This year, two teachers accompanied six students in two cars for the hour long journey up the Hume Highway to the Campbelltown Campus of the University of Western Sydney. An easy drive, will minimal conversation, delivered us to the parking lot next to Building 21. We gathered for a showbag inspection before entering the auditorium and settling into good seats for the opening speaker.
After figuring out how to use their attached writing desks typical in a uni lecture theatre, all but mine were packed away. I wanted to take notes, you see, whereas others just wanted to listen.
Keynote speaker for this year’s Young Writers’ Day was Shirley Le from Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement who declared that young writers should ‘take back the power from those using it recklessly’.
we cannot begin to talk about freedom and justice in any culture it we’re not talking about mass based literacy movements. because degrees of literacy determine so often how we see what we see.
Shirley spoke passionately about the danger of a single story representing all experiences. This is particularly relevant to western Sydney where many cultures are often reduced to stereotypes, or representations delivered by the media. When Shirley was growing up in Yagoona, it was a common perception that the west was a criminal enclave – particularly Cabramatta and the local Vietnamese community. She shared this clip from 2000:
This dominant narrative showed outsiders images and footage of heavily armed police and crime as everyday occurrences associated with ethnicity. Around the same time, Pauline Hansen made her ‘maiden’ speech in federal parliament:
As Shirley suggested, there is no need to watch the full speech as it quickly apparent how language is used to dominate the conversation about people of colour in our society. The reality of living in a loving community that did not match the popular media portrayal drove Shirley forward as a young writer.
Shirley was accepted to study at Sydney Girl’s High, an academically selective state school, and related comments from the then principal at the welcome assembly for new students. A blonde woman dressed in a pink power suit congratulated the girls: you’re the cream of the crop and won’t end up working in a sandwich shop. Whilst acknowledging the intent to have been empowering, it left Shirley wondering about the reality of her family life and how she might fit into this learning environment.
After many false starts, including writing what was expected of her (in terms of heritage – boat people stories) she found herself working on SBS Radio, something she saw as a post-uni job, yet became a wonderful experience of meeting people and hearing different voices. Shirley also discussed the influence of bell hooks and the process of ‘coming to voice or moving from silence into speech as a revolutionary gesture’. Shirley finished her powerful keynote with this compelling statement: the myth of a model minority is toxic.
Read an interview by SBS Vietnamese from earlier this year when Shirley was the only Australian-Vietnamese author at the Sydney Writers Festival.
Teacher Workshops – Teaching Stage 6 Creative Writing
Morning Session: Dr Felicity Plunkett: The Critical/Creative Connection
The outline for this session
Activities and resources … model an approach to creative writing focusing on the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing, as underpins the composing (including the reflection and independent investigation central to English Extension 2), the ‘reading, reflection [and] … imaginative re-creation ‘ of Reading to Write. Modelling an array of textual practices and possibilities, the approach fosters deep imaginative and analytical engagement with texts. Specific strategies for mentoring and guiding student writers through the processes of drafting and developing work will be provided, empowering teachers in creating sophisticated texts inspired by a critical reading practice.
did not disappoint. Felicity began by suggesting that the sense of reciprocity between critical and creative writing, and reflection ‘that wraps around all this’. As the new syllabus Stage 6 exam samples are as yet unknown, this offers a good opportunity for students to engage, write, critique and reflect rather than memorise an imaginative response – an authentic response. This approach to writing should be regular and fully integrated with the strong urging for students to follow Stephen King’s advice to ‘read a lot’ and ‘write a lot’.
She suggested some questions to ponder: what parts of creative writing are teachable? and how do we evaluate the end product?
1. The Power and Practice of the Warm-up
Felicity explained the need for a warm-up before writing as this helps us ‘get past the anxiety’ and has been shown through research to actually work. Virginia Woolf thought it ‘loosens the ligaments’ and many writers have their own warm-up practice; it is a mainstay of my own writing pedagogy. Warm-ups can stand alone or be linked to a lesson.
We trialled a few warm-ups: some may be familiar, some could be adapted, but all are fun.
