Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The creative process

[Last blog for the term. See you here in January 2010, but don't forget that you can search this blog for exercise ideas any time -- see tips at end of this entry.]
'There is also often a feeling, both in the artist and in the recipient, that the artist not so much creates but reveals a reality. It has been said that nobody noticed the mists on the Thames till Turner painted them... Books reveal to us another aspect of reality... the aesthetic experience has to do with a feeling or revelation of some half-perceived, apprehended truth, which is discovered, not invented.'
Hanna Segal there, 1991, Dream, Phantasy and Art, Routledge, London & New York. Page 94. A fascinating psychoanalytic exploration of the roots of art, especially chapters 6 & 7.

The trick for us teachers of creative writing is -- and this is the gist of a short presentation I'm doing for the Melanie Klein and Object Relations class -- how to get the artist/writer/maker into the inventing/discovering process. Of course you can't make a person create; the urge, the wish or even just the curiosity has to be there. Must be there, otherwise the student wouldn't have signed up for your class. (Or are you in an education situation where you have to teach and the students have to do creative writing? In which case your work is to light their fire; same methods can be used.) I believe that everybody has some creativity in them; and everybody -- even experienced creators sometimes -- can use a little help in letting the creativity out... which means a journey inward to discovery.

'Kerr's ideas are inventive, sparkling, and inspiring and she comes up with many useful solutions to commonly encountered problems... Kerr leads potential teachers through all stages of the teaching process.' Extracts from Zuzanna Bartoszewska's review of Creative Writing: the Matrix in Writing in Education issue 49, Autumn 2009. It's the journal of the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE)
http://www.nawe.co.uk Just had to share that with you, dear reader :-)

LAST CLASS this week. I had a chance at a guest author, always a thrill for want-to-write students. But I have so much to share/do to wrap up the Hero's Journey that I declined. Then we'll be off to the pub for a farewell heroes drink. This is the place where once a month former hero writers and other adult student writers meet to continue the support beyond the class -- a community of writers, how good is that. I drop in now and then to see how they are faring, offer encouragement and to be with writers.

Because of the psyche presentation this will be my last blog for the term. See you here in January 2010, but don't forget that you can search this blog for exercise ideas anytime -- try 'stimulus', 'exercises', 'class materials' and 'starting term' for these. And there's an exercise extract from my book, plus tutor tip extract, on my website for the book http://www.paxtonpublishing.co.uk

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Frabjous day and an extra for you

Dear followers and new readers, my apologies for missing more than a week of this blog. Last year I was faithful to term-time Tuesdays; this year I've slipped to Fridays, then Sundays... and then came a triple whammy of teaching Hero's Journey and attending Melanie Klein & Object Relations class and being on committee of British Haiku Society -- and having a life besides all these!

Maybe, too, my lapse was a waa-hoooo!! having reached a readable 10,000 words 4-chapter section of the story of my great-grandfather... a long, long, too-long project. I think I needed to flap in the breeze, lose my grip, let go... choose your metaphor. Time to get back in the saddle.

So because I have something to celebrate (see below) and because I feel I owe you reparation (a Kleinian word!) today I'll give you one of my favourite exercises from the Hero's Journey. We are in week 3 now, and the well-bonded class had a great time brainstorming story arcs in a structure exercise. But this one, The Mentor's Gift, is from week 2.

The archetypal concept of the Mentor is a character or force who acts as a guide, teacher/coach to the main character. He or she may give or award the main character skills or equipment or just words of wisdom and support, but always strenghtens the hero's confidence, courage and motivation.

For the exercise, you, as tutor, need to have what I call a Serendipity Bag, a motley collection of objects. Mine includes a tiny teddy bear, an empty cello-tape dispenser, a fancy little hand mirror, a sea-worn shell, a key chain, a coloured-lead pencil, a marble etc etc. After explaining the role of the Mentor, you take the bag around to the students, who one by one plunge a hand into the bag and draw out an item. Ask them to contemplate the object for a bit, and then ask this series of questions, using the example of a ring as illustration. They simple jot or write phrases or a few sentences -- this is an exploratory, stimulus exercise. I direct them to list several ideas, to keep loose and stir possibilities. This is not the time to commit.

1) What physical qualities does this gift have? Strictly its physicality.
e.g., a ring: it is round, circle, whole, hard, gold, shining...

2) What meaning does this object have, what use or function?
e.g., a ring: eternity, bond, whole, joined, perfection, union, marriage, wealth, forever, return...

3) If it had magic powers, what would these be?
e.g., flight, sight, travel, love, riches, power...

4) What could it mean to your hero; when she/he looks at or thinks of it later on in the story, what does she/he feel and think? At their darkest hour the mentor's gift gives the strength to go on.
e.g., 'Love is what matters most'. Or 'Keep faith, believe in him.' Or 'We are together, no matter what.'

This exercise gives the writer insight into the main character (hero), as well as the Mentor. Each time I teach it I draw an object from the Serendipity Bag and do the exercise with the students using a character I am working on. Even using the same character several times I learn new depths of him/her, and get new ideas for the story.

