Tuesday, 24 September 2013

First Words

Today we talked dialogue.

I am a reluctant writer at best, let alone when writing dialogue. Within prose, I tend to find any dialogue dry and stunted, so avoid it at all costs. So play-writing is a nightmare.

As we had some new additions today (including some boys, horrah for gender equality!), Kate started us off by introducing ourselves again. Then she got us to look at some of Craig Taylor’s One Million Tiny Plays About Britain. These are observational stories, little snippets of the everyday, in which it feels like you are eavesdropping as you read. Not much happens, but you are thrown in the middle of a story, given a sample of a life, and left to draw your own conclusions.

Kate is looking for us to produce One Million Plays About East Oxford. Now of course, as soon as this was proposed, everyone said they didn’t know what to write about, there is nothing special about East Oxford, it’s boring around here... But with some prompting, people started to realise that they have funny relatives, oddball friends, unique places. We have different languages and accents, numerous backgrounds and cultures, and a million little stories to tell.

Having only lived in East Oxford for a year, I could only write about what I know, and what I know is Cowley Road. The idea that sprang to mind was to do with the times I take friends out along the Cowley Road for dinner – there are so many restaurants from which to choose! And there is one friend in particular (whom I adore) who always insists on paying and we always have the same conversation.

A first draft is never perfect, and I have some work to do in order to tighten up this piece and build up the comic tension. I also want to make it slightly more universal, as I felt like Craig Taylor’s characters were the sort where everyone knows someone like that.

The group felt a lot more focused today. We had a few who needed help, but most are loving the creative writing side of it and seem a little worried about the academic element of the AS they can opt to sit. My advice has been to focus on the bit writing for pleasure, and they can make their decision about the AS later in the year. First Story is so much fun, and such a brilliant experience – I find that understanding the writing process completely alters my love of reading, because I have a better knowledge of how the writer developed their novel, play or collection of poems. For the students, having creative writing skills will also help with their academic writing, giving them a new approach to structure and form. And it builds their confidence – last year, I saw delicate flowers transform into budding butterflies of literature.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The First First Story

FINALLY! We have begun!

We had an interesting mix at the upper school session today – from regulars who seem to have been there forever, to fresh faced mid-term admissions, to seemingly reluctant sixth formers. We are offering a Creative Writing AS this year, so some students have been added to the group to fill out their timetables. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I have informed them I expect full participation and attendance.

Kate started off with an activity I have seen done in the past. She gets everyone to tell the group their name and explain a little about where it came from or what it means. Some of the names have beautiful meanings, like one girl whose name meant ‘shooting star’. Some were quite funny – we have two girls called Paige, who discussed the symbolism of being a young slave. (Last year, one Paige wrote a poem about how much she despises her name, which is one of my favourites produced in that anthology.)

My name comes from ‘Song For Whoever’ by the Beautiful South. Mum and Dad had agreed to call me Jennifer, but when I was born, Mum didn't think I looked like a Jennifer. So Dad suggested they play ‘Song For Whoever’ and register me with the next name that was mentioned, convinced he had the Beautiful South tape in the right place and that the next name would be Jennifer. But it was Kathy. I just count myself lucky it wasn’t Deborah or Sue...

One or two of the girls were unsure where their names came from, so we talked about their meanings. But it is a lovely way to memorise the students’ names and get to know them a little bit.

I got a little worried when Kate started to pass around apples, and not just because the girl sat next to me was allergic. Kate encouraged us to look, touch and taste, and then asked us to think about some metaphors to describe the apple. Here’s what she asked us and what I answered:

If this apple were a month, what month would it be?
If this apple were weather, what weather would it be?
Where might this apple be found?
In a desolate back garden
What would it be wearing, or what would it look like?
An abandoned child in raggedy clothing
If this apple could speak, what would it say?
Pick me up!

She then asked us to think of similar metaphors to describe ourselves, which in my experience tends to lead to self-indulgence - I romanticise my identity, drawing on popular culture (something I am currently reading about in Hadley Freeman’s recent book, Be Awesome).

From these two pathways, we had to choose which to turn into a piece of writing.

I really struggled.

At first, I felt more drawn to writing about myself, but I tend to find that I produce better work if I go for the less obvious option. My instinct told me that I could combine the two pieces, perhaps making the apple a metaphor for myself...? But here, I knew I was overcomplicating things.

The students were a little giggly and reluctant at first. Kate said they could write anything, even just one sentence, so the more stubborn of our group took that literally. Others wrote more, but some produced immature pieces – immature in terms of clich├ęd form and style, not subject matter. In amongst pretty images were some beautiful words and phrases – I just know Kate will make something brilliant of them in no time!

This first session had a early nervousness to it that developed into laughter and will only get better. As we finished up, the girls chatted to me about what they had written, and I was honoured that they wanted me to read their work. It is lovely to be getting my hands dirty with them, especially as you realise how terrifying it can be to read something out to everyone, to share a little piece of yourself with the group. But as you share, they share, and together we will grow. It makes for a lovely atmosphere, a perfect end to a Tuesday. I know these girls have the raw talent to produce incredible writing, and I cannot wait to see it happen.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Pre-First Story

The first session has felt like a long time coming, and it all kicks off tomorrow.

Back in April, I think it was, Emma and Kate asked if I would take over as First Story Teacher (even though I am a Librarian). I have loved having First Story hosted in the Library, and tried to assist where possible with providing resources and encouragement, but had kept to a safe distance. Unfortunately, it seemed I had not gone unnoticed.

With no access to emails over the summer break (due to some technical complications across school), Kate and I struggled to get everything sorted before the start of term, so our first couple of days were spent manically running around trying to get the message out to students that FIRST STORY IS RESUMING SOON! I gate-crashed assemblies and tutor times, made announcements in briefing, and basically threw letters at student to attract attention.

Kate is worried we might struggle to get enough kids together, but I am more optimistic. We have two groups for First Story – a lunch time group with year eight and nine students, and an after school group with GCSE and A-Level students. The latter takes place in the Library, with the former in an English classroom. Since the Library is full of kids at lunch time, I cannot attend the lower school session, though hope that can change with some support from other staff.

One of the main challenges of hosting First Story in the Library is that the space has to be open to all students until 4pm for homework catch up. Most kids use the Library for the right reasons and in the right ways, but there are always exceptions – some play games, which is fine unless they are disrupting others. So I tend to spend a good chunk of time having to keep the non-First Story kids quiet. Last year, this was the reason I managed to keep my distance, but now, I will have to find new ways to ensure both the homework catch up and creative writing students are dealt with fairly.

Wish me luck!