- 6 word memoirs: these can use words only, or images, or be a response to the many different examples available online. I like the American ABC’s Fresh off the Boat project – imagine the stories your students might create …
- Twenty uses for … as a list, as a race – we tend to say that creative writing is not a competition: consider this counter intuitive activity with no instructions. Once students realise this is a creative activity, the ideas can become really weird and wacky. In the generous follow- up discussion, begin with sharing ideas and asking ‘who had _______ on their list? where was that on your list? What is on your list that no-one else will have? what did you have to do to get to the more interesting ideas? Students realise some ideas are very commonplace, but this game gives them confidence to identify ideas as common, but also identify unique and creative ideas. For a future activity: take one common idea from your list and one unique idea – put these together for a story.
- Bob McKim’s thirty circles: students could fill each circle with something connected to a text. Perhaps provide some examples, but leave the door open for student’s creative response – it could be words, symbols, quotes, language features … whatever comes up.
- Two facts and a lie: write the numbers one to three in a list, then quickly write two facts and a lie. Share, discuss and try to identify the lie. I noticed that I began writing a much longer sentence for my lie, and reflected this could be a from of justifying or convincing someone. This is a good activity to consider fictionalising an event or situation, and an intuitive process: who has radar, or felt the ‘goosebump effect’ when they heard a statement? This could suggest a really interesting idea that is out of a writer’s comfort zone.
Other ideas can be found on the Faculty of Education (University of Cambridge) site Using games to establish a creative mood.
2. Textual Transformations
Felicity suggested that transforming a short text allows us to introduce a greater range of authors and text types in the classroom. Key terms when searching for examples are: flash fiction, microfiction, haiku, transformation, one-sentence story. You might start with Bath Flash Fiction, while a list of further flash fiction sites and resources can be found at the review review. Read the example aloud!
We considered the typical critical approach to ‘teaching a text’ where we might ask students to identify the theme and language features, yet much more can be accomplished by an initially creative response. Felicity read Amanda O’Callaghan’s award winning flash fiction from 2017:
Tying the Boats
A week after she married him, she cut her hair. the scissors made a hungry sound working their way through the curls.
“You cut your hair,” he said, when he came home. Nothing more.
She thought he might have said, “You cut off your beautiful hair,” but his mouth could not make the shape of beautiful, even then.
She kept the hair in a drawer. A great hank of it, bound together in two places with ribbon almost the same dark red. sometimes, when she was searching in the big oak chest that she brought from home, she’d see it stretched against the back of the drawer, flattened into the joinery like a sleek, cowering animal.
Once, she lifted it our, held it up to the light to catch the last of its fading lustre. She weighed it in her hands. the hair was thick, substantial, heavy as the ropes they’d used when she was a girl, tying the boats when storms were coming.
- make an even shorter short story: for example
She cut her hair.
His mouth could not make the shape of beautiful.
This opens up discussion on what elements are chosen and allows students to consider and discuss what they have chosen as important details form the story. this idea could then be applied to their own writing.
- Write a one sentence story that writes back to the story:
She tied herself back to herself, with a rope of her own hair.
This helps students identify motifs, and if they respond to other one sentence stories they are building confidence and sharing small successes. You might suggest students choose an important strand from the story and continue … often, they will intuitively follow the tense, sentence length, word choice/diction from the original. This makes for an important discussion point long before you would ordinarily begin to systematically pull the story apart according to the typical critical approach.
- line up the responses and check for commonalities or natural pairings: for Tying the Boats it might include ideas of mooring, storms, boats … another way for students to identify common and unique ideas or representations
3. Things to do with a Poem
Felicity believes that Tracy K Smith ‘does metaphor really well’. There is the usual, expected (and somewhat tedious) approach to teaching poetry which destroys enjoyment and reduces student agency.
Consider these activities based on Smith’s
The Good Life
When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
for the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.
- respond to the first line OR finish the first line OR drop a different metaphor into that scaffold: a creative response allows students ‘in’ through intuition, opening the poem up to see how it’s made.
When some people talk about money
they speak as if it were …
Share examples by reading aloud, and ask students to listen and note a language feature. Write these on the board and discuss – you will find these often cover the key ideas and techniques but in a more engaging way. Consider the poem’s patterning: images – metaphors, similes: sound (sonic) – rhythm, repetition, orchestration [try matching important words with a high impact instrument eg. word word word word cymbal word word word word]
- OR try starting with this activity blackout: find another poem within the poem. Students choose the most compelling words, or ask them to highlight the verbs, or adverbs – these often indicate the emotional pulse of a poem.
