like.
2. Are you willing and able to share your professional wisdom through training? If so, let us know.
3. Perhaps you have a nice space we could borrow as a training venue? We’re not out to make money (although some would be nice) so we’d do our best to keep costs low.
Please email your thoughts about any of these questions to our training coordinator email@example.com
The Theory of Everything
The Theory of Everything is my recommended viewing. Not a great film but a stupendous performance by Eddie Redmayne. Deserves the Best Actor Oscar and Boyhood the Best Film.
It’s increasingly rare to see a film that reminds you of almost nothing else you’ve seen, and that’s almost reason enough to watch Birdman. But there’s more; superb performances from Michael Keaton and all the supporting cast, a very funny script, a great set, and a fair amount of mystery and imagination. A terrific watch.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
This is such a compelling story. It starts with Nella, aged 18, arriving at her new husband’s canal-side house in Amsterdam in 1686. You’re immediately drawn into a world of wood panelling and whispers, and a mysterious miniaturist who seems to know people’s secrets. I finished it at 3am this morning and already want to re-read it.
- The Serial podcast I’m late with this, but it’s extraordinary and is teaching me new ways to think about storytelling. As crime reporter/presenter, Sarah Koenig says, ‘it’s about love and death and justice and truth. All these big, big things.’ Dickens for now.
- Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen in conversation. On R4 talking about, ‘a commitment to the idea that a story can contain our most profound speculations.’
- Spiral. French crime drama on BBC4. Bleak and beautiful.
I’ve been listening to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 10-hour adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace on Radio 4. It’s one of those must-read classics that I’ve never read (and never will). This is wonderful stuff, perfectly suited to the radio. Broadcast on New Year’s Day and available for just four weeks.
My pile of unread books on the floor next to my bed is small because I just read feng shui bedroom tips and chief among them is removing clutter. It frees the mind. While my bedroom may be energetically rebooted, my slim kindle is jam-packed with unread books that one person or another has recommended to me. Here’s a small sampling of my electronic clutter: Marching Powder about a notorious prison in Bolivia, Amy& Isabelle by Pulitzer prize author Elizabeth Strout (my friend preferred this to Olive Kitteridge), I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes which is supposed to be a real page turner, and a slew of others – Lila, The Days of Abandonment and We Live in Water. My favourite read last year (since I am sure that’s your next question) was Americanah.
I know it’s not until May, but the Boswell Book Festival in Scotland looks interesting. It’s touted as “the world’s only festival of biography and memoir.” I have been travelling for the past three weeks in SE Asia so not as up on London as I should be, but I can highly recommend visiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for those who want to “changer les idees”. Read my blog to learn more.
No. 2: Belly-warming carrot, orange and turmeric soup
Hells bells how am I supposed to work when it’s this cold?
I’ll just tap the keyboard one frigid claw at a time shall I?
Clack, clack, clack.
Tell you what, best use for a laptop right now is up my jumper.
Why did I ever let you talk me into buying this bloody house. But it’s Victorian you said. It’s got character you said. Well I tell you what, Queen Victoria would be very happy here. She liked it icy.
Right now I’d settle for a decent energy rating and some double glazing.
You know what we need? Soup.
And another bloody log on the fire.
Ingredients for two fiery mugfuls:
4 big carrots
1 medium onion
1 medium orange
1 red chilli
2 inch piece of fresh turmeric or 1tsp of dried
2cm knob of ginger
2 cloves of garlic
3 cups of veggie stock
Salt and pepper
A slug of olive oil, coconut oil or butter
How to make it:
Put a saucepan on a medium heat and drizzle in your oil of choice. Peel and roughly chop your onion and throw it in with a pinch of salt (this stops the onion browning – we don’t want a speckledy soup) and put the lid on.
If you’re using organic carrots, you can get away with not peeling them. If not, peel and chop your carrots. Peel your turmeric (I find a veggie peeler can deal with this) and your ginger (use a paring knife), and roughly chop them. Squash and peel your garlic cloves and open out and de-seed your chilli (unless you’re ever so brave) and run a knife through these too. Leaving your spices in larger chunks rather than mincing them stops them burning.
Are your onions soft now? Great. Throw in all the rest of the veg and spices, and poke it about a bit. Use a fine grater to zest your orange straight into the pan, then put the lid back on and let everything sweat for five minutes while you clear up.
When that’s done, send your stock into the pan. Put the lid back on and let everything simmer for about 15 minutes or until the carrots are soft. Then, using a hand blender (ideal), a counter top blender or a food processor, blend your soup until super smooth, adding a bit more stock until you have the consistency you want.
Cut your orange in half and squeeze that in – half at a time so you don’t go overboard. Have a taste and adjust the seasoning/orange juice situation.
Pour into big mugs, top with a drizzle of olive oil, a scattering of herbs or seeds, wrap your chilly mitts right around it and drink down to kindle a nice little fire in your belly.
Lizzy has just launched her health coaching programme, the Last Time Ever Diet. Find out more here.
The 26 newsletter is edited by Elen Lewis with thanks to associate editor Elena Bowes