To be continued within 24 hours!! Off to see Bright Star. Back now -- it is slow, but deep. I emerged feeling that I had actually lived at the pace of real life (nearly). It is not 'exciting'; it is real. What's more, my lovely husband recited Ode to a Nightingale to me from memory as I drove us home. Our anniversary tomorrow and dear reader, I'm glad I married him.

* GOOD NEWS! NAWE's Writing in Education has given my Creative Writing: the Matrix a glowing review!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The questioning student

Once in India I thought I would like to meet a major guru or teacher face to face. So I went to see a celebrated teacher named Sri Krishna Menon, and the first thing he said to me was, "Do you have a question?"
The teacher in this tradition always answers questions. He doesn't tell you anything you are not ready to hear.

That's Joseph Campbell talking, in an interview by Bill Moyers, from their book The Power of Myth, 1988, Doubleday, New York. Page 67.

It's a pretty good model, I think. But often it means that you are faced with that dreaded silence when you ask a classroom -- 'Any questions?' Guess I'm not a major guru or teacher of the Sri sort... too anxious to wait for long enough for questions to form, I move quickly along to the input I want to share. But... isn't their just being there a kind of question? If students sign up for a course with a given title, it means they want to know something about it, yes?

The question gambit can turn tables. This week a student asked in class, 'What is the point of this course? What will we get at the end of it?' 'Fraid I blanked slightly, so she want on, 'Will we write a short story, or what?'

She'd arrived a bit late to this first class, or perhaps wasn't listening, when I read out the 2-line course description honed by me and printed in the course outline. At that moment the course outline was not in front of me, so I asked 'Do you want to write a short story? If that's what you want to write, you will.'

Not good enough. She went on with a no-but query-demand. This course draws and is designed for people who may be thousands of words into a novel or memoir, and for people who have never taken a writing course before and have only the flicker of desire to write something, and all variations in between. On the hoof, I came up with 'It will help you create involving characters and a narrative with dramatic tension.'

So there's where a question from a student can be good for the teacher -- I'd never put it quite that way before. Maybe that guru was learning from his followers.

P.S. Despite her question, it was an answer she did not want to hear, because at the end of the class the student told me she wouldn't continue on the course...

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The joy of being a student

Maybe you are working on a Master's degree in creative writing, or maybe you've recently been on an Arvon residential course... or are you, like me, taking a course not directly to do with creative writing? I've just begun my third evening course in psychoanalytic psychology (Freud, Jung, Klein) and my! how lovely it is to be well-taught.

Mickey Yudkin (female), to give credit where it is due, makes each person in the class feel welcome and known by her. Even on day one, she'd say, 'oh, yes, I recognise your name from the list.' And every time someone asks a question or comments she addresses this, and before she finishes she circles back to the person saying something like, 'so that's why it was a good point, Susan' or 'you were right to ask, David.' Very supportive and warming. Even her attention and alertness make me feel that I am being nurtured, that I am interesting, that I am valued, and that she is knowledgeable and passionate about the subject.

Do you ever feel you are running out of steam as a tutor? We creative teachers do pour our energy into our students... there's nothing like a dose of being student of a good teacher to get a top up.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Hero's Journey, the first steps

Yes, so the brinkmanship of adult education is in my favour this time, and on 5th November the course starts. This raises the issue of prepping, and prepping for a class one has taught quite a number of times -- how to keep fresh?

Fortunately I have a passion about creative writing and about archetypes and the Hero's Journey, so I love learning more on all these areas. I have just finished reading The Power of Myth, an interview series of Joseph Campbell (he of the Hero with a Thousand Faces) by Bill Moyers; publisher Doubleday, 1988 [eeek! well, it's new to me!] Super illustrations and marvellous meaning-and-myth talk. I will add it to my booklist handout for students

Am also reading Writing Fiction, Creative and Critical Approaches, by Amanda Boulter, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. I bought it at the Winchester Writers' Conference in July. Some sound stuff on reading for writers -- and yahoo, she gets into myth and Campbell as well. She has exercises, too, but I haven't read that far yet.

Blogger is playing up right now, so keeping this short. I won't buckle down to looking at my class notes and handouts etc til next week, so the presentation adrenalin builds up to good strong energy for greeting the roomful of new faces.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Deeper into character, part 2

I am trying to get back to doing this blog on Tuesdays, as I did throughout last year, but our oven sort of blew up -- well, dramatically shorted -- this week; fair amount of upheaval, but now all is sorted.

Continuing with the question of building characters, how to deepen. And how deep need they be? I began noticing characterisation a lot in my reading over the last few years -- I suggest you do the same, and get students to do so too. This is why it is good for a creative writing class to all read a book in common each term.

I like to ring the changes among genres. I have encountered one or two snooty students who refused to read sci fi or chick lit (not that I chose only those). One can learn from all genres, even cereal box backs. In fact, maybe learn more easily, because one is more detached in reading out of one's fav genre.

I have just finished reading Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Now that's character depth. And illustrates the rule -- depth of character requires time with the character, ergo, different genres, different depths of character (a) possible and (b) expected by reader. ULoB has essentially 3 characters (plus the narrator, a strong 4th) and the whole book is about getting to know them; indeed as they plumb their own depths. A fascinating, curious book. For contrast, as mentioned last week, read Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code: tons of characters, lots of action and pace, no time to get to know characters. But it works, of course, in its way. So it all depends.