Read or listen to Tracy K Smith’s ‘Declaration‘ – a blackout poem created from the American Declaration of Independence.
- group shared response around a noticeable theme: write the first four shared on the board and ask if any seem to go together, or ask if someone has a similar or contrasting metaphor. Could these be used to extend an idea? As a new poem?
- feed the poem into an online cut-up machine: this is one version of ‘The Good Life’ from Language is a Virus. What interesting word combinations or new patterns emerge? Try this a few times …
4. Selected Short Text Forms and Examples
Felicity suggested several suitable authors for this form, such as Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Roland Barthes, Robert Macfarlane, as well as examples available at Axon Journal – several options came up when I simply searched using the words ‘lyric essay’. Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read or two. We had a brief look at an extract from Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown‘
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterwards either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
A haibun is where a haiku follows a prose extract and acts as a punctuation. It captures emotion, whereas prose can tend toward the descriptive. If students move between poetry and prose, their writing is likely to become more poetic. Here is an example we discussed by Zane Parks:
Dad was a navy pilot. During the Korean War, he served on an aircraft carrier. He did aerial reconnaissance. The planes for that had little or no armament. Fighters accompanied them for protection. Another pilot was sick and Dad’s best friend volunteered for the mission. When MIGs appeared he was intent on completing the assignment. One last photograph.
close up a gap.
This was a suggested exercise that we just didn’t have time for:
- Write a haiku to conclude a prose excerpt: Yiyun Li ‘All That Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairytale‘
If you were like me, you would know the obsession of the compulsive reader: every street sign; every bottle label; the newspaper wrapping the fish and dripping liquid; the soles of new shoes; decades-old slogans printed on abandoned houses; the daily expenses my father recorded in a notebook. ON a bus you would memorize the serial number and manufacturing date of the seat in front of you. In the hallway of the paediatrics department you would sneak to the registration desk and look at the names and ages printed on the medical records of all those coughing children. In third grade when I had measles and was quarantined for three weeks at home, I finished the Complete Manual of Barefoot Medics. It was published in 1969, a thick volume of eight hundred pages, with almost all the diseases possible or beyond imagination, with gruesome descriptions and even more gruesome illustrations. When you have measles you are not supposed to read or watch television (we didn’t have a set, in any case) or open the curtain to see the daylight: the eyes of a measles-afflicted child are easily destroyed if care is not taken. This last fact I read in the barefoot medic’s manual and understood through my own experience: my parents had taped a piece of fabric onto the bookshelf to keep all books unavailable, but they had left the medical manual at large, which was constantly used as a guide to my recovery. I lost my good eyesight after the measles; it’s one thing that’s been all the way downhill since then.
I hastily highlighted these words – diseases, coughing, quarrantined, gruesome, recovery – but didn’t manage to shape these into a haiku.
Afternoon Session – Dr Bernard Cohen
While Felicity offered a structured yet engaging workshop, Bernard had a different approach. As founder of The Writing Workshop, Bernard is a very experienced facilitator. Somehow, it felt as though he was much more comfortable working with children. His thoughtful manner could be taken for inexperience or a lack of confidence, but was more likely an attempt to reach consensus by talking his decisions about our activities ‘out aloud’. At the time this was less engaging (it had been a very intensely productive morning) yet was an effective model for students and their indecision or fear of failure when writing.
The abstract suggested the workshop was designed to:
enable and inspire teachers to use creative strategies for teaching characterisation, the creation of narrative voice and use of high-level imagery in creative writing.
We returned to the same classroom after lunch and were immediately invited outside into a gardened courtyard.
Grouped in a crescent, Bernard read Metric Figure by William Carlos Williams to us:
There is a bird in the poplars!
It is the sun!
The leaves are little yellow fish
swimming in the river.
The bird skims above them,
day is on his wings.
It is he that is making
the great gleam among the poplars!
It is his singing
outshines the noise
of leaves clashing in the wind.
I raised my eyes heavenwards, and listened to the loud squawking drifting toward us.
He mentioned the power of observational walks and the value of tuning yourself into the writer as observer. How can you focus all your senses on what the world is around you?
