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.

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