On Teaching Creative Writing: Part 2

We listened so carefully to what they gave us when they saw a ship, a lock, a mess of paint. When one boy mumbled what sounded like “war” we rounded on the possibility; a bit like hungry predators, a bit like starved prisoners.

“War.” Suddenly there was possibility in the room. What did you mean? Why did you say this when you looked at that?

Is this what you saw?

Is this what you saw?

It felt like possibility entered the room. The walls and table and deep-laid groove of the usual was suddenly about to fall away for a thought potentially as big as wars to lay itself over the humdrum.

But he backed away. In truth, I think he meant something else. He looked sheepish, at the effect he had caused. In his head, war is probably reality. This room and us a bit of shadow puppetry. Why say it?

If anything, I am alert to the reasons again. How the stale air in a room can become high. That in the smoky thoughts of anyone, may berry a word that is enough.

War.

What washed up

What washed up

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On Teaching Creative Writing

I must admit to nerves. Despite almost eleven years of teaching, to be alongside a poet teaching 8 year 8s, was – as this is so important to me – somewhat nerve wracking.

If I pretend to lead, will you follow?

If I pretend to lead, will you follow?

My poet colleague is very good and organised. To steer sometimes reluctant teens towards writing poems is no mean feat. Using visuals, group work, shared and modelled writing, etc, scaffolds and examples. He is very good.

There was much muttering and asides going on. It was an occasion where one’s blood could boil, but it was carefully managed. They needed to be engaged, especially as language was partly in the way, as well as the unusual freedoms that creative writing allows for.

They were working around the notion of friendship, and the scaffold had a section where children were expected to give an example of a time that a friend made them laugh.

So   damned   funny

So damned funny

Some of the more vocal pupils were able to verbalise this, though one boy didn’t really seem to get “funny.” I suppose this opens a whole can of worms!

The two boys, right at the end of the session, brought up two separate occasions of putting a frog down someone’s neck, and making younger children eat insects.

Genuinely funny, and wrong! This is where poetry could crack open and really say unsayable things.

You hurt.  I laugh.

You hurt. I laugh.

It made me focus on the aims of these sessions: these include the very important fact that creative writing is not very well explicitly taught as part of the curriculum, especially in Primary School.

Children are forever writing, but the emphasis is most often on good form, not what is really creative, imaginative writing. How does one develop this ability? Or encourage it where it wasn’t before?

There are clearly processes children can be guided along which end with poems being written. Structured pieces of writing with form, and personal statements being allowed.

I read a good “mission statement” for creative writing on the NAWE website. They outline what they mean by Creative Writing, and how this is achieved. NAWE website

My overriding sense is one of caution in how children are taught to produce outcomes. I can’t help but apply my own experiences to all this. And the bewildering, painful mistakes I made. It’s not at all that I think we should lead children to make mistakes, but rather that they should be encouraged to make these.

There is a very good argument for children being guided to produce art work. But, to my mind, there is a better argument for teaching children the more essential aspects of being creative: resilience, purpose, self exploration. Tricky. Perhaps the former is simply the first steps on this creative path.

I am thinking around what I should be aiming to give the children I teach for creative writing. Having read some of the work they produced, it is clear they are coming to me full of words and not a little emotional insight into the world in which they live.
Their work was full of above average for their age, phrases and word choices. But quite stuffed. I’ve decided to give them a pared down poem – This is just to say, by William Carlos Williams – and focus on getting stuff out, as much as putting things in. Negative spaces. Careful choices.

in the end, we're just shirtless and shrieking

in the end, we’re just shirtless and shrieking

There is not a little chiming with the Paul Klee show at the Tate. He would sit and stare, compose in his head over time, before making considered marks on canvas or paper. Such a thinker.

One of his pieces is called Burdened Children.
burdened children

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On Me, My, I and You in poems

I pick up a pencil or flip open a laptop and my fingers want to tell you my secret everythings

I pick up a pencil or flip open a laptop and my fingers want to tell you my secret everythings

I-s abound in my writing. Studying at University, there were a bunch of us who all felt the need to somehow empty our work of I-s. Perhaps this came from a feeling of being encumbered by ourselves, our personalities getting in the way of our aims. Perhaps. I recall being impressed by work where a seemingly clumsy voice was replaced by something more subtle. Now I’m not so sure.

I have come to like the I-s, me-s and my-s in poems more an more. There’s an honesty in saying something so direct, and owning it. It is like owning up.

But there’s also an opportunity for some hiding in plain sight. I’ve begun to become more aware of how one can become so many slightly modulated versions of one’s self. It’s just such a subtle game. And the danger is that the I becomes misread as something more static and belonging to the day-to-day face used for work encounters.

I am drawn to those who place the I at the centre of their writing. Billy Collins manages to write I and look at himself as he does. Tony Hoagland and Stephen Dunn, too.

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On artificiality and authenticity.

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Get this. Brecht says, ‘It is not easy to learn from folk songs. Modern pseudo-folk songs offer many discouraging examples, to start with because of their artificial simplicity. Where the folk song uses simple means to say something complicated, its modern imitators are saying something simple (or simple minded) in a simple way.’

There’s the difference. If any of us think of writing in the clear style of Simic or Ryan, we had best be pretty sure we have something to say.

I just received a copy of Hans Christian Anderson stories, in a decent translation. Just the intro is exciting enough, all about the chronic outsider status of the young Hans. His misery. It makes me so happy. The authenticity.

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And his crazy paper-cuttings that are used for illustrations. And how he would do this all over Europe, when he visited Dickens and the like.

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On the manuscript.

More on the job in hand. Bertie writes this as well, ‘…every poem is the enemy of every other poem [it]demands to be published on its own. At the same time they need one another, derive strength from one another, and can consequently be grouped.’

I’m giving the ordering over as a job for my subconscious, hoping that the longer I sit and play with my daughters and read fairy tales, the better the swift ordering will be, when I get round to it. I feel I’m almost at that most anal of phases with this, where I can flick through the 52 poems and enjoy the feel of the paper, the amount of words!, the shape of them as seen from across the room. regardless of what each poem is doing!

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On the manuscript.

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So I signed the contract. Now I’m going through my manuscript to send to Seren by the beginning of September – as outlined in the contract! Suddenly there’s a very real other party involved in my writing. A bit like my super-ego detached and tracking my movements to ensure I’m not prevaricating. (I am, by writing this, prevaricating. The Word document beneath this is my manuscript waiting patiently to be fiddled with).

I’ve got the deadlines and key dates in my mind all the time. They are holding me together, injecting just the right amount of anxiety to keep me at it. Keep me reading and re-reading. Thesaurus, OED and google at the ready to ward off all those big noses who know, and who are out to trip me up and laugh should I fall.

And I’ve been saying out loud, in real life, mostly to friends that I’m working on my manuscript. The glamour is wearing thin. A good thing. If I’m saying it I’m not doing it, so if I say it to you change the subject and perhaps I’ll get back to work.

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What have I learnt through the process? That I conceive as the poem as a whole entity, and am not primarily concerned with little inconsistencies. But these can ruin the effect for a reader. This editing is leading me to being a better writer, on these terms. But there are very much two writing me’s – the ideas factory and the proof-reader with heart. As the proof-reader is currently at the fore, I am finding it unusual to be struck by ideas for new poems. I’m presuming this will alter on the delicious morning when I complete my initial editing and arranging and can email it all off to Amy at Seren. This will be a few days before going back to school. I can foresee a Halcyon mood pervading these late summer days, when both my daughters will be at school, I’m at work ( school), the sun will be beginning to weaken – ever so slightly – and I can allow myself the luxury of pure invention in my writing.

 

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