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Let the stories come out of the shadows

Entries for next year's Pushkin Prizes are due in by December 19. Novelist Jamie Jauncey writes

Creative writing, one might be forgiven for thinking, runs contrary to everything the modern curriculum stands for. It can't be assessed according to targets. It can't be made the subject of performance levels. It is highly debatable whether it can be taught at all.

Why, then, has a creative writing competition named after a dead Russian novelist and poet become such a success with secondary schools throughout Scotland?

Perhaps because it offers pupils and teachers some respite, however brief, from the absurd, sometimes impossible, strictures of the curriculum. In the words of one of this year's Pushkin Prizes winners: "When I sit in my room, pen and paper at the ready, the whole world as we know it disappears and in its place is my world. When you write, your imagination goes wild and you discover you can I change anything and everything."

Thirteen-year-old Carly Gibb from Edinburgh, who was highly commended, hits the nail on the head. As the Pushkin Prizes demonstrate, the essence of creativity is transformation. Time and again the winning entries reveal young writers who not only end up with a different view of the world, and themselves, from the one they started with but who also are able to communicate that transformation in a compelling way to their audience.

The prizes first came about in 1987, when descendants and admirers of Alexander Pushkin met to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his death. One of those descendants, Lady Butter, who lives in Tayside, was inspired to launch a competition that would stimulate creativity and open up cultural exchange between children in Russia and Scotland.

Fifteen years later, almost half the state secondary schools in Scotland compete for the Pushkin Prizes, along with 30 specialist English-teaching schools from the area around St Petersburg, Pushkin's home town. The competition is open to S1 and S2 pupils in Scotland and their third-year Russian counterparts.

Each child must submit a portfolio of up to four pieces of writing, which might include poems, short stories, essays or reportage, by December 19 for next year's prizes. The Scottish entrants can write in English, Scots or Gaelic. The Russian children write first in their native language. Then, if shortlisted by the Russian judges, they translate their work into English (with results, it has to be said, that put our nation of monoglots to shame).

The Russian and Scottish entries are considered separately by the Scottish judging panel of three writers, who can also make awards for work in the Scots language and Gaelic, as well as for special endeavour by any Scots pupil who receives support for literacy. All the winners attend a week-long residential creative writing course at Moniack Mhor, the Arvon Foundation writers' centre near Inverness.

For the winners, and sometimes their accompanying teachers or parents, this is a week never to be forgotten. Children of two nations are thrown together with a common purpose. Friendships and future writing careers are forged. Under the guidance of professional writers, confidence and independence of thought blossom.

What do these young winners have in common? To start, a good grasp of language and an imagination that has been given free rein. They are not, on the whole, children who have been told as a class to write about a stormy night. If they are, they have been encouraged to think the unthinkable, to plan nothing and let the creative mystery guide them. As Philip Pullman puts it so eloquently: "By mystery I mean the delicate, infinitely subtle, almost trance-like business of letting a story come to you out of the shadows without pestering it and jabbing questions at it like sticks."

The Pushkin Prizes winners are children whose creativity has been neither taught nor measured, but nurtured by adults who understand and appreciate the part it plays in that process of self-discovery that ought to underpin all education.

Most importantly, however, and most obviously, they are the children who read. Their language has the telltale fluency and rhythm, their stories the controlled narrative energy that only comes through avid and prolonged exposure to writers who are more skilled and experienced than themselves.

Here the Russians have something very important to teach us. The children from St Petersburg are the heirs to an extraordinarily vibrant literary heritage in which Pushkin is more highly revered than Burns or even Shakespeare. In short, they are steeped in the great literature of their country. As a result, their work, even in translation, has a ring to it, a breadth of ideas and a sophistication of language which can go beyond that of all but our most exceptional native competitors.

We have an equally great literary heritage here in Britain. The fear is that our children may no longer know where to find it.

Jamie Jauncey is a novelist and chairman of the judges for the 2003 Pushkin PrizesFor further details, contact Lindsey Fraser, tel 0131 553 2759, e-mail

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