Writing a Discursive River

How to strengthen your identity as a writer?

Consider this writing exercise that is a combination of an old favourite, and the use of two quotes from an Into English resource for the Stage 6 HSC Craft of Writing module.

The idea is to reflect on your writing experiences, positive and negative, to better understand areas of strength and weakness. Phillip Hall, poet, asked an important question in a workshop: what is your writing aesthetic? What are your fall back language features? Mine tend to be alliteration and sibilance. Knowing this, it may help you widen your writing style if you appreciate what you are comfortable with and where you might challenge yourself by experimenting with different features in developing your own writing voice.

During my UK research in 2016, I met with Jenifer Smith and Simon Wrigley who established teachers’ writing groups and co-authored Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups – exploring the theory and practice. They recommend an activity for an early writer’s meeting – Moments from my writing life and My writing life – that I have used with both teachers and students. The idea of a writing ‘river’ came from an English Teachers Association annual conference presentation by Michael Murray.

Here is how I presented the writing exercise to my senior English class as a series of online lessons:

Discursive Writing Task: Gathering Ideas and Anecdotes

  • spend a few moments recalling your memories of writing – these could be from primary or secondary school, writing workshops, personal journalling or story writing outside the school environment
  • write a single sentence to reflect the main idea of that memory
  • arrange these in chronological order – use your age or school year
  • choose five or six memories
  • reflect on your writing river – note the current and eddies, the flows and stagnations – how might these experiences impact on your identity as a writer?
  • what has been influential in your development as a writer?
  • who or what has helped you to write?
  • who or what has made it difficult for you to write?
  • how has your reading influenced how and what you write?
  • write a paragraph on each memory and/or influence to capture your feelings about writing

Current and Eddies from a Student’s Writing River

Read these extracts. Notice how there is a mix of both negative and positive moments?

  • Year 3: … the dreaded NAPLAN test. For the English test, sorry, literature (English didn’t become the term I know it to be until high school)
  • Year 6: Imagine my dread (I was slightly scared of my teacher), when she began to overlook our work. Imagine my embarrassment when she came to mine and gave it a good flurry of blunt criticism that could be heard by everyone in the class. Safe to say, and budding passion for writing really took a hit that day.
  • Year 8: English was the worst experience of writing in my life … the lack of connection to the subject … made me quite hostile towards writing and English in general.
  • Year 11: I think it was the Extension course where a passion for English, and writing in general, really began to flourish. The concepts … transcended the boring mundane idea of what English is seen as, a boring and useless subject …

I explained to students:

In choosing the working title ‘My Writing River’, I have established a framework for an extended metaphor. This means I would brainstorm and/or develop a word bank (usually through free writing or free association) of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs to do with rivers – a river is a dynamic and powerful body of water that effectively represents writing as a recursive process. 

Having a metaphorical frame, my word bank can be easily developed in to a lexical chain: notice the terms used in the first series of activities – currents and eddies, flows and stagnations. These ideas are also linked with the conjunction ‘and’ which could help in structuring your discursive piece by reflecting on different energies of both positive and negative writing experiences.

It will take time to fully develop this piece from early drafts to a polished submission. Aim to do some work each day, re-reading your earlier ideas and allowing things to settle in your mind. Perhaps on Sunday afternoon or evening, or early Monday morning, you will do your final ‘read aloud’ to make any necessary changes before submission.

You may, of course, choose a different metaphorical frame. This means you are seeking an original and unique voice in your discursive piece. That’s why I attempted to explain the process of developing an extended metaphor and related lexical chain.

Students were given two mid-week lessons to complete these drafting exercises, with the final submission due the following Monday. This submission required students to choose one of these quotes:

‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’ Albert Camus

OR

‘Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.’ Lewis Carroll

and use it as a stimulus for their discursive piece about their ‘writing river’. 800-1000 words.

This proved to be a very successful task, with students employing different metaphors including specific rivers, a well, and a path. All disclosed personal and powerful anecdotes in well crafted pieces as a follow up to studying one of the prescribed texts: Geraldine Brooks’ Boyer Lecture ‘A Home in Fiction’.

Original image: upper Murrumbidgee River, near Yaouk NSW.

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