the end of term.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

For the past ten Mondays, I’ve been teaching a first year undergrad creative writing class. It’s been amazing, and kind of surreal* ...and that’s the semester finished now. [Insert comment about how quickly time passes]. On the final day of class, none of the students stood on their desks to say O Captain! My Captain! (alas). But I quite enjoyed teaching them. Hopefully they learned a few things


The class was on the foundations of fiction, so we talked about things like: characters need to want something (that they can’t easily get) in order to be compelling; stories without conflict aren’t really stories; conflict doesn’t necessarily need to be uber-dramatic, sometimes silence says more than shouting. We talked about setting and how to involve the reader in the world of a story by building a strong sense of 'place' (which doesn’t generally mean: write a ginormous paragraph describing the surroundings in precise geographical detail. More often it means: drop in a few ‘telling’ sensory details – the dust specs that catch in the evening light, the peeling paint on the walls of the bedroom, the metallic heart-beat sound a train makes when it’s rumbling over a bridge – and then leave room for the readers’ imagination to fill in the rest).


‘The job of a writer,’ I kept telling them, ‘is to capture (or try to capture) in language what it feels like to be alive. And to do that – you need to practise the art of paying attention.’

Write down the details. Write down the conversations you hear on the street. The strange words people use. The way light hits the trees on your walk home. Work out what that taste in your mouth is when you hear bad news. Write it all down. Pay attention to it all.


Pay attention to your life. Pay attention to your life.

They probably got a bit sick of me saying that. But that – aside from the unglamorous task of sitting down and just getting on with it – is the most important thing a writer can do, I think** (perhaps one of the most important things a person can do). It’s something I’m continually trying to teach myself. I go on about it an awful lot, but I keep forgetting to do it.

 


Footnotes:

*It was surreal because: it was only five years ago that I was a nervous 18-year-old going to my first creative writing workshop, not imagining that a few years later I’d be up the front teaching one. (When you’re quite unambiguously introverted, standing for two hours in front of a group of twenty students every week is a definite leap out of your comfort zone. But a good leap, I think. I would like to keep doing it).


**Probably the first place I came across this idea – that writing is about ‘seeing’ and ‘paying attention’ – was in an essay on writing by Kate DiCamillo which I read over and over as a young teenager. 
‘What I discovered,' DiCamillo writes at one point, ‘is that each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine...’ 
It’s a really beautiful essay – whether you’re a writer or not. You can find it: here. I read it out to the class before they packed up their bags on the last day.)


Pictures are by Clare Elsaesser. You can find her: here.

2 comments:

  1. what beautiful images to accompany beautiful words. :) I wish I was in the class! off to read the essay you linked now. x

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    Replies
    1. You should read her books too if you haven't before. 'Because of Winn Dixie' and 'The Tiger Rising' are my favourite. Her words are like poetry...

      ~Melissa

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