One of my fav eye-openers to bringing a character alive is a paragraph in Anna Karinina early on, where Tolstoy has Kitty looking in the mirror, just about to descend to the dance where she will see both Levin and Vronsky. I call it 'the hills and dales of thought'. It gives insight into her state(s) of mind, and we live through it with her.

Currently I'm reading Elizabeth George's For the Love of Elena, Inspector Lynley working on a crime. I think she has a good balance of character depth (Lynley, Havers) and intermediate depths and quickly sketched characters. All of them ring true. What do you think?

Good news, my November Hero's Journey course has sufficient numbers, so it will run, hurrah! I have found that re-doing some of its character exercises has let me surprise myself with things I didn't know about existing characters I am working with. Particularly the Mentor's Gift.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Deeper into character

First of all, thank you and hi! to Nellie59 who posted a little fan note on the Teacher as Host blog entry a couple of weeks back. It is just great to know that Creative Writing: the Matrix has been proving really useful to her in teaching creative writing... if anyone out there has found favourite exercises in the book, or devised variations they'd like to share please get in touch.

I am thinking that at some point I will do Creative Non-Fiction: the Matrix (or some such title), from the many exercises I amassed (is that how you spell it?) in years of teaching Journalism & Professional Writing. It would include feature writing, travel writing, life-writing and other miscellany [have to add blog writing!], including a bit on copy writing... all 'creative' but not the usual thing people get in creative writing classes... yet it is not essays, reports or academia, and people do need-want help in these areas. What do you think, as teacher-writers?

Communicating with a fellow writer Peter Ward; I have just reviewed his book -- Dragon Horse http://www.dragonhorse.co.uk on Amazon. We were talking about deepening character, how to.
The Matrix book has 4 exercises on character (p. 53 onward), but those are pretty basic essentials -- never hurts to go back to basics though! Then later there are 4 more called Deeper into Character (p.84); The Dream and The Scar could be particularly useful if you worry that your characters are too thin. However, some genres don't want deep-deep character (hello, Dan Brown). I think depth of character means dwelling for quite some time inside and with a character's head and heart (hello Marilynne Robinson's Gilead).

More to say on character, but that will have to be next week.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Sense and surreality - plotting exercise

An interesting little item in 23/09/09 Telegraph reminded me of an exercise that explores plotting and point of view which I did not include in Creative Writing: the Matrix. The news item says psychologists have 'found that bizarre juxtapositions of facts and time frames force people to engage their brain.'*

Researchers at the University of California and the University of British Columbia gave a study group a chopped up, nonsensical version of a Franz Kafka story, while a second group read a sensibly edited version. The first group remembered more and better. Conclusion by psychologists: they did better because they were motivated to find structure.

Their research seems mainly to be about learning (though it also mentions film director David Lynch's work), but I'm interest in that last phrase I bolded. I was trying to get my class to explore plot AND point of view (angle)... the various ways of telling a story, and how the ways then affect the story. It took a fair bit of preparation, worth it for the resulting lively group-work session.
  • Prep: I took a published short story and analysed, or deconstructed, it into key actions in the narrative. I typed out these key events (synopsis-style, not the actual text); nine in total. Each was only 1-3 lines long.
  • Prep, cont'd: I printed out 4 copies of this list. I numbered the first event on the first copy #1, as it occurred in the telling of the story. I studied the events and on the other three sheets chose different starting points. (I got quite deeply and creatively involved in this editing task and could see how all versions might conceivably work.) Then I cut up each sheet into strips of the 9 identical events.
  • In class, I gave each of four groups (2-6 people in each) one set of the story events. But each group had a different #1 starting event. The task was then to put the other events into an order that made sense -- possibly eliminating one if it just would not fit. This took a good noisy 20 minutes.
  • Then a speaker for each group told its story to the class. The discussion was fascinating as the variations provided different tones to the basic story, differing sympathies, motives and even personalities for the characters, and differing themes. Two groups did not manage to complete the task, but that mattered less than the working at it and all contributed to discussion.
  • Point of the exercise: to realise how flexible plotting can be, to be creatively free in storytelling, to experience how the sequence of telling a story affects readers' interests and empathies.
  • P.S. I revealed the order of the original published story (and its author) at the end; some students preferred their own versions!

Point of learning for the tutor: it was a bit confusing and chaotic (surreal!) but very stimulating and open-ended... showing, not telling, students the potentialities of plot and point of view and their effects. It is not necessary to agree, there is no one right way.

*The study is published in Psychological Science.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Teacher as host

Back to school -- autumn still always feels like the real start of the year to me, so Happy New Year.

If you teach primary or secondary school you've been in place for a fortnight or more, if adult/community education a week, if university or continuing higher education you still have a week or more before you stand up in front of your students.

See previous blog entries tagged First Class, Start of Term, Stimulus for ideas on short, sparking exercises to get people writing -- this week I'm thinking more instead of YOU, the teacher.

