Sunday, 24 October 2010

Creative stimulus

So I have been talking about cross-discipline (cross-media) as a help in creative writing. And I promised some in-the-classroom ideas.

- Feel Free Joy, exercise 86 in Creative Writing: the Matrix, is about getting loads of felt-tip pens, crayons, chalks, and horizontal blank A4 paper (the better for lateral non-thinking) and telling people to just make marks on paper. Just let go, choose whatever colours appeal, change colours and textures, don't make pictures or specifics... It is fantastically fun and freeing... which is how we wish we felt more often when writing.

And if you have the sour-puss student who insists on a reason for doing this (usually because he/she feels inhibited or threatened?): even just doing this is loosening and stimulating. Sometimes we forget to have fun.

- Creativity Doll, from Julia Cameron's The Vein of Gold (1997 ed, Pan Books) pp 127-135. A colleague of mine had a hugely successful Saturday class doing this. She brought, and had students bring in, all sorts of oddments of fabric, buttons, trimmings, wire, string, nuts & bolts, shells, sticks, rocks, wood, old jewellery, magazines et cetera. The idea is to make a 'doll' (or thing) about the lack or the wish or the missing piece or frustration or ideal or hope of creativity (Cameron also suggests a Creativity Monster, about all the negatives). People get engaged, relaxed, have fun, find new energies... and usually discover some new aspect of themselves.

- Instant Productive Crumpled Chaos, requires absolutely no props, except a half-sheet of blank paper (or two). This isn't crossing media actually, but it gives an element of anarchy and urgency that gets results, and fun. Each person writes a word on the blank piece of paper, an object. Crumple up the paper and chuck it onto the floor in the middle of the room (if an open square), or into a basket/bin/bag. [but the tossing onto the floor is the anarchic, loosening part]. Everyone gets up and draws one out. You can repeats this: on another piece of paper, write a first name. Crumple and retrieve again. [If you have two different colours of paper to distribute, then you can do this all in one go.]

Then everyone has a word, or a word and a name and -- write for 5-10 minutes on it! See what you get. Forcing together a name and an object usually brings about the start of a story. Or try two objects. Or... well, you get it.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Using different creativities to help writing

So I promised (last entry) to say what papier mache taught me about writing. Two main things: trust and patience. Or maybe they combine to make one thing.

First of all, this kind of sculptural papier mache starts with a wire armature -- a stiff bit (or bits) of wire you shape into a simple sketch or line or stick-figure of the intended creation. A standing man, a sitting dog, a dancing rabbit... whatever.

Next, without going into too much detail here, you wrap the wire tightly with newspaper, then scrunch up newspaper and begin to build up the legs, arms, body, head... At first you use some masking tape to hold the scrunches in place, but soon you use strips of newspaper that you have covered with (special recipe) flour and water paste. Yum, that's the start of the icky, sticky, gooey malleable stage. You go on and cover the limbs/shapes with a layer of short torn strips of pasted newspaper.

Then -- you have to wait. Because it has to dry before you can add another layer, or another scrunch or three to fill out or improve the shape in places. In fact, you have to let it dry several times over this stage. (If you don't let it dry it will become a damp, mouldy, smelly lump.)

So where's the writing bit? About the time I was working on my third piece I realised that I had learned to trust the process. To be patient with the work -- AND WITH MYSELF. And I realised I had not been doing this with my fiction writing. So, step by above step:

The armature, the simple wire shape, is the backbone, the centre from which the piece will grow. It is a vague, vague outline of the end result. It comes after an idea or 'vision' (an idea of an idea), which may have some specifics but not many -- it is felt or seen rather than thought.

So -- a haiku; the vision or feeling or urge to capture something comes... the shape (the wire armature) is a given (usually) 3 lines. Or -- the story of my great grandfather Ephraim's life; I had the urge, need, to write it, but didn't until (after YEARS of trying) I broke through and settled for chronological 3rd person telling (the armature). Yes, this is structure -- but believe me, in both papier mache and my creativity it is not structure planned and thought out in detail. It is an idea of form, loose, open... but enough to be the start of a direction.

But the most useful lesson came in the waiting that the papier mache process imposed on me. No matter how perfect I want it to be, or how fast I want to it to progress, or how bad it looks right now -- I have to wait. Wait until it dries and I can continue (1-2 days). When I come back to it -- oh, hey, it's not so bad. Or oh, yuk, it is bad... but if I put a bit here and a bit there... etc. In other words it kyboshed my fear of imperfection. It made me trust that I can, and will, make it better. By doing it with less impatience, by accepting that for now, it is a mess. Some part of me knows where it is going, knows it will take time -- I manage to turn my chattery self-critical head off and just scrunch and paste... or write a paragraph, scene or page that probably isn't perfect, but at least it is going forward.

