1. At the British Library's Gothic conference (see left), I lead an NWP workshop of 17 teachers, few of whom have written together before. This is a precious hour for us to free our imaginations, to explore our own writing, and to know we need share nothing. Each can reflect differently on whatever is of personal or professional value. (You can find the approaches we took by clicking here.)
First we talk, and collaborate on a short vocabulary exercise. Then we read from 'Gothic' authors, and choose phrases to 'gift' to others, for them to 'stitch together' into a new piece of free writing. We receive our phrases in return and write quickly, trying as best we can to silence our inner critical voices which can impede flow and prevent discoveries. Then we jot down thoughts from a sequence of quick prompts and choose which we might take further in another piece of our own 'Gothic'. In a kind of way, we write ourselves into reading. But then we choose what to share with others; we may discuss the ideas, the process or even, if we wish, share some or all of the product. At this point an attentive listener affirms and responds. Any writing is heard rather than seen. (Now that's a powerful message for the classroom: let's respond to ideas and feelings first, before we pore over structures and SPAG. Though, of course, we will do both.)
There is a different risk in sharing 'raw' writing (the fresh thought-harvest), and sharing that which you have 'marinaded, cooked and garnished'. Belonging to a writing group over time, will involve a varied menu - including soupçons, foraged fare, reheated leftovers, old favourites, stuff from the bottom of the freezer - and some elaborately prepared feasts.
2. Rejoining NWP Milton Keynes in Willen Lake cafe is always a treat. The group leader has been with the project from the beginning and many of the writers have met many times, as friends, with family or at work. We are Marie, Patrick, Colin, Finlay, Evelyn, Stephanie, Emma, Phoebe and Simon - our ages are between 11 and 60. It is a real privilege to write alongside younger, confident writers.
First we sit indoors drinking tea, amidst the Saturday park-runners - a lot of legs and lycra, and a lot of noise which swells with our chat about offspring and schools. Then we loosen up our writing muscles with an exercise from Andrew Cowan's 'The Art of Writing Fiction': we choose from a list of prompts and focus on emotion in our writing. We write quickly for 5 minutes and then discuss where our thoughts took us. Then we go out into the October sun for a wander - up to the peace pagoda and the remembrance tree, or down to the bandstand and the lakeside. We write on location for about 45 minutes before returning to sit at the picnic tables in the sunshine and share over another cup of tea. The talk is of how the landscape set off trains of thought - about cultural representations of lakes; of trees as portals to other worlds; of Queen Maeve of Connaught and the rag-trees of Roscommon; of magical memories; of Buddhists, Celts and Vikings; of out-of-body experiences; of a tender autopsy; - and of whether the parking wardens would issue us with penalties! So we share quickly. Later we may revisit our writing or post some on the group's closed online forum.
The trust established, the stimulation, the permission to write for yourself, and the authority to share only when ready are all distinctive features (see Jeni's previous blog). One of the many benefits of writing together is the empowering quality of talk that emerges, and the bonding in a serious joint endeavour - the making and holding of meaning. This is often where writers derive the most encouragement for their ideas, and receive the most valuable insights about how their words have made others feel and think, and about what they might work on next. Teachers often leave a writing meeting energised, affirmed, restored to themselves - and readier for the fray! As writing teachers we know the value of our pupils feeling the same. The motivation is huge.
3. I am teaching year 4. We talk about our writing notebooks - of the importance of regular practice, experiment and reflection - of how we can help each other by listening and imagining and responding to writers by telling them about how their words made pictures in our heads and stirred feelings in our hearts, thoughts and memories in our minds. Then we tell a ghost story, using three 'steps' to build up suspense. Then we imagine our own sequel; we write and share and respond. The school wants to develop the children as writers. Some children have become over-dependent on instruction; inhibited by criticism from others, they lack confidence in themselves. The school will introduce writing notebooks and regular workshops
- to practise regularly releasing the imagination,
- to explore the writing process,
- to reinforce how writing can be used to unravel thoughts,
- to establish connections,
- to experiment with cause and consequence,
- to develop writing stamina, independence and resilience,
- to build up a 'reservoir' of personal writing which can be revisited, elaborated or drawn upon in learning across the curriculum.
4. I have joined a sixth form writing club (years 12 and 13). Most of them will take AQA's AS or A2 Creative Writing. The teacher has translated her writing experience with NWP into her classroom. She leads the mixed age group of 25 in looking closely at how writers use objects metaphorically and symbolically. The students notice the fragility of Plath's Bell Jar, the sense of alienation in Toni Morrison's doll with the 'bluest eye', the vulnerability of Blake's rose. After discussion the writers are challenged to write about a familiar object, bringing out its significance. The students write readily of a rose, a letter, a crucifix, juggling balls, perfume. Most impressively they trust each other. They read their work aloud more readily than many adults. They listen attentively to each other, noticing rhythms, phrasing and foreshadowing, picking up on the emotional timbre and providing encouragement. They have come together from across the curriculum (some are studying sciences) and they value writing for what it can do for them individually and as a group of fellow teenagers using their shared imagination to make sense of themselves in the world.
Some of these students do not intend to pursue the AQA qualification, but they very much appreciate the opportunity that the school is providing through the weekly writing club. Although so much 'schooling' must focus on each individual's narrow pursuit of decontextualised, examined skills, it's good to know that a deeper, broader, interpersonal 'education' can still exist. And it's heartening to know that NWP is making a contribution to educational health - to teachers' sanity and creativity as well as to the development of children, pupils and students as writers. And next weekend, I shall be in Cardiff University working with colleagues in higher education to build better bridges between school writers and the 104 Creative writing degree courses in the UK on which those students may later wish to enrol.
It will be the pursuit and discussion of such writing approaches that will characterise some of the activities on the Arvon/NWP residential in February 2015. You will also have the rare privilege of individual tutorials with practising writers. For further insights, please read Jeni's earlier blog.
If you're interested in strengthening writing education - as well as raising standards - please take advantage of this timely, and competitively priced, writing week. There are many ways in which things are moved forwards in education. Politicians and bureaucrats and managers are by no means the only leaders. If you care about how writing education develops, I urge you to give yourself a brilliant half-term break, and join the first ever Arvon/NWP residential in February. We need your support!
NWP outreach director