Flying back from a holiday (Lake Como, since you ask) I browsed through British Airways' magazine aimed at business readers and happened on a feature useful to us tutors. I clipped and saved it -- but blast! it was here on my desk before the university son used my pc, and it's gone now (surely he can't have... nah, he's a chemist and a drummer). So I will dredge up the tips I recall -- for businessfolk, it was on on giving presentations. But the advice is excellent for teaching:
  • think of yourself as the host of this group before you... what does a host do? welcomes people, helps them to feel relaxed and in friendly circumstances, makes clear he/she is glad to see them
  • be clear -- in yourself and to your audience -- what you are here to do, to say, and why they are here
  • prepare in advance, know what your main message is, keep focussed
  • use notes or bullet points if you must, but don't read from a page; ideally your preparation and your passion for the subject provide natural liveliness and information
  • speak clearly, project your voice, watch audience faces and body language to be sure they are receiving your communication
  • smile! make eye contact
  • move about; don't cling behind the table/desk/podium, step to the side, or even into the audience (ideally for creative writing tables are arranged in a U-shape, or boardroom style)
  • be flexible, allow for interruptions, adjust pace and order if needed, bring things back to the main message of the session

So there you are, creatively writerly businessly presenting -- hosting your audience into their new or growing creative world. See also the blogs tagged planning or preparation.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Sparking the Written Word

Farewell for this academic year, but it's not quite all over for me. I am off to Winchester next Friday and have a slot for writers or teachers who want to teach creative writing. That's the title above.

Woke up in the night this week (as one does) and got to thinking about it, even though I had decided not to plan it til next week. A bit of insomnia can be very useful! It is only one hour, and the tough part of this brief is that the teachers might be teaching to 9 year olds... or 90 year olds. I want to pack the session with interactivity, so have decided on:
  • The Rant
  • Stone Writing
  • Postcard Prompt
  • Gift-of-Writing

Each of these is an exercise in itself, but I also will use different instructions to lead each one, and also point out how each draws upon a different inner source. Why and how did I choose these, I asked myself in the night -- came up with a list of 7 reasons which add up to Voice. Teaching creative writing is about helping a person to find her/his own voice.

If you want one of these (end of year freebie) contact me via comments or profile. Better yet, buy Creative Writing: the Matrix!

I have just completed my CPD for IfL via Reflect online. The simple IfL declaration is easy-peasy, but you don't put in details -- no sense of accomplishment. The Reflect blue-coloured step-by-step on the IfL site is simple to use and more fun. I suggest tackling it in 2 - 3 sessions. Does NOT really take that long, but learning a new click-path is wearing. I got cross when I got to the 'send to CPD' stage and had to perform yet another (simple) series of clicks. Anyway, all clicked and on board now.

Have a happy writing summer! Back in mid September -- but if you are new to this blog, feeling urgent and planning a new course, do look back on blog entries of the last 18 months where you'll find plenty of ammo.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

How'm I doing?

Here is my self-critique following the 1-hour Hero's Journey class I gave last week (see Quart into Pint Pot Challenge blog of 2 June). I do this on the back of the class plan after every class I teach, an aide-memoir to tweaking improvements.
  • Went all right, a well-gelled class of committed writers. BUT I read out from an article arguing for myth/narrative. Maybe it interested them but felt like a droning start to me. Won't do that again, because I still had to explain Hero archetype overview (w/ handout), which is yet more me talking. Finally got to 'Your call to writing' pair-chat and it felt alive. Mentor's Gift they all liked and all reported what they found from it. No time to write a scene, but I told them about it. Be clearer, repeat that it is not a formula.

Another way I assess my teaching is by direct student feedback. I begin every course with a half-sheet asking what they are currently writing, what stage of writing. This helps me to tune the level of course content and my own expectations. Final class, I return the sheet and ask how they felt about the usefulness of the course, and for any specifics they liked or not, any ideas for change.

Tedious, perhaps, when they have one or more assessment questionnaires for the college as well, but I encourage them to be open and to help me out. When I take these home it's always a little 'hold my breath' moment -- will I get a stinker? But then any negatives are a guide to improvement. By now the 5-week Hero Writer course is pretty well tweaked, it seems. From one 'report card':

  • We got so many ideas and were allowed to work creatively whilst learning important skills at the same time. I loved the structure of the hero's journey as a framework to help you write and particularly enjoyed the Mentor's Gift and the little bits at the end, the Writer's Journey.

So, that's all right then. The sort of negative comments were only in the form of 'I want more of this' -- a longer course, more of the Writer's Journey aspect (internal process of becoming a writer), more courses from me. So that's all right too!

The academic year is almost done -- hope you teachers/writers get useful report cards too. I'll be blogging next week and then taking the summer off, getting on with my own writing.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Planning farewells

Tis the season of farewells -- end of term, of course, of year. Maybe I am a bit late in suggesting this to you now, maybe not: a class anthology to round out your course?

The important thing is to make a learning experience of it. Do NOT choose the samples of work, reproduce and put it together yourself. No, no, no.

