Nice review

A nice review of Teaching Creative Writing has appeared in the Australian magazine, Text Journal. I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the reference to my contribution to the book!

Yoga on the page: Teaching creative writing
review by Helen Gildfind

This book is a compilation of writing exercises from creative writing teachers all over the world, and is aimed at ‘enabling’ other teachers to ‘review, borrow and adapt ideas’ for their own practice. This text is logically and accessibly organised with each contributor introducing and detailing their exercise over a few pages, with a clear explanation of the exercise’s structure and objective.

teaching creative writingEach passage is contextualised by its author’s completion of the first exercise in the book, namely Elaine Walker’s ‘ice-breaker’ exercise; this she uses as a ‘getting to know you’ activity for new classes. Though this is not quite a ‘how to write’ book, and not quite a ‘how to teach writing’ book, it indirectly offers useful insights into both of these practices whilst primarily acting as a ‘go to’ book for new and experienced teachers who need original ideas on how to create and structure writing exercises in imaginative and purposeful ways.

This is not the kind of book you read cover to cover, and one of its most useful aspects is its ‘Thematic Index’ which allows readers to identify exercises that cater for a particular need (‘Confidence Building and Ice Breakers’, ‘Developing Writing Practice’), a particular genre (‘Flash Fiction’, ‘Food Writing’, ‘Song Writing’), a particular skill (‘Editing and Redrafting’, ‘Creating Structure in Short Stories’), or a particular student level (‘New Students’, ‘All Stages’, ‘Confident Writers’). This index also allows readers to quickly identify exercises of a particular time-duration, with activities ranging from less than an hour to several weeks.

As I used this index to locate exercises that I might find useful in my own classes – especially those classes that did not work out as well as I’d hoped – what struck me most was just how much we ask of our students. It is so easy to come up with an activity for someone else to do, but – by positioning teachers on the receiving-end of teaching – this text reminds us just how intense, confronting and difficult writing classes can be for students. It is a definite strength of this book that it emphasises the care and clarity needed for good teaching, with its detailed contributions acting as model lesson-plans. Without stating it, this text reminds teachers to keep out of the classroom until they know what they are doing and, most importantly, why they are doing it.

The exercises in this book vary widely, and most could be easily adapted to suit a range of student needs and backgrounds. Martyn Bedford’s exercise ‘Travel writing – from classroom to Khartoum’ illustrates how ostensibly simple activities such as basic note-taking, memory exercises, discussion, and the strategic use of secondary sources, can help students move in two hours from questioning the value of their own experiences to establishing the foundations of a substantial piece of writing.

Diana Chin-a-Fat helps students ‘get into character’ by asking them to imagine past the public personas of celebrities in order to delve imaginatively into the deeper darker secrets that might lurk in their minds. By producing monologues and sharing them, her students learn about perceptions, assumptions, public personas and the credibility of voice.

Allene Nichols combats student shyness and perfectionism by getting them to ‘write a bad poem’. In the process she teaches them to embrace – as all writers must – writing ‘badly’, whilst also teaching them the ‘vocabulary’ of poetry that will enable them to both write and critique poetry in the future.

Ian Williams focuses on the long-term skills his students will need by helping them to establish a ‘daily writing habit’. He gets his ‘young warriors’ to post a new poem on an interactive online forum everyday for 30 days. Steve May also uses technology to re-envision traditional workshopping methods in the belief that paper print-outs give students a false sense of completion with their work. He finds collaborative editing onscreen assists students to shed preciousness and recognise writing as an ongoing process. He notes how onscreen work can allow classes to write collaboratively or even edit the published works of famous writers.

Other contributors use yoga and meditation to ease students into writing tasks, or conjure ‘creative mayhem’ by getting students to collaborate in the writing of manifestos, or guide students in their struggle to create credible narrative voices for children.

As all these examples suggest, the exercises in this text are applicable for student writers at any level of experience and across a range of genres. Nearly all of the activities have been structured with an acute awareness that student writers need a relaxed and trusting classroom atmosphere in order to gain skill and confidence with their work, and most contributors seem equally aware that the best way to get students writing is to focus them on ‘process’ rather than ‘product’.

Teaching Creative Writing is obviously well suited to teachers of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and plays. It offers a practical resource for teachers who are just starting out and lack the confidence or ideas required to create truly engaging classes. This book might even be useful for experienced teachers who suspect that their own methods have become repetitive and uninspiring, or who sense complacency creeping in to their classrooms through the stultifying effects of their own habits.

Less obviously, this text has value for teachers because it emphasises and models the care required to structure classes in an engaging and purposeful manner. The book may even benefit creative writers themselves, for its huge bank of activities offer a means for writers to recover from writer’s block, by providing defamiliarising writing tasks.

Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has had reviews, essays, short stories and poetry published in Australia and overseas. She is currently completing a collection of short stories with the aid of an Australia Council Arts Grant.

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