An Atmosphere of Possibility: Teaching Creative Writing

By Laing, Harry | Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, February 2014 | Go to article overview

An Atmosphere of Possibility: Teaching Creative Writing


Laing, Harry, Literacy Learning: The Middle Years


Introduction

In this article I'd like to look at some of the ways teachers can re-energise their teaching of creative writing. Naturally every teacher will approach this subject in their own way. Some will be confident; some will be less so. I hope to be able to offer up some of my own experiences as a writer and creative writing teacher, as a way of modelling an excitement about writing which will be useful, perhaps even inspiring, to teachers in schools. And for ballast I'll describe in some detail useful games, exercises and approaches that are proved to work in the classroom.

First-up, as a writer I find it best not to get too worried about outcomes. Sure, I want to write as well as I can. I want the students to write great things. But great things don't come in a box, prepackaged. So much school work is directed towards an outcome, a mark or an assessment. But creative writing is notoriously hard to mark. It just refuses to be put into boxes and ticked off. It could well be that a reluctant writer's faltering two or three lines is a far bigger achievement than a confident writer's half a page of workmanlike story. That's the creative bit, the mysterious element. When I stand up in the classroom to begin a writing workshop, I hold the premise that nearly all the students have something to say even if it is just two or three lines. I encourage them to write in any form they like: poem, story, rap. My job is to create an atmosphere of possibility.

As a writer I try and push past my own self-consciousness and it's how I encourage students. Because, if you're consumed by the desire to get something down on paper, something important, your last and best word on the subject, you're far less likely to be worrying about what other people will think, whether it's 'good' or 'bad' or whether it will get you a good mark.

We're all writers here

This is important. It doesn't matter how long the session goes; everyone is a writer including you the teacher. Everyone in the room is poised on the brink of discovering something about themselves, of giving a shape to something they didn't know they had inside them. Being a writer means finding the right words for a feeling or an image; it means delighting in language. We all start from exactly the same place. So make sure that you too do at least some of the games and exercises.

Staying fresh

As a freelance writer working in schools, I have the luxury of being a novelty to the students. I might come into the school to do a one-off workshop; nobody there has seen or heard me before and, often as not, might never hear from me again. Sometimes I go back into the same schools with follow-up workshops and I've been involved with creative writing programs such as Writers' Roadshow on the south coast of New South Wales, where the same students come back several years in a row. So I have to keep surprising them with fresh games and exercises and new things to read aloud. The key, I find, is to keep myself fresh. I enjoy looking for new pieces to read out and writing a new piece or two for a particular age group. And I almost always participate in the games and exercises and read out my offering.

I will admit here that it's not easy to dream up a good new exercise, but it's always worth the effort. Personally I'd be sad if too many creative writing classes fell back on a more formulaic way of doing things. Filling in the adjectives for a given sentence or shuffling words around in a matrix means that each student will end up sounding remarkably like another. I'm aware that writing formulas can be very helpful for more reluctant writers and might even be a useful springboard to more interesting and original work, but I can't help thinking that they are hardly an expression of originality. I find it a bit sad to go into a school and find thirty pieces of writing displayed on the wall of the foyer, each one looking and sounding like every other. …

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