Bring in anthologies from previous classes, or from other writing gatherings (the Arvon week I attended did one, and many medium-level competitions issue anthologies of winning entries). These show your class the range of simplicity (photocopied pages stapled together) to sophistication (a www.lulu.com booklet) so your students can decide what to do.

Then set out the editorial and production realities, and get the class to discuss and make decisions. This is what makes it a lesson in publishing, so that writing students may come to appreciate some of what publishers do for them. What size, how many pages = how many, how long contributions are.

Will there be a theme? New writing for the theme? Or selections of existing writing? What about a title? Cover design? Someone has to do table of contents. Someone(s) has to collect, collate and then number pages -- is it going to be done all in one style of font and layout? Therefore is proofreading needed?

And don't leave out the fun bit where writers get to write their own short author description for a listing at the back. Or front. Or at end/start of each piece.

And then there's reproduction. How many? Will your teaching institution do it? At no charge? Or do students have access to photocopying, or do they club money and take it to a copyshop?

Whew -- a lot of work. So it is not up to tutor but up to proud writer-students to do the work and learn from it. A class anthology makes a wonderful souvenir of the course for everyone -- including you, the tutor.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Quart into pint pot challenge

Quarts into pints or litres into halfs, the challenge is to boil down or skim off a course-worth's material into a 45 minute class. I am substituting for a writer-tutor buddy who has asked me to tell her class about Hero's Journey/Writer's Journey.

Well, hmmm. I first devised the course as 6 one-day (10 am - 4 pm) workshops over an academic year. That is, first session class was on Hero, second entirely devoted to Thresholds, Guardians, Allies etc. It worked well and we had oceans (well, I am talking myth here) of time for writing and for discussion.

A couple of years later I re-jigged it as a course of five weeks, 2 hours per session. Less time to write and discuss in class, fewer readings out of material. But still, it works well -- that's the course I just finished teaching. To run again in November.

But in 45 minutes -- what to do? I don't want to drone (I mean lecture) on and on about the hero concept and its many parts. I am much happier -- that is I feel and see that I am reaching students with my teaching -- when they write and we interact. So I must work in one exercise -- which one? This class is pretty well established and most are engaged on a work in hand, so my standard Character Profile beginning does not feel right.

I think I have decided on Mentor, with my Serendipity Bag of odd items (some very odd indeed). It is a useful way for a writer to gain insights into a character she/he thinks they know already. It uses staged questions. I have done it with the class each time, and it has suprised and enriched me every time.

I met a mingling of two former Hero writing classes at the pub last week and sought the opinion of one writer-on-the-journey. She liked the postcard exercises most of all, but saw my reasoning and liked Mentor too.

I will let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, if you don't know what staged questions, character profile and serendipity bag are -- buy Creative Writing: the Matrix!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Birds don't brag

Feeling a little blue today -- maybe because tomorrow's the last Hero's Journey class. We will cover the Resurrection of the protagonist, and dwell on endings. Never sure of a good exercise for endings, so I looked up endings in this very blog, wondering what I have said before. Lo and behold it was this very week one year ago that I wrote about endings! How enthusiastic I sound, and it reminds me that the class I planned did work well. If you need endings ideas, go there.

I'm also covering the Trickster archetype, and will repeat the risky venture I took last year, using play-dough for a lively funny exercise. Trickster loosens things up!

Meanwhile, here is something from the day-by-day calender my sister the artist makes for family and friends every year. At this moment it strikes home:

Birds don't brag about flying.
They don't write books about it
and then give workshops,
they don't take on disciples and
spoil their own air time. -- Tukaram

That old writing/teaching pull. I think it is time for me to write.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Commas and creativity

Hey! It is Adult Learners' Week! See http://www.niace.org.uk for info. I should have told you weeks ago.

A challenge this week, and one that arises in just about every creative writing class -- commas. Okay, colons, semi-colons, run-on sentences, non-sentences and apostrophes, too. Mostly my adult students arrive with punctuation and grammar skills, but now and then someone gives me a good, or even excellent, piece of writing marred by flaws in basic language craft. What to do? How to help?

I'm intuitive at punc & grammar -- I guess I was taught right somewhere early on, plus I was raised reading The New Yorker, and my father was a journalist, my mother an avid reader. It's all to do with the rhythm of writing. I know how to do it, but I can't teach the rules. What's more, I don't want to; I'd rather create!

So when I get a good piece with commas randomly splashed about (or not), my copy editor's hand and mind can't resist a lightly pencilled correction. But I hate to give back work all speckled with these picky little marks. On the other hand... if a sentence doesn't make sense... well, it's not very creative if a writer interferes with his/her own clarity of communication, is it? Therefore, fab as a piece might be, it has got in the way of its own creativity. Of course I always feedback on all the good aspects of a piece of writing -- in bigger, stronger comments.

