Tuesday, 22 October 2013

First Try at Developing Writing

This last week has been one of the most stressful of my professional life, with not enough hours in the day to do everything. As usual, First Story came to my rescue, offering me a moment of respite following a long hard day in the Library.

Last week, a number of students were absent from school to celebrate Eid, so this week the group felt pretty large. (I know - it seems just moments ago we were worried that we would not have enough students attending!)

Kate has been encouraging us all to start to develop a short story, drawing inspiration from Katherine Mansfield's 'The Wind Blows'. With a focus on setting and atmosphere, she gave us a place (fairground, bedroom, bus) and a feeling (hope, grief, boredom) and we created vivid characters within just a few hundred words.

We have a nice mix in our after-school First Story group: some sixth formers who have been attending for years, now published in several First Story anthologies; some new sixth formers, enticed by the achievements of their classmates; and key stage four students who Kate has attracted in the past through special groups, such as a group she led with girls from other countries.

Kate and Miss Woolley (our Head of English Specialism) have introduced an AS in Creative Writing. The reason we wanted to incorporate the AS into her sessions was because we thought it would be incredibly easy for students who had already attended the First Story sessions for some time to get the qualification. They had already shown raw talent, the ability to make revisions and develop their writing, and a reasonably sized, good-quality portfolio of work.

This week's development task was targeted at them, in order to produce work for their portfolios; but it also proved an interesting challenge for some of the younger students. With creative writing, work produced can be very personal, so sometimes it is hard for students to accept feedback and make changes. (I think a whole blog post might have to be dedicated to my own issues with constructive critisicm...)

Over the last few weeks, I have been hugely impressed by all the students, but our group definitely feels a little too big, especially following the great session we had last week with fewer present. Sometimes, we can't fit all the students around the big central table in the library, and we struggle to give each student the attention they deserve. Kate and I were simply not expecting such a brilliant uptake!

Click here to see my work inspired by Katherine Mansfield.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

First Guest

With Kate away this week, we invited guest writer Alan Buckley to lead our First Story class today. He is a very inspiring poet, and I have met him and experienced his workshops several times in the past, including the First Story Residential at Nettlecombe in Somerset last summer.

The activity Alan led this week was one I have done before with him, where he gives the class a list of first lines to well known poems and asks students to use this as a starting point for their own creations. Some of the first lines include Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Applicant’, ‘I Will Put Chaos into Fourteen Lines’ by Edna St Vincent Millay and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot. All we get is the line, with no idea of who wrote the original or what the poem is about.

Last time I did this particular workshop, I used Plath’s first line as my start. I was drawn to it, vaguely aware that I knew where it had come from, unable to focus properly on any of the other options (N.B. I adore Sylvia Plath).

This time, I tried a different first line: “I was nearly killed here, one night in February.” (From ‘Solitude (I)’ by Tomas Tranströmer.) Having recently read War Horse, I found myself thinking about war. First, I imagined an elderly man returning to France, to the place where he fought during the First World War; but soon the poem took control and I was led to writing about a woman reminiscing about her experiences of World War Two, hiding underground whilst bombs fell over her home town. I was actually quite proud of myself.

But on then hearing the students’ work, I instantly became even more proud – of them. One student had used the same first line as me and wrote about a car crash, so we were shocked to learn the original subject of Tranströmer’s poem. We had poems about husbands blowing up their cheating wives, about dystopian worlds of chaos, and about love towards absent parents.

Alan and I split the group in two, so that all present could share their work. Some needed coaxing, but most were surprisingly willing to read aloud – I think once they see friends reading, none of them wanted to be the odd one out. Together, we had a laugh and a cry, and I feel like I know each one a little better.