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Inspire: Exciting Ways of Teaching Creative Writing

If you have not done so, I highly recommend you read Inspire: Exciting Ways of Teaching Creative Writing published by the Centre for Language, Culture and Learning in November 2020. You can download your free copy here or buy the paperback on Amazon. The anthology was followed by a conference, Inspire (15-16 April 2021) in which some of contributors presented their work. In the anthology, you will find a series of essays, creative responses and meditations on the teaching of creative writing – and much else besides. The aim was to inspire the reader to write imaginatively, and to learn more about creative writing and how to teach it. The editors of this anthology (myself, Emma Brankin and Carinya Sharples) are practising creative writers and teachers of this familiar but possibly contentious subject. Creative writing is seen as a controversial subject for lots of different reasons: in academia because it’s viewed as lacking rigour, in schools because it might facilitate unsavoury views and images, in society as a whole because it’s perceived as a ‘soft’ subject. Watch this hilarious SNL sketch on YouTube which pokes fun at attitudes towards it:

Proud Parents

But people’s attitudes towards it need to change. This is, in part, what we aimed to do by publishing the anthology. The contributors to the anthology have a great deal of ‘real world’ experience of trying to impart our enthusiasm for reading and writing poetry, fiction, drama and creative non-fiction in diverse settings. We see this as an important social and pedagogical mission. We first discussed devising such an anthology in order to showcase some of the great work that the postgraduate students on the MA in Creative Writing and Education at Goldsmiths have done as part of this programme during the 2019-2020 sessions. Some of their work is in the anthology. What follows are the highlights of their work; an invitation, if you like, to read more!

Lexi Allen offers a concise, original piece based on more detailed research here. She writes of overcoming many barriers – both physical and psychological – to leave excerpts of her creative writing in a number of public settings – trains, libraries, bars and some virtual spaces too. Her work is inspirational because it illustrates how a writer can find a public voice and new resources of confidence in very surprising ways and places. Matilda Rostant shares her important findings for her research, focusing on the sometimes secret writing of fantasy fiction. She shows how there is an unjustified snobbery about genre fiction in many educational settings, and uses ‘autoethnography’ – a research-informed version of autobiography – to unearth some important findings about the connections with genre fiction and one’s own life.

Tanya Royer demonstrates how creative writers can research their unconscious using a series of mindful strategies such as meditation and free writing. Her findings are startling and moving, and reveal how creative writers can guide themselves to pen original pieces and find out about their own unconscious desires if they follow a strict research methodology. In his piece, James Ward admits to being intimidated by what he perceived to be his lack of subject knowledge in the field of creative writing. And so, setting out in a similar way to Tanya, he devised a regime of writing and reading exercises, which built up his confidence and unlocked his creativity. Anyone who has similar issues should read his article. Both James and Tanya (and many other writers here) show the power of what Peter Elbow, the acknowledged champion of this often-criticised way of writing, calls ‘free writing’. Elbow wrote in the 1980s (the edition I quote from is a later edition):

The most effective way I know to improve your writing is to do freewriting exercises regularly. At least three times a week. They are sometimes called ‘automatic writing’, ‘babbling’, or ‘jabbering’ exercises. The idea is to write for 10 minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen-twenty). Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing.

Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you’re doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just a squiggle or else write ‘I can’t think of it’. Just put something down. The easiest thing to do is put down whatever is in your mind.

(Elbow, 1998: 3)

Free writing plays an important role as a pedagogical strategy in a number of pieces, but most particularly in James and Tanya’s.

Moving into the modern age, Emma Brankin explores how social media can be used to nurture students’ creative writing. The article is bursting with fascinating and very workable ideas, including the brilliant idea of the ‘auto-complete’ poem, which is a sort of modern day update of Elbow’s free writing concept. Teacher and writer Sara Carroll shows how teenage girls could be guided to be more critical and feminist in their perspectives. She uses free writing as one of many strategies to encourage her female pupils to think about the ways in which girls are conditioned in oppressive ways by a patriarchal society. Juwairiah Mussa shows how free writing and poetry can be used as a form of healing during extremely stressful times. Her pieces about living through lockdown are not only powerful examples of creative writing in themselves but also great models to share with creative writing students. Her reflections on the process of writing the pieces are pedagogical in that they guide the reader into thinking about the ways in which free writing can be healing and also help develop a greater awareness of the social, psychological and economic factors that shape who we are.

Carinya Sharples shares with Juwairiah a similar quest to find new ways of expression in her search to find a ‘third space’ where mixed-race writers can feel free to express themselves and explore their identities. Using various strategies such as ‘heritage objects’ ‘rivers of reading’ and the devising of mixed-race characters – all explained in her article – she reveals how creative writing can liberate and enlighten, and also challenge and disturb. Jake Smith draws upon a rich tradition of experimental writing in order to devise a series of learning activities and lessons that create astounding and thought-provoking writing. He uses experimental reading material as prompts to generate creative writing and offers his own free writing as a possible model to inspire his students.

So to sum up about the pieces by postgraduates on our MA, we could say that there are some common threads: there is a zest to experiment and to use both well-worn and unusual literary forms, from genre fiction to the most esoteric devices; there’s a deep commitment to giving both research and learning activities a serious theoretical underpinning; and, above all, there’s a profound commitment to nurturing playfulness around creative writing.

Blog by Dr Francis Gilbert