Can anyone out there recommend a super-duper punc & grammar book for creative writers? Fun, correct and NOT BORING? To my student who asked this week I am going to suggest the best I know of, including two evergreens:
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White; my copy is Allyn & Bacon, 1979, Massachusetts, but the orginal was 1935, with updates 1959, 1972. A slim and amazingly enjoyable read.
  • Fowler's Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press (regularly updated). A huge tome, very specific. The section on commas is enlightening, and there's everything else, from a to z.
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, Profile Books, 2003, London. Very entertaining, explains why things like commas got the way they are and gives entertaining guidelines, too. Was on the bestseller list for ages.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The jam-packedest writers' conference ever

Have you ever been to or heard of the Winchester Writers' Conference? I went for the first time a few years ago, drawn by its biggest, most wonderful plus -- in-person working editors and agents you can book for a short 1-to-1. Dates this year: 3-5 July 2009; sessions are limited and first come first served, so move quickly if that's what you want. But there's more!

The Saturday offers 5, yes five, 1-hour activities or lectures led by experienced speakers on your choice of a range of 60 subjects (I just stopped to count). Titles range from 'Writing for Children' to 'The Best Dialogue Exercise Ever' to 'Everything You Wanted to Ask an Agent' -- and more, more, more.

You can come Friday - Sunday (more stuff going on on Friday), or just Saturday, or there are even week-long workshops. Extra speakers, writing competitions, optional tour to Jane Austen's home, meals, student bar, friendly fellow writers and a room in student halls on the pleasant hilly University of Winchester campus are all part of the event, which is now in its 29th year. Winchester town itself is also worth a visit.

This year I am attending as a speaker, in the Special Subjects category: Sparking the Written Word: Especially for Teachers. In the section about speakers they have billed me with surname as Lee Kerr. Oh well, at least L and K are near each other in the alphabet, so I am not hard to find.

So do suggest this to your students (if appropriate) or yourself (ditto). Prices, booking etc: have a look at the site http://writersconference.co.uk/ and you can also send for the info in printed form. Maybe see you there!

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The passion of writing and teaching

Paperface commented on the last blog: about wanting to write... and wanting to teach writing? I must hasten to say it's not a job -- it's a life.

I think that writing and teaching each have at their hearts a generosity. Or maybe it's a compulsion to share. Paradoxically, it is selfish at the same time. Or I find it so. Because both are creative and need interiority and time, time away from people, in order to find the stuff... the what-you-want-to-say. I need journal-writing time, thinking time, researching time if it's that kind of thing, reading time, organising time, admin time, actual originating time, editing or going-out-to-teach time.

You're right, it sounds like a full time job. Good thing my husband is a creative person too -- we hole up in our corners and get on with our projects. However, none of the above pays much at all; hardly at all what a 'real job' pays. You've just got to love it, the life and the creative satisfaction.

Of course I left out another big important element: procrastination time! That's where teaching is so useful -- a class awaits, so that's a real deadline. And there's the lovely person-to-person engagement of direct communication -- an antidote to the shut-away time.

To all who wish they were novelists -- half your battle is done. The main secret is to WANT to write. The next is to actually write. That's what the teaching is about... leading the want into the do.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Stone Writing

I said stone, not stoned! Here is a stimulus exercise I love to teach.

Confession: if you have arrived at this blog from my Paxton Publishing Matrix website, it's the one I used on the termly 'sample inside' page. Okay, yah, saving my energies. But tune in next blogweek and you'll find something new. So, the exercise:

Just like collecting postcards to use in class, I love picking up stones or shells when out in nature. In fact, I can't resist -- it's not for teaching, it's for me. So, out walking or in a shop, collect a small boxful of semi-precious stones in their wondrous variety of colours, textures and patterns. You can add stripey, sparkly or textured stones picked up at the seashore and rocky streams. Or run a variation on this, using seashells.

Find a good container, say of rattan or woven grasses for an elemental feel, or of velvet or lacquer, associating with valuable treasures. Proffer the container, letting students choose one of nature’s objects, then contemplate, bubble and write for 10 minutes -- whatever comes to mind.

This usually brings excellent freewheeling results, but some other time you can prompt them if you wish, for instance:

  • Where has this been?

  • What does your stone remind you of?

  • Who found, or who treasures this natural item, and why?

  • If it could talk (or if it had a smell, or if it was once a person)

And now for good news: my Hero's Journey/Writer's Journey class has made healthy numbers in the great enrolment gamble, so ho for a new cohort of heroes starting this week.

Winchester Writer's Conference 3-5 July 2009, and I have a lecture slot. Here's the link, more on it next time.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Planning forward

I had an unusual and wonderful class experience this week, turning up to my group of experienced writers with NOTHING PLANNED. That's because the agenda was: what next?

This is the NIAMO (Novel-in-a-Month) class which ended before Christmas. Nine participants wrote a total of 215,545 words (every word counts!). We are hooked on this addictive practice. A fascinating session of sharing and discussing our aftermaths, self-crits (not toooo harsh) and hopes.

When I floated the idea of a gentle reading out session the response was uncomfortable silence; I do not disagree... there is a wrong time to read out and get feedback (workshopping). Mid-precious-flow is the wrong time.

We want to continue that writing flow... but finding 30 days this time of year is hard. Mutual solution: monthly 'sustenance' sessions of the NIAMO 15-minute group writing experience to get us through to a full 5-week course in the autumn. We couldn't end without writing however -- one 15-minute bash provided the flow-feeling-fix.

