William Kentridge’s exhibition ‘Thick Time’, currently at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, presents collage as a way of making sense of ourselves in the world – new understandings and new hope arising from juxtapositions, incompletions, uncertainties, brokenness. There’s a truth in collage – which is missing from tidier and more polished pictures. And so it can be with writing too. (Cf Kentridge on You Tube)
A number of NWP groups convened at the Whitechapel on October 8. First we traded personal snapshots of ‘time’, its collocutions and associations – a medley of literature and lives – and we patched our own words with other people’s:
Rosemary - that’s for remembrance
... we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Then we toured the galleries (you can catch some of Kentridge’s work and thought on the You Tube link) and we wrote again. Finally we shared our tapestry of writing about ‘time’.
There were tales of dysfunctional school leadership which imposes impossible demands on staff time and then offers them courses in ‘mindfulness’. Time slowed in post-war Uganda when Papa Fabrice found ‘too many thoughts to be spoken, too much beauty to be named’. And time ran backwards to 1950s Britain, where hierarchies emphasised themselves starkly in black and white, right and wrong.
Collaborative, exploratory writing deepens understanding and bonds communities. It’s a practice that is well suited to confronting the necessary uncertainty of learning, and it needs to be better understood – and practised - in schools.
If human beings are indeed ‘time beings’ – not born fixed in one state but evolving , not solidly single but manifold, not discreet but inseparable from their contexts - then a traditional writing programme, focused on fixed (past) structures, is clearly an inadequate way of confronting or understanding the human condition. A more radical approach is needed. Such an approach would have to focus more on process than product, more on divided than single purposes, and on more distributed and negotiated authority than schools have been used to. Schools would need to focus more on new problem-identification than on old problem-solving. Creative writing would have a vital part to play in holding and validating the provisional, pushing on into the unknown, helping learners pose their own questions, find their own pathways, discover their own voices.
On October 15 the Milton Keynes group met again in the Chantry Chapel in Buckingham. Stimulated by extracts from the Helene Cixous Reader, writing emerged in overlapping drifts. Uncertainty, ephemera and the immediate collided in ways which revived and affirmed us.
On October 21, I led an NWP workshop for 20 teachers so that they could explore free-writing and consider its applications for learning – how it lends writing momentum, gives us space to discover our thoughts, lets us find our own voice, and allows us to walk for a while in the footsteps of more experienced writers. We considered how – even in the restricted circumstances – we might make room for it in our lives and in our classrooms.
Any teacher is welcome to join next month’s NWP meeting on Saturday 26 November at the Whitechapel. Just complete the contact form with your details.
The next blog will report on the first NWP residential which starts today and runs 23-25 October at Belsey Bridge.
NWP outreach director