Young Writers Day – Western Sydney University promoting stories of identity and place

It was a cool and windy morning when I set out from Moss Vale with four Year 10 students. Our journey was just an hour up the Hume Highway to the Western Sydney University Campbelltown Campus for the Young Writers’ Day. This free and fully catered event began in 2010 in collaboration with Macarthur Anglican School.

There was a little forced chit chat in the car, but I took my intuitive choice at the roundabout that led us directly to Building 21 as a positive sign. With snacks and refreshments on arrival, and a smooth registration process, we took a position between the coffee station and bench space to check out our show bags and confirm workshop sessions.
People watching and uniform appraisal is a time honoured activity at student events; snap judgements with good natured comments often leads to an agreement that our uniform is best. The limit of ten Year 10 or 11 students per school from the greater western Sydney region means this is a different mix from the typical HSC revision lecture days.

Winnie Dunn delivered the keynote Eshayz – Writing Western Sydney Literature in a measured and authoritative tone as a Tongan- Australian writer from Mt Druitt. From an adolescent writing of fanfiction drawing on her knowledge of Twilight and One Direction, Winnie explored the myth of the single story that people of brown skin in western Sydney are subjected to when growing up. After playing a clip from Summer Heights High that focused on Jonah, and listening to the audience’s laughter, we were reminded of the historical naturalizing process of a white person performing in ‘brown or black face’. This was a confronting revelation for some students.

                                               Winnie Dunn, Sydney Writers Festival

Good writing is about understanding language, genre and form, as well as knowing how to own our stories (eshayz!) because Western Sydney has so many spaces and voices that can enrich Australian literature.

The appeal to ‘write what you know’ was powerfully supported with a clear political purpose: young people of western Sydney have an opportunity to change single narratives of place and identitiy. I was intrigued to hear Winnie express reticent to identify as a writer despite her publication history and position as manager and editor at Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.

My students had largely chosen different workshops and teachers are not required to be present, so I was left to choose ‘Locating Unusual Narratives’ with Lilly Blue – visual artist and educator with a background in physical performance, installation and community arts. This proved to be an emotional and rewarding experience of playful moments and intense writing.

We began by sitting in a circle on the floor and offering our thoughts and ideas on the keynote presentation. I was the only teacher among 9 students. Warm and welcoming, Lilly instructed us to take up our note books and walk around the room to write a list of nouns – what could we see? Our lists were confined to the left hand side of the page:

smudged perspex

white wall

pale green cushions

maroon background

red office chair

We then regrouped on the floor and completed sentences across the page, writing rapidly without too much thought:

smudged perspex of a whiteboard lining the northern

white wall and holds remnants of past thoughts.

pale green cushions are shaped from the past inhabitants and are inviting yet sized for all.

maroon background is pale within the harsh lighting and waiting for its own illumination.

Back at out group tables, and thinking about ‘writing’ we wrote on strips of paper as Lilly provided individual prompts:

  • Three words to describe how we feel about writing
  • A simile
  • If writing were an element of weather
  • A metaphor for the act of writing – try to push this deeper, rather than the first metaphor that we thought of
  • One word to represent writing itself

We then worked with a partner, or in small groups, to discuss and create one poem using our slips. Melissa and I had both started with the word ‘fun’ which became an obvious opening:

After sharing our poems, loosened up with a walk around game of scissors-paper-rock before we began a series of automatic writing exercises, each designed to take us further into our unconscious to reveal a deeper understanding of our identity. We wrote without stopping or thinking for 10 minutes to the prompt ‘who are you?’ When finished, we read back and circled words, phrases or ideas that were surprising or interesting, then write a few words to represent the main theme that seemed to be emerging.

Next, we could continue this stream of thought, but we were instructed to write as if we were whispering. How might that look on the page? Small letters? I found myself lightly writing between the lines which had an unexpected impact on where my writing began to head in these 4 minutes.

In contrast, our next exercise was to, again continue these thoughts or begin afresh, write in sentences that ended with an exclamation mark! Every single sentence! Near the end of this 4 minutes, we were told our final sentence was to be in CAPITALS! This produced another unexpected impression on my writing.

To finish this cycle of automatic writing, we wrote a memo or brief letter to one person. I found this to be an effective way to close this series of deeply emotional moments. We re-gathered on the floor to share our reflections on this process. Many students nodded as others spoke about the unexpected ideas that arrived on their page. I found that I was able to explore one situation from many angles and acknowledge its ongoing emotional impact. Lilly suggested that this process may be one to adapt and adopt on a regular basis to supply different writing ideas – I wholeheartedly agree.

Stepping back from that discussion, we returned to our tables and finished the session with individual and shared drawing. Each of us were challenged, step by step, to make a graphite mark on a blank page that represented:

  • a whisper
  • anger
  • ecstacy
  • terror
  • shy
  • lost
  • forgiving

Turning the page over, we made a mark then passed the paper to our left. Each time we received a page, we made a mark. If the marks began to resemble a known or identifiable shape, we were to make a mark that returned the work to abstraction. Our final activity was to jot down the key ‘take home’ messages from the 1 ½ session. I decided that:

free writing goes deeper through tone or style or punctuation

 

pencils and lines are an effective warm up OR cooling down and closing

the deep, personal work of writing

 

why did I start with ‘fun’?

The afternoon session, billed as the Teacher Workshop, was delivered by the passionate and widely published Deborah Abela in a non-stop, rapid fire urgency of student activities supported by clear explanations. Given that the presentation was largely covered in close detail by the 20 page handout, I would have really appreciated a break to process my morning’s writing. This session fell just short of 2 hours – we wouldn’t expect our students to work effectively for this length of time without a break, or chance to collaborate with peers.

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