Breaktime, folks! Have a good Easter holiday, I'll be back to this blog weekly about 20th April -- as I find out if my Hero's Journey/Writer's Journey class has made its numbers and will run.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Stuckness Prompts - part 2

And here's the other half of the '8 Days a Week' which I began last week; see the explanation there:

  • Your character takes a dislike to someone.
  • Dinner last night.
  • Your character tells a lie.
  • Write into your created world something that happened in your own life this week.
  • Your character chooses something that reveals something new about himself/herself.
  • Your character assesses how she/he looks.

Yes, I know I said the other half. So there should only be four prompts -- consider this your lucky day: a bonus!

This week my deadline pressure is an essay for the Jung course I am taking; working title, 'Jung and the Hope of Art'.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Stuckness Prompts

Lo and behold, following my blog appeal late last week, Moira reached me! [hi, Moira] So I was able to supply her the promised Stuckness Prompts from the 26 Nov blog entry. Still doing penance for having missed those comments, I continue with stuckness this week, so nobody has to ask -- here it is in the blog.

I created '8 Days a Week' for my class who were deep into their own pieces. The writers were in completely individual worlds and stages of their work in hand, and by the 'rules' of novel-in-a-month method should have been writing every day. They should have overcome the blank page freeze syndrome for themselves, as part of the experience, but I softened and provided this emergency escape. The report back from the writers proved this a worthy invention.

It is an envelope for each writer containing 8 slips of paper -- each envelope bearing the student-writer's name. Each slip has a starting phrase or situation, very simple and sketchy to allow for the variables in their work -- I printed out the sheet of them and cut into slips. Each writer got the same slips... but might have drawn them out in any order, and NOT every day. Instructions: to be used Only for Stuckness.

  • The phone rings.
    (If yours is a period world, then There’s a banging at the door.)
  • Your character is bothered by a dream he/she had last night.
  • Everytime it rained she…
    (Everytime it rains he…)
  • Something reminds your character of her/his mother.

Cheat! I will supply the other four next week. Because right now I have to continue my task as editor of the British Haiku Society quarterly newsletter, the brief. Eeeek, on deadline.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Desperately seeking nellie & moira & bryan

Three kind blog-readers posted comments back in January, and I have only now seen them! I thought I'd taken care of my change to new pc, new server, new email address for my blog, but seems it didn't penetrate all the layers.

So I never got the alert and didn't look back to see the comments. Very sorry!! Bryan said re 11 December he's a Nanowrimo veteran and he likes a teacher sharing the journey...

But especially nellie and moira, in January, commented on Writing Students Demand Homework (26 Nov 2008 blog) and asked for the Homework sheet choices and Stuckness prompts I offered.

But now I reveal my total pooterishness -- I cannot figure out how to reach them. So I hope you are looking at this dear bloggees (is that a word?). For them, and for anyone else, the best way to reach me, so that I can reach back to you, is to go direct to my Matrix book Paxton Publishing website, from where there are direct email routes to me. Also, I suppose, by asking you to go to this trouble it shows that you really really do want to get in touch. Or else you can instruct me on blogspot procedurals! Humble apologies.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Sweetie Jar Exercise

I promised creativity after last week's tutor admin topic, so take a word, any word. Or take about a hundred words. Here are a few from the big list in Creative Writing: the Matrix (Exercise 20: Word Box):
  • additives
  • ballerinas
  • cable
  • diplomas
  • eagle
  • ... zip

Tutor's preparation part is to type, print out and cut up into one-word slips of paper. Fold once or twice and put them in a great big sweetie jar or kitchen canister. Looks especially intriguing if you print out on sheets of different coloured paper.

The fun part -- each student pulls one from the jar, then has to write for 10-15 minutes. You can leave it as freewriting or direct further as to fiction (story, character, dialogue...), feature, whatever.

My favourite solution to the moanie ones who hate the word or feel stuck -- MUST stay with your drawn slip, but instead write:

  • why you hate it/feel stuck, what bothers you
  • about the opposite
  • about anything it makes you think of, any tangent

Try to get those word slips re-deposited in the jar and this makes an ever re-cyclable exercise, that bit of stimulus in your tutor bag of tricks to use whenever needed.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

What is the meaning of lifelong learning?

The above question headed a Guardian article on September 9th 2008 and I'm very sorry I didn't tell you about it at the time. If you want to keep teaching in adult education you need to keep at least a bit au fait with the (drastic) things happening in that sector. Spending, budgets et cetera... not very creative but it does affect us teachers of creativity.

That article announced the formation of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (Call), a banding together of bodies (stakeholders, if you use that kind of language) to lobby and pressure politicians re lifelong learning. It could be that U3A (University of the 3rd Age) is what/who we all come to rely on for providing what's called informal adult educaton.

If you are that way inclined, for an update see

For a more recent Guardian article on further education for older adults, see

These nifty shortcuts to news-right-up-our-alley come to me via the Instititute for Learning http://www.ifl.ac.uk They send a quarterly e-newsletter with news digest links; IfL is also 'our' body for official registration as a teacher in further education.

