Thursday, 25 October 2012

A bit about teaching...

UCS Ipswich

A couple of times a year I travel to Ipswich from my home in Sussex, and back again, to work with undergraduates in the English Department at UCS. It’s a long way to go for just two hours, but the workshops are invariably some of the best from the point of view of making a difference. The students have not chosen to take a Creative Writing Course. They are studying English, and one of the courses, The Short Story focusses on the literature, but it also includes a practical element. “Write a short story...” I take my hat off to them - it’s hard enough to tackle writing,  even if you’ve chosen to do it - it certainly isn’t easy to get your head round creating literature if you haven’t chosen to. 
That’s where, I guess, it is good to have a visit from a practitioner. 

This time,  we were looking at the need to depart from fact, if you are going to write successful fiction. Sounds obvious - but hard to do, especially for those who don’t write fiction routinely. 
        Starting with my usual ice-breaker’ of  word-cricket, and NO need to read anything out (phew!) I then used the current story of the shooting of Malala Yousufzai  We read some articles, made a list of central and peripheral characters in this particular story, then I took the articles away.  Trusting that we had enough grasp of the main events, we then split into groups, to collaborate. What did their chosen characters want to say? How would they say it? The students had to use their imaginations. This is fiction. Start with some facts, then let go - make it up. And they did! We had a group working as The US Military. Another as Malala the child, another Malala the injured teenager. Malala’s father. Angelina Jolie. And challengingly, the Taliban gunman who shot her. 
After a few minutes, the noise level rose - ideas were flying. After fifteen minutes of brainstorming, they had to choose one scenario, and another fifteen minutes to write, as a group,  a first-person narrative, in their character’s voice. We then had half an hour of group feedback - sharing the voices, the new stories - because of course, without the facts to rely on, they’d had to invent. 
We had terrific black comedy from the US Military group. Empathy with the  anguish of father - which was about to veer into a futuristic piece  Astonishing voices from the ‘Malala’ teams - the child who wanted to be treated like her brothers...and a guilt-laden speech from the “injured girl”, causing so much trouble. We had a layered character in the gunman, chosen to do the deed by others, frightened not to. We had an Angelina Jolie behaving in one way, pushed by publicists, and her ‘real thoughts’ running alongside. 

I think the point was made. No one was writing journalism. Or history. Or political commentary. Just fiction. Based on a nugget of fact. Spun, like a spider’s web, away from those facts. 

Senior Lecturer in English, Gill Lowe (who is always such a sport, diving into all the writing exercises with gusto) asked each student to scribble a few lines after the session was over. “What will you take with you from the workshop - something you didnt know before?”

Here are some scribbles: 

“We all have imaginations, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Thank you for an inspirational lecture today."
‘Being ‘forced' to write from  different points of view and on subjects that aren’t self-chosen, brings a different perspective  and instills confidence that  it can be done.” 
“Let go of wanting the story to be as close to fact as possible!”
“How easily an imagination lies dormant - and can be used, with a nudge. Good lesson :).”
“Drawing inspiration from all manner of places - unlikely places such as this news story. And that we can take it anywhere we want. It doesn’t have to stick with the news story. For example, the girl ends up with superpowers...”
“Examples of how to use different voices - very interesting. Thoroughly enjoyed the ice-breaking exercise - what a great feeling of freedom it engendered.”
“WHAT IF??!”
“Writing at speed can often produce the best ideas...”
“It was wonderful to hear from a real writer who has experience. You can use factual stories as influence for fiction - it’s your imagination, so use it!”
“I found it refreshing to bask in the rewards of letting one’s imagination run wild. In turn, I enjoyed sharing the fruits of this imaginative process with colleagues.”
“Fiction IS fiction and can be anything you want it to be. Freedom to write.”
“It was interesting to think about spinning a story from a fact. To hear someone saying that you don’t have to ‘write what you know’ (as in  sticking to facts) was refreshing. Brilliant enjoyable session. Thank you!”
“It’s okay to let your imagination run completely wild, especially when finding a story.”
“More appreciation for the value of spontaneity.”

That's what I mean about 'making a difference'.


  1. How wonderful, this is so great to hear! I would have been thrilled to be one of your students. On a similar note, I gave a talk (and played word cricket with) creative writing undergrads at Bath Spa Uni today, and I always mention my science faculty residency and how science is a great fount of inspiration rarely tapped by fiction writers. One of the students asked a question during the Q&A: "Is it okay to take inspiration from anywhere, including science and history?" Of course, I said yes - anything, from anywhere! But it is interesting that he hadn't perhaps thought he was "allowed" to do this. Your workshop demonstrates this point so so clearly, I might even have thought I wasn't "allowed" to take inspiration from this piece of recent and tragic news, but of course we can, as fiction writers. No holds barred. We have to be free, otherwise that is censorship, and often we do it to ourselves.

  2. There is so much fear about - possibly reinforced by people who guard their territory fiercely. 'You cant write about 'x' - thats nothing to do with you..'

    Oh yes it is!

  3. Sounds like a great workshop! But... What is word cricket?

  4. Hi Sophie - its a game I use to start every writing session I take. A terrific ice-breaker. I tell the participants they will NOT have to share what they write.

    Have a list of 10/15 words ready - anything.. maybe some sensory words in among the mix. and a starter phrase. Something to 'open' thoughts and ideas -Something like: "The door opened and..." or "It happened like this..." or "When the tide turned..." .

    Tell the participants you will be giving them the opening phrase, and when you do you'd like them to write it down and not stop... just write as fast as they can - anything that comes to mind. And that every minute, you will be chucking a word into the air. They have to catch it, like a fielder catches a ball - and incorporate it into what they are writing.

    So every minute (or whatever) you say a word from your list clearly.

    when you are half way through, tell them,

    when you have three/two/one word(s) left, tell them.

    When you've finished the words, they will be writing like mad and wont stop, even though you aren't telling them to.

    I usually let them scribble for a couple of minutes, then suggest gently that they bring it to a close, make bullet point notes if the story was taking off and they want to remember something.

    At Ipswich this time, I asked for a show of hands if anyone had a story - no matter how rough - a story with a shape, a beginning, middle and end...out of 23 students, we had 19 stories.

    The point is - if I'd asked them to spend ten minutes and write a short story - they wouldn't have been able. This way, they find out that its just in us to make stories.

    you can also do this in writing groups, for fun - its a great way to unlock ideas!

  5. You can't argue with positive responses like that. Sounds like just the sort of thing I would have loved as an undergraduate. Will give that Word Cricket a go with my adult class when we tackle the creative writing aspect of their GCSE course.

  6. Great stuff Dan - I'd love to know how it goes. :)

  7. There should be more teaching like this!

  8. Thanks for visiting Cat - it's certainly fun doing this stuff, and it seems the students get a lot from it.

  9. Ooh, I've never played that. Sounds great! Thanks for explaining.

  10. Brilliant game. I often flick through Short Circuit when I want to give my brain a zap before a short story session, too. But to see the stories forming where none were expected - that's wonderful.

  11. HI Rachel - lovely to know Short Circuit is working well!