I recently hosted a workshop on myths with Alexandra Sheppard for Write By You, my writing project for underrepresented girls in North London. Her brilliant book, Oh My Gods, centres around a teenage demi-god living in North London where the gods are alive and well and living among us in secret. In her workshop, she looked at how food was such an important part of heritage and culture, and how classic tales can be re-imagined if you add a little of yourself to them.
It’s something I’ve done umpteen times in school. After all, myths are a perfect example of a self-contained narrative that often contain some sort of message, metaphor or moral. A perfect introduction to storytelling. But I wonder if it’s something we would all benefit from.
One thing she said during the workshop really resonated. One of the participants asked how she, too, could achieve something as wonderful as writing a book based on myth. The answer was almost flippant. By adding yourself to it. The girls I’m working with have created a map of themselves, have created ‘I am…’ poems, finding their places of strength and interest.
I always like to take part in the activities of any workshop, even if I’m not running it. In this case, it was very revealing. I found it incredibly hard to identify my culture. My sense of self. My rituals and traditions that defined me. I was reminded of a scene in ‘The School That Tried To End Racism’ on Channel 4, when the white children at first felt left out that they didn’t have any ‘cool’ stuff like prayer mats or traditional dress, but then horrified when they were confronted with the awful racism the other children had already experienced, at only eleven years old.
I started to wonder how much of myself I draw on in my writing. When looking at my novel, I realised that I hadn’t used much of myself in the main character. She’s an engineer, an incredibly organised person who hates water. I wondered what it said about how I value myself that I had veered so far from who I am when creating a character who is strong and defiant. Interestingly enough, her good friend (not a sympathetic character) is very much like me.
Recently I read the wonderful The Girl and The Goddess by Nikita Gill. I remember feeling shocked, almost disgusted by her claims of being partly divine, of being a proud and powerful goddess. It felt like too much self-congratulation. I am certain that the meek part of my female self (that overuses the words ‘bit’ and ‘quite’ to cushion things) is uncomfortable with being unashamedly proud of who she is.
I was listening to a radio programme where a woman talked about being a sixth form teacher, how she would turn to the girls and say, ‘quick, tell me five positive words that describe you.’ They would fluff and fumble, take several minutes to gather such a small amount of words. Although these things don’t always fall down gender divides, it was often a far shorter time for her male students to do the same.
I decided that it would be a good idea to gather my own list, my own sense of self, and see what I could do with it. So over the last week I’ve been writing about ‘Sabrina,’ a girl who is part local folk tale, part myth, from Worcestershire. I recently read Worcestershire Folk Tales by David Phelps and have been thinking about a lot of the stories ever since. Here is a (reasonably) local tale that I can fill with my own sense of culture and self. It doesn’t have the happiest of endings, but I’m allowing myself to bring the character alive by giving her parts of me. The things I’m proud of, even if I don’t like to say them out loud.
Re-creating myths as a writing exercise is often given to children, although as adults we adore them. I wonder what would happen if you tried it for yourself?
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