Raymond Ross meets Chris Dolan, Easterhouse's writer-in-residence and literacy link worker.
As he approaches his 40th birthday, writer Chris Dolan looks back and considers the most important writing competition he has ever won. Not the MacallanScotland on Sunday Short Story Prize he picked up in 1995, nor the Fringe First for his play Sabina!, which he was awarded last year.
"It was when I won a creative writing competition at St Peter's Primary in Partick, when I was eight," he says. "I decided then that I wanted to be a writer. Only, it took me 25 years before I showed a piece of writing to someone else."
Confidence plays a large part in any writer's education and this is something that Dolan, as writer-in-residence and literacy link worker in Easterhouse, is only too well aware of.
"Easterhouse is a particular place. It has a population the size of Perth, but there's nowhere you can buy a book," he says. "Disadvantage and literacy are always linked and you have to tackle disadvantage through literacy."
These are social and educational issues which Dolan is perhaps uniquely equipped to deal with. He took a degree in Spanish, Portuguese and English (at Glasgow and Lisbon universities), has worked as a community service volunteer on and off since he graduated in 1981 and has undertaken professional consultancy work from Venezuela and Barbados to Armenia and Namibia on behalf of UNESCO for projects concerning street children, enterprise education, disruptive adolescents and helping develop government youth policies.
"Economic viability demands language ability," he says. "Language is power. If you know how to write reports or speak in public, then you're politically advantaged. I've learned from Third World experience that literacy really is about empowerment."
Funded by the Scottish Arts Council and Glasgow Libraries, Dolan's residency is linked to the Easterhouse Literacy Campaign, which was begun in 1995. He spends 80 per cent of his time working in 12 targeted schools, the other 20 per cent working with adults.
"I'm not a teacher but I work with teaching staff. I suppose I'm part of 'learning support' in the broadest sense. Officially, I don't fill in for learning support or drama posts which have been cut, but in reality it's part of my function. Teachers are overworked and my role here is complementary. I'm part of team teaching and I add an extra aspect.
"Rather than teaching as such, I see my role as encouraging creative thought. I get the pupils to make up their own stories and to act. In terms of confidence building, it's about getting them to stand up in front of their peers and tell their own stories. It's also about helping them to organise their thoughts, to organise their own material. Not everyone wants to be a creative writer. A lot of the kids want to be sports writers or journalists. I concentrate on what they want to do."
Part of Dolan's work necessarily involves engaging with the local dialect. "Easterhouse teachers teach in one language, English. The kids learn in another, regional Scots.
"Most teachers do a remarkable balancing act between Scots and English, and I set out to explore the area between official and unofficial language. It's interesting how kids will often 'correct' themselves to 'proper' English. I tell them they don't have to.
"For me it's not a problem. It's a creative opportunity. In a sense local Scots has been legitimised by the writings of Leonard, Lochhead and Kelman. But this can confuse the kids; a lot of this writing is still new to children and the idea that they can write in their own idiom is new.
"On the other hand, some pupils can move fluently between the idioms. But I do care about, and I do work on, punctuation and spelling. The basic idea is to allow them to express themselves in either idiom or, preferably, in both. "
Dolan employs strategies from "hot seating" to "statues", where pupils present a character or story by question and answer, or by creating an image and then go off to write up and develop what has been created.
"Confidence is the key. Most kids don't want to be novelists or poets, but one or two will. And you can give them extra encouragement after the main sessions. It's not about making kids into writers, but about giving them the confidence to express themselves and interpret their own world."
Presently working on a novel with a provisional title Ascension Day, Dolan has scripted more than 30 hours of television, including three series of Eurokids and Burns - Alive and Kicking for Channel 4. He also scripts for Machair and Take the High Road. In 1993 he won the Scottish Screenwriters' Award for his script The Angels' Share, he has adapted Bill Douglas's last screenplay Ring of Truth, and had his Poor Angels premiered at the 1996 Edinburgh Film Festival.
This is an impressive record which leaves Easterhouse pupils unmoved - except for Take the High Road, which brings him "cred" the others don't. The residency, which Dolan will hold until at least next year, is "exciting and fun work", but it takes its toll on his writing time. "Above all," he says, "you have to make the writing experience fun for everyone."
Dolan will conduct a workshop at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival on "writing revolting rhymes". "Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes are brilliant for kids. He liberated kids' writing in the way perhaps Irvine Welsh did Scottish writing."
Edinburgh Book Festival: Chris Dolan will join an international line-up of writers and poets celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Index on Censorship (Post Office Theatre, August 10, 8pm); The Revolting Rhymes Workshops for 8 to 11-year-olds, EBF Children's Tent, August 14, 10am and 1pm