Frankly (my dear) politicking is not my thing, so if you want even more directly writers-who-teach-creatively news and conferences etc don't forget the National Association for Writers in Education
http://www.nawe.co.uk You can even list yourself on offer to go into schools etc. NAWE addresses creative writing teachers going into schools, universities and community (which includes further education).

End of commercial. I see my private writing coachee tomorrow. Next week I will be more creative, less administrative.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Senstive Flowers & Other Pitfalls

Sensitive flowers & Other Pitfalls, that was my alternative pitch for the Winchester Writers Conference session giving support to teachers of creative writing. Along with Pitching Your Creative Writing Course.

What do I mean by Sensitive Flowers? For the main thing, students whom you must be tuned to, those you quickly discern (or I do, anyway) who have had a bumpy mental or emotional ride. This may show in the subject matter of their writing, or in the quality of their writing or attitude towards writing. Unless you are trained in counselling and running a writing-as-therapy class, be gentle and tolerant, and don't go too deep in helping or criticising.

Others in the flower bed include the blocked student, the fearful gadfly, the introverts... what they are and what to do? To be continued...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Pitching Your Creative Writing Course?

What do creative writing tutors want? I have just finagled a chance at a slot at the Winchester Writers Conference in July 2009 in support of my Matrix book. Here's your chance to tell me what you'd like to spend a 2 hour session on. The market is lots and lots of wannabe and currently published writers -- if you don't know the Conference, it is a festival of loads of workshops, plus chances to meet agents and name authors. So... some of them might want to teach, and some already are teaching.

I'm thinking of: Pitching Your Creative Writing Course. Does that appeal as a title? Now must drum up 25 word blurb.

New topic: here's a lead if you have a degree and want to do one-to-one teaching. This topclass outfit has need for tutors in all subjects, all over the UK. The students are mainly secondary school age; some degree level too. Have a look http://www.fleet-tutors.co.uk

Got to dash now -- off to improve my knowledge of Chiswick House where I am a volunteer guide. Hello, Palladio.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Share the goodies

Tis the season... to turn your students on to the joys of the residential writing experience.

Arvon and Ty Newydd are the two main organisations (that I know of -- please tell me of others!) that run weekend or 5-day courses, deep in the countryside. They've recently released their 2009 programmes: inspiring reading.

Of course YOU've probably been on and/or know of these. I'm always surprised when an aspiring writer has never heard of them. But then... once it was new to me too. My first go was Arvon in Lumb Bank, near Heptonstall -- ah yes, the pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath's grave, the chill and the rain, and most of all -- the company of poets! And leadership of real published poets -- Anne Stevenson and Fred D'Aguiar it was.

What a confirmation of being 'a real writer' the residential is. I also tell students that it is an excellent way to get to know the real world of getting published, and to make contacts in that world. And I do caution them -- though you'll have an inspiring time, don't expect to get a lot of writing done. It's more for stimulation than retreat.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Glastig and what she did

I substituted for my over-committted (a film script meeting!) teaching buddy again. Decided to KISS (keep it simple, stupid) after my last ad hoc was too complex for me to get across quickly. (see blog of 11/05/08)

Monsters and Fabulous Creatures was the subject. Using definitions from the Wordsworth Word Finder, a reference book I've had for years, a treasure trove of unusual and technically precise words arranged under categories.

Within an hour we had tall tales, a bizarre news report, strange experiences and -- transposing the stimulus -- a character sketch. The 'sharing the journey' issue came up (see blog of 11/12/08), so, yes, when asked, I read out what I'd done, and here it is. Just in time for Burns' Night.

The Glastig
How did I get here?
Winding roads, wrong turns,
my arthritis playing up and then
– the right way! She was so kind
and Celtic. That porcelain skin,
the dusting of freckles,
the lilt in her soft voice, och ay!

How did I get here?
Bloody hell, ten miles wrong,
my rucksack strap broken, blister
on my heel. She was so kind,
dressed in green, a local for sure.
When I looked back I saw her leap
up to a rock. Her laughter bleated.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Teaching aids

Happy New Term. Some started last week, some this, some next... and this time of year we all need new juice. So stock up on art postcards for class materials! There's time to catch exhibitions that close mid-January... and to recce the new openings due late Jan/early Feb. Some I've just seen in London:

The National Gallery's Renaissance Faces -- so many character beginnings you can make from a good face. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/renaissancefaces/default.htm

The Royal Academy's Byzantium -- it has numerous fantastical animals; I have one exercise where I get people to make up a beast's name and invent its habits, history and lore. This can turn into a poem or a tale. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/byzantium/

I have just discovered the Pangolin Gallery at the new King's Place, near King's Cross -- its current small sterling silver sculptures are rife with story if you set an exercise with that end in mind. http://www.pangolinlondon.com/

So build up your collection of inspiring postcards and treat yourself and your students to some new stimulus. If you are a truly free freelance tutor, some of the purchase expenses may be tax deductable (check this with your accountant or tax inspector). As well as buying art postcards you can cut out pics from brochures and paste them on index cards. (Or from websites, but it is more soul-and-creative feeding to go out to galleries). Happy new writing!