Transforming Texts – building creative capacity

In studying Past the Shallows and considering short texts as related material, I chose Simon Cowdroy’s highly commended ‘Particularly Complicated When The Snakes Show Up’ from Bath Flash Fiction Awards. The following activities have been adapted from Felicity Plunkett’s suggested activities during the teacher workshop at the UWS Young Writers.

Read Simon”s story:

The mice slowed them down.

During the dry spells, I never spot the tiger or brown snakes as they slide away, slaloming through the sinewy grass of the paddock, keen to see the back of me.

Give us heavy spring rains, like this year, and the mice arrive in torrents, a scratching, squeaking, stinking tsunamni. For the snakes, a bumper crop mercilessly devoured into increasingly torpid, bulging sheaths.

“Watch yourself.” Mum warns.

Dad finishes the arvo shift at three, gets home by quarter-past, a handful of workmates in disorderly tow.

At five, Benny, who is slurring the least, lights the barbie.

“Red-headed idiot using a Redhead match.” Dad says, and everyone laughs like they hadn’t heard it yesterday.

I’m on the shuttle run, beer fridge to back-yard, so I keep my boots on, the ground littered with discarded bottle tops, serrated edges that bite into your feet like fangs.

The charcoal infused choke of recently incinerated meat slides away on the breeze along with their mood. They sit in silence, half-drunk stubbies gripped in coal mine calloused hands, Dad with his head down so you can’t see the scales slide across his eyes, the flick of his tongue.

The brooding lingers until they call it a day and drift home.

Cleaning up means I don’t have to go inside, not be around when it kicks off. If mum says nothing the bruises won’t show and she ca walk us to school tomorrow. My sister hides in her room, fearing: the knock, the cruelly gentle first touch, the venom that hardens her heart.

I load the empties into the bin and the clatter almost drowns out the first slap.

Still only dusk, so I jump the fence and head for the paddock, not caring where I put my feet.

I began the lesson by reading the story aloud before I handed out a hard copy. Without discussing what students thought, I gave the first instruciton:

  • write a one sentence story that writes back to the story.

Some students responded quickly while others seemed unsure of what to do – ultimately, everyone will respond. Remember, there is no wrong or right way to write. The idea of the activity is to respond creatively. Everyone was then asked to write their sentence on the board, with only two abstaining. Here’s what we wrote:

The community of such cruel, isolated events is as brutal as those who initiate them.

Blistered and torn, my feet carry me home in the dark silence.

Running through the paddock, slithering away as an escape.

Waiting for the venom to spread throughout the lonely figure.

The snake slithers behind me, following my trail and every hiss reminds me of her scream.

After the barbecue with Dad’s work friends, the violence ensues and the kids retreat.

The brutality of such events hit as hard as ignorance.

I can hear the rustle in the grass, as I move quickly across the sharp ground.

We then discussed the writer’s style and ability to create images, as well as how the reader is encouraged to add their own ending. In talking about how much could be achieved in an exam in 40 minutes, I asked the class to consider how this story could be expanded – where would you like to add more? There were three suggestions:

  1. include a focus on mum’s response after the line ending in ‘disorderly tow’
  2. provide more details

The next task was to make an even shorter story by isolating the most poignant images and ideas 20 words max. I wrote:

Dad, head down.

My sister hides in her room, fearing: the knock, the cruelly gentle first touch.

The brooding lingers.

We discussed the wide range of options and ideas represented in our new stories. As the lesson drew to a close, I explained the final activity as homework: Choose an important strand from the story and continue – no more than 100 words. I wrote:

I’ve always relied on my feet. Not attractive, yet dependable, my feet have taken me many places.

They love the solidity of my boots that keep me safe. I can run over hot coals or kick down broken fence posts, walk all day and dance into the night. They deserve the lavish attention I spend in waterproofing and polishing, and their quiet retirement into gardening duty.

My girlfriend understands the need for sometimes sleeping with my boots on, especially when the snakes show up, after the heavy rains.

By completing a range of short writing activities, for both the Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences and Module C: The Craft of Writing, students consolidate their confidence as writers who are able to respond to exam questions by composing creative responses that respond to specific questions, rather than relying on prepared stories that may or may not directly address question requirements. By discussing and practicing language use and style, students are also able to reflect on how their language choices effectively engage readers (and potential markers).

Image from What Snake is That?

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