Creative writing is one of those paradoxical things. Anyone can be a writer and anything can be creative. Yet, it is extremely difficult to master creative writing techniques in order to write anything of substance and it can be quite a daunting task when asked to simply ‘be creative’. Most of us have learned techniques and strategies for dealing with more formal styles of writing – essays, formal letters, debate. Coming into this course, I had little to no training in how to write creatively, bar my own personal experience in the field. So one of the questions I found myself asking was ‘Why is this area neglected?’ Students are simply asked to create, without any background knowledge or experience on the matter. When asked to write a piece of fiction for this task, I was keen to contribute, but once I settled down to work, it was clear to me that I didn’t really know what I was doing or needed to do from the outset. While pinning my first draft, I realised that the topic I had chosen was perhaps too large, broad and unwieldy for a short story and perhaps would be better suited to a long essay or novel. Such was my naivety in understanding the basics of creative writing. If I were to start all over again, I would ensure to keep it much more simple. Focus on one character and theme.
The hardest part of this process for me was transferring my thoughts from my mind to the paper. So many imaginings, characters and twists bubbling around in my head that I didn’t know where to start.
When I began to write it down, I suddenly found the story taking shape by itself, being moulded and shaped by the previous words and gaining cohesion from previous statements about the characters, setting etc. Just the act of writing something, anything, helped to get the creative juice flowing. As such, I would be keen to acknowledge this most important stage in the classroom. I am a strong advocate of writing very short fiction – such as writing fake notes from parents as to why the children hadn’t done their homework, with the children allowed to be as creative as they liked, from the mundane ‘He was sick’ to the absurd ‘Aliens landed and beamed his homework up to space’ I feel it would really help with the confidence of emerging writers and to help them believe that they are writers too by starting with something small like this. With the ever increasing popularity of instant messaging, and the short comment nature of social media, such as Twitter or Facebook comments, they make an ideal platform for students to engage in creative writing on a small scale, utilising platforms that they are familiar with.
When writing stories in the past, I used to place more emphasis on the how rather than the why. Long descriptive sentences sound nice but ultimately, it wasn’t enough for my story this time. The story needed more structure. Thus, I was glad to learn about different beginnings, plots and endings to tie my story together, framing it with a set point of view and clear descriptions of items and locations.
I had never done a workshop before and the knowledge gained by peer review was invaluable. It is easy for me to see where my story is going and what is happening but to see how others struggled with it or took different interpretations was truly eye-opening.
However, in order for this to work in the classroom, students need to open up about their work and allow others to view it and to accept input from their peers. A positive atmosphere needs to be present amongst the group. It also seems necessary to teach the groups how to read as a writer, as opposed to a reader. It was fascinating learning about all the different techniques of plot, point of view etc . used by skilled authors in their work. It was helpful both to analyse and read my peers pieces of fiction, but also in improving my own piece, especially when I was stuck and unsure where to go next with it.
Sticking with the theme for my short story was quite difficult. It was so easy to off on a tangent that I often forgot to acknowledge what my story was supposed to be about. Sticking with the story I wanted to tell really helped me to stay grounded in my task. Redrafting was also a relatively new experience for me. Though I often edited and revised my pieces before submitting them, very rarely have I considered making changes afterwards. Rewriting a story or paragraph can really help to define the tale and in this modern age of computer technology, it is far easier to go back and re-draft a story than the labourious pen-written essays of my youth.
One of the concerns brought up by my peers in the workshop was how they didn’t really feel empathy for the main character. They had no one to root for. Engaging with the character in depth and through point of view really helped to bring them to life. Particularly with this element of writing I found reading the short stories from famous authors to be most beneficial. The depth at which Cortazar in particular engaged with the main character in ‘Axolotl’ really helped me to see where my characters were lacking.
“Hopelessly, I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness upon the axolotls.”
Of course, reading great works by famous authors is a fairly obvious aid to creative writing in the classroom, but finding the right pieces of work that can best help your writing can be more tricky. Perhaps it would be good to have a resource in the classroom, where students could search for books to read not only based on topics, such as sci-fi or thriller, but where students could be inspired by the use of point of view, characters, endings etc. I found it incredibly useful to view examples of such during our course and I’m sure my students would to. Perhaps, they could even add to the list themselves of the information could be gathered together on an RSS feed.
One of the key things I learnt from my experience is that just because a character or scene isn’t used in the final draft, doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful for the overall storytelling. Having created a whole backstory for a character, and then cutting that character down to a minor role was disheartening but it didn’t limit the character. He is still there and more refined and detailed now because of my efforts
Trying to be overly clever and complicated with the piece just served to confuse the audience. It may seem a perfect vision in your head, but the audience needs to be told exactly what’s going on. During the workshop it was fascinating to see how everybody viewed differently the characters and settings created by each other. Details matter and I made a conscious effort to really nail down the vision I had in my head. Doing the creative writing exercises, such as describing an object without mentioning it by name, or describing a lavish hotel room, really helped in this regard and I think it would be worthwhile to incorporate such activities in the classroom. Small steps like this can help writers gain confidence in their abilities and not feel overwhelmed by writing a much longer story.
Overall, it was a great insight into the world of writing and how much thought and effort really goes into telling a story. Every word, every phrase, every character is there for a reason and from now on, I will be reading these tales with a view to discovering what the author has laid out for me.
1. Cortazar, J., 1952 ‘Axolotl’ , Literaria, Beunos Aires. Available at: http://southerncrossreview.org/73/axolotl.html [last viewed 5th April 2016]
2. Pixar’s 22 rules to phenomenal storytelling. Available at: http://imgur.com/gallery/E8xe0 [last viewed 5th April 2016]