Thursday, 23 September 2010

Using a class text

I have never been to a creative writing class that used a book or story which we all read in common, but I instituted this practice in my long-running courses. Interesting, isn't it, that poetry-writing tutors often start off a session by looking at a published poem or two, before moving on to exercises. And screen script-writing courses often look at bits of films, yet prose classes don't generally.

So I wanted to revive this practice for my class -- what did I choose? And why? In talking about characters, character development, plot and archetypes I often refer to films. To books, too, but it is easier to find a film seen by many than a book read by many -- usually I call on famous movies like Gone with the Wind, Star Wars, Lion King. But even those have never been seen by 100% of a class. I also call on famous tales, like Peter Rabbit and Red Riding Hood. If if were a longer course I would have us all watch a film or read a book together. But it's not.

I chose Liver, a short story by Louis de Bernieres, published in New Writing 5, eds C Hope and P Porter, Vintage in Assn with the British Council, London, 1996. It's ten pages, a bit over 3,000 words. According to the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA), if working at a recognised educational institution we can photocopy a short story or poem of not more than ten pages from an anthology without permission so long as it is only for instruction.

But anyway, as I was saying -- why this? Well, some of the stories were longer, too long for the class time we have. And many were subtle and literary -- not clear demonstrations of the points I wanted to make. And quite a view featured raunchy language, sex or violence (being contemporary) which, again for time reasons in this 5 week course, I did not want to bring into the class room.

You can use a given text to talk about voice, pace, description, point of view, whatever! I wanted to talk about the Hero (main character)... he has a daily life and worries (domestic chores for his wife) and then a challenge, a call to action (so now this is about structure and archetype). He has a Shadow, someone to conquer (his wife), a Mentor (nice man who runs the laundrette), Allies (West Indian ladies at the laundrette) -- so all of these are about characters/characterisation, also about setting and the Special World (laundrette and Turkish restaurant).

It is a comic, or even blackly comic, story of sweet (if deathly) revenge, so of course it does not exactly fit the Hero's Journey pattern. But enough of the elements are there to prove to students that the archetypal energies and patterns occur in every story.

And here is your let-out clause: if a story does not entirely bear out the point you are trying to make, it is a learning point. Why doesn't it fit the 'rules'? If it still works anyway, how did the writer make it work? Writing is never writing by numbers, and creativity is infinite.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The required number of students

Argh! It has happened -- today I lost the brinkmanship game of adult education, for this term. The enrolments for it last week were at 50% of the required number. Today, Monday, it's the same -- sigh! My Line Manager rang with the news, and the choice: delay the course by 2-3 weeks, or put it off to a new start of term in January.

What would you do? The already-enrolled may not be able to do either delay. But then again they might. I'm geared up to teach... but can gear down.

A main problem -- the course is listed in print prospectus as November start. This could be a reason for low enrolment, but then the website was corrected early-on.

Manager says lots of enrolments are low, lots of classes closed or delayed. If we delay mine and my numbers still aren't made, it will still have to close, and the original enrolling students will have been mucked about twice.

My decision: January start. College will offer this, maybe we will carry through those already enrolled. ADVANTAGE: we can catch any print-prospectus customers who try to enrol for the (erroneous) November dates and direct them to enrol for January. AND the College, if running this and other courses as new listings, will be giving January courses an extra promotional boost.

Speaking of promotion, this is what I will do in December which I did not get round to doing in August -- see my blog on that under Promoting Your Course.

Meanwhile, per last week's prep, I did decide on a short story to use as illustration of character and structure. But I will make you wait til next week to learn which one.

Friday, 3 September 2010


Hello, creative ones. We are back in the back-to-school saddle. My first class isn't til 16th Sept. because this year, in these hard times, my college is running a promotional 'taster' week. I wasn't invited to offer a tasting, nor were any other creative writing courses, but anything that gets people through the doors might bring want-to-writers our way.

If you need them, find tips and ideas for start-of-term introductions and exercises by calling up the labels on this blog -- like 'starting term' and 'start of term': 4 entries altogether, what more can I say? (I can say buy the book; also can say, I put this term's new excerpt of exercise and tutor support tip on the book's website

As an old hand, having taught this course in various versions for several years (Creative Writing: Hero's Journey/Writer's Journey) I won't re-organise my notebook and review my first session plan until 2 days before, so that I am sharpened and energized by the slight adrenalin of performance anxiety. However I have decided to add an element to the course -- one must ever be tweaking in order to keep fresh.

In describing archetypes I tend to talk about films in this course, as well as novels, as there is more of a concensus of those who have seen or at least know the story of some popular movies. But it is a prose narrative writing course not scriptwriting. It's only 5 weeks long, we haven't time to read a novel nor view a whole film nor do people have the commitment to watch a given film as homework (I've tried, but nope).

So I am going to find a short story and photocopy it (one is allowed to, for teaching purposes) so we are all on one hymn sheet. I have several volumes of the excellent annual New Writing anthology sponsored by the British Council (is it still published? I must check), in which I found many good stories to study with my Writers at Work class. I have to find one that illustrates the hero's journey quest structure and (given that it is a short story, not film or novel) some of the key character archetypes. I will let you know what I choose -- and welcome your suggestions.

PS I have added pictures of some of my more recent sculptural papier mache fantasy figures to my Susan Lee Kerr 'holding' blog page. Take a peek