On a drizzly afternoon early in summer the Becket School minibus arrived on campus and dropped off a group of a dozen students. They were here with their teacher, Jane Gibson, for a workshop in creative writing. I had devised the session to give something of a taste of the way that we approach writing on the BA and MA programmes in the School of English.
When Jane and I had been emailing to fix up the visit, I had been intrigued to learn that the group was going to include students from across the whole age-range of the school – Year 7s along with Year 10s – and I tried to put something together that offer something to everyone. I also wanted to see what would happen if I tried to get them to write in a way not covered by their school syllabus. I put together a handout featuring poetry and fiction by writers who choose to work with tight constraints on their language.
We started by looking at a poem called ‘First’ by the American poet, Lisa Jarnot. It is a short piece which begins ‘First train first day first donut first coffee first cab first avenue first one sock and then the other’ and continues like that for a paragraph. The group displayed a very imaginative approach in making suggestions as to what the poet was doing – describing the drudgery of life? finding freshness in everyday details? – and when we tried the exercise of continuing the poem they all came up with provocative new verses. There really was no shortage of ideas among the group.
An important principle in how we teach creative writing at Nottingham lies in the way we try to give our students a sense of the responsibility that professional writers have to take for the work they publish. The next extract we read was a section of Paul Griffiths’s book ‘Let Me Tell You’ – a story told using only the words spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. Instead of simply giving the students a similar limitation, I challenged them to devise the rules for the next exercise themselves. I had wondered if this might be too tough a test of the students’ imagination but the suggestions they made – restricting their writing to words that had already been spoken in the class that day, or words that all began with the same letter – showed the students were comfortable with making things hard for themselves.
And the poems they produced at the end of the session bore this out. The writing showed a real inventiveness with language in poems that were humorous, serious, and imaginative. As they boarded the minibus and said goodbye I was wondering what the chances are that a few of them might return as Nottingham students some years from now.
Lecturer in Creative Writing at The University of Nottingham
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University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD
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