A final thing (for now) about the sculptural papier mache process: you can get out your Stanley knife and cut off the head! Or the tail, or the biceps or whatever part just isn't working. The dried paper-and-paste is easy to cut away and to patch over or rebuild. So liberating! And this is like cutting and shaping my writing -- yup, that paragraph has to go, actually, that whole passage is much too fussy and detailed, aha, if I move that last sentence down then I can put in an essential bit without ruining the flow et cetera.

Once again this is long-ish, and Downton Abbey is about to start, but I promised to relate this to your classes, because the point of this blog is not ego-tripping but being USEFUL. I can think of one thing, but will take too much space tonight. So how about just airing this with your students -- do they do other arts, music, dance, sport, where the emphasis is on just doing? And possibly discuss this quote from Paul Cezanne: If I think, everything is lost.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Poetry & TV, prose & papier mache

Did you watch The Song of Lunch on BBC2 last weekend? Do poetry and television drama work together? The poem by Christopher Reid presented the meeting of a pair of former lovers on a lunch date from the point of view of the (sad, sorry for himself and eventually drunken) man in an interior monologue. So there, for me, is an example of crossing disciplines (or media) that did not work. Much of it did just what we have to drum into the heads of our writers NOT to do -- it told what we could see for ourselves. Sometimes it told, and then showed the same thing. Sometimes showed and then told. So... it was slow and frustrating and un-engaging and gave me too much time to dislike the narrator character.

Oh well, it did give me new insights into what I do want in drama. And in what not to do with poetry, or at least with this particular poem in this particular way (however, the photography was excellent and Emma Thompson looked wonderful). You could think of talking to your students about this kind of artistic experience -- sometimes it can be easier to appreciate the craft of creating via something that is flawed: what's wrong with it and why? Also, allowing for debate: some people may have loved The Song of Lunch!

But I bring up this crossing of disciplines because I wanted to share another cross, one that I have found useful, much to my surprise. I took up sculptural papier mache three years ago -- that is, not kiddy-stuff masks and bowls, but wire-armatured figures (though anything goes among this marvellous group of artists). I wanted a different creative outlet, a WORDLESS, PUL-EEZE!, creativity. And gradually, as I learned it and loved it, I found it helped my writing. Because the work demonstrated to me the patience and confidence I did not have in my writing.

Hmmm, I can sense that this blog entry is going to go on far too long if I begin now to tell you what papier mache taught me about writing -- so I will make you wait until next week. I will also link it to the classroom so that it can be of direct use to you. I promise, the benefit is NOT making use of one's crumpled-up and abandoned writing drafts as papier with which to mache!

Just for fun, some of my story-figures are on my site if you want to see. A good website for a worldwide gallery of creative papier mache is

Friday, 1 October 2010

A fabulous first class

Hurrah for Helen! In a posting to my 13 September blog she added a description of her first class of the term. It's down there in the comments attached to 'The required number of students' entry, but so full of good sense and good ideas and the joys of teaching creative writing that I'm putting her comments right here in this entry -- inspiration for all of us. So thank you, Helen.

"I wasn't sure how it would work but I decided to follow your book's advice and gave them all a questionnaire to fill in and writing magazines to flick through while we got through the chaos of enrolment and late arrivals! Then, as you suggest, I asked them to bring their completed questionnaire up to me and I 'rewarded' them with a little chat and wrote their name on a name 'tent' for their desk. It worked really well! And definitely helped me remember everyone's name and 'welcome' them all individually.

"Then I did a couple of exercises that I've done myself - as a student and trainee on a PTTLS course this summer. Firstly, I asked each person to say their name and to tell the group something they wished they were brave enough to do. We had everything from 'have a baby' to 'bungee jump' or 'ride across America'. I told them that, through Creative Writing, they could do all those things! (bit cheesy but it got their attention)

"Then, in groups of 4, I asked them to discuss their 'expectations and concerns' for the course. I find -perhaps you do too [YES] - that people come to Creative Writing courses with all kinds of misconceptions about what it is and what it can do for them. Getting someone from each 'team' to present their comments to the whole class - and allowing me to respond where appropriate - meant that we covered lots of ground in an interactive way (not just me lecturing!) AND I was able to reassure them and answer queries. I also got across an important point: the best way to learn is to WRITE! I also found myself explaining my own 'expectations and concerns' for the course (which I hadn't expected to do!). By coffee break (and we did some wrting after that), the group was already gelling, laughing and chatting to each other. Definitely the best 'first night' I've ever had!"

Sounds ideal, Helen, thank you so much for this. Great use of small groups; I too love them as a way to air lots of material, to give everyone a voice (and some friends) and to not be 'Ms Teacher' talking at them. Your class next week is bound to be just as much fun, as the students are all warmed and raring to go.