Bernard then began by addressing us: we are on a hill looking out. What can you see in front of you? Asking and sharing, perhaps with prompts, with a whole class will generate many ideas and images that could be incorporated into a narrative or character study.
Each of us was then asked a question and with each reply, he paraphrased the response, then asked another person a different question designed to deepen the narrative. This required concentration and skill, and this approach could be readily adopted in the classroom. Although some teachers, such as myself, felt slightly uncomfortable with the fantasy direction, we all added to the detail with humour. After all, it was an afternoon session.
Back in the classroom, Bernard said he had two questions for us: one very easy and one difficult. He went around the room, pointing to each of us, and asked: what are you thinking right now? Each response was summarised into a single word and written on the whiteboard. For example, ‘what to be thinking?’ became ‘speculating’.
predicting deciding choosing wondering ordering judging criticising stereotyping self-deprecating analysing experiencing questioning doubting expecting dreading metacognitive processing
The next question, to the whole class, was: what is Bernard thinking? Many suggested they had no idea, yet he mentioned a typical class of students usually assumed he was thinking of them. What this exercise did was provide a range of words for a character – so often, students write action from an external point of view, yet pausing or reflecting is often lacking. So, we were then required to write a story AND for every sentence of action, include a sentence of reflection. I wrote
Lunch sat heavily in her belly, weighing down her afternoon. I really shouldn’t have eaten those two spring rolls. She sat up straight, stretching and yawning in an attempt to stay awake. Can’t wait to get home ad relax. Each afternoon had been filled with errands and shopping. I just can’t wait to sit still and enjoy the sunset.
Admittedly, this is over-doing the reflection and would need editing, but it is a powerful activity for students to consider their character development.
We then participated in a character generating exercise which was quite fun and would readily engage a class. Bernard was in his element, firing questions and directing responses. He began by asking different people for a letter – perhaps a consonant or a vowel, then wrote up the name ‘Wanulem’. He asked someone there age, and another what they did, then where they lived, and finally who they lived with. The next character’s name came from asking someone to name an item in their kitchen – fridge – which spelled backward became ‘Egdirf’. This allows response that are not emotionally or stereotypically tied to any particular name – quite a cleverly inclusive tool.
Once we had a table of four characters, we were then asked about the relationship between each – marked on my photo in red. this forces students to begin considering their narrative, rather than drafting disconnected characters. This also generates ideas of loyalty, tension, familial alliances, longstanding rivalries, resentment … all strong motivations for character actions. We also discussed possible scenarios that might include every character. He suggested that working on a word list for this scenario. This ‘push and pull’ gave students options but allowed the teacher to maintain control in terms of the desired goal of the writing.
Bernard then assigned a different character to each person within a table group with the task of writing the scenario from that character’s point of view. Importantly, we could not include anything that our character could not see – as if they were wearing blinkers.
Next, we were asked to write badly for three minutes.
She was mad. Really, really angry. She just couldn’t handle it anymore. And mum should just shut up. Mum didn’t look mad, but she always yelled and yelled. And it made her mad. Mad as …
What is bad writing? This would be an interesting yet challenging idea to ask of students. Is bad writing ornate? Limited in scope or detail? Lack logic or cohesion? By sharing and discussing their ‘bad’ writing, it is possible that their considerations would become more obvious, rather than waiting for teacher feedback that may be rejected or ignored.
As the end of the session drew near, Bernard pushed us to complete one more exercise about voice. Considering the two extremes of a personality characteristic, we filled the board with suggestions:
prejudiced open minded
Bernard suggested the difference between a positive character and an optimist like this:
If both fell down a well, the positive character might decide it wasn’t too bad, whereas the optimist would think ‘I’ll get out of here eventually’.
These traits could be applied to the characters developed in the previous table, but a quick two minute version of application could be to hold up an apple and ask students to describe this from the perspective of one or two listed personality characteristics AND pick those that are unfamiliar, or not your usual voices.
And at last the day came to a close. It is always a revelation to experience hours of concentration, writing and learning just as we expect our students to complete day after day after day. A healthy reminder to include fun and a range of activities per lesson to maintain engagement.
*featured image from Schools Engagement – Young Writers Day
*Dr Plunkett’s image from Alchetron
*Dr Cohen’s image from The Writing Workshop