I was reminded today of one of my career highlights. When I was a keen young second-in-English, I organised a creative writing workshop for enthusiastic students of all ages with a visiting poet, Anthony Dunn. He ran a great workshop which I have adapted and run myself numerous times since. Here’s how it works:
The shock of the unexpected – The Jaguar
The first exercise is a cloze using Ted Hughes’ poem The Jaguar. Here it is (download link):
The apes yawn and 1________ their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion
Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil
Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or
Stinks of sleepers from the 2__________ straw.
It might be painted on a nursery wall.
But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the 3_________ of his eyes
On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the 4_________ of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is 5_____________ of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the 6____________ come.
The aim of this exercise is to get the students to think of the word that fits the gap, then not to use that word but to think of a far more interesting word to use instead. Ask them to feed this back and discuss their choices, and what the do to the sense of the poem. Finally, show them Hughes’ version. His language choices a startling – muscular, electric, and totally unexpected. This is what we are aiming for in our writing: language which shocks the reader into attention.
Getting the words flowing – free writing
Next, get the students to write for two minutes without stopping. There should be no brief other than that quality control doesn’t matter, and that the writing won’t be shared. The only rule is that they must continue writing at all times, without pause or hesitation, whatever comes into their heads. Anthony Dunn uses this technique as a warm-up whenever he sits down to write. It overcomes the fear of the blank page, gets words flowing from the brain to the pen, and allows inspiration to come from the mundane external world or the internal monologue the writer has with themselves. The work the students go on to produce will be written underneath the free-write; the fact that the page is already half-filled with poorly-structured, half-formed thoughts in a messy scrawl is liberating and enables more of an anything-goes approach to the creative process.
Focusing on the detail – describing the everyday
The final warm-up is to describe an everyday object with the closest scrutiny and attention to detail possible. Anthony Dunn used his jumper, a particularly chunky knit as I recall! I have since used a board rubber, jacket, and a classroom clock. It doesn’t need to be coherent, but the description should try to capture the detail of the object with as much clarity as is possible. Reward this in the feedback!
The main event – bring on the metaphor
The final creative task is to write a poem in which an everyday object serves as a metaphor or vehicle for another idea. I usually ask them to look in their bags or pencil cases, or around the classroom, for an object they can use, but I have also provided stimulus objects on cards before (a mirror, a clock, a ring, a coin). Through the close description of the everyday object, they should aim to shed light on the broader or deeper idea they are exploring. Memorably, one student wrote a series of monologues as different mirrors including in a shop changing room, a handbag compact, and a car rear-view mirror, giving their perspectives on what they reflected. Others have used clocks and watches to meditate on the merciless march of time. My career highlight, however, was a collaborative poem written by two students in the very first session with Anthony Dunn, using the sharpening of a pencil.
Clara and Eleanor’s poem was so good, I submitted it to the TES back when they published student poetry, and it made the paper in November 2001. I still have the clipping. I hope they won’t mind my reproducing it here:
The sharpening of a pencil
Lead to the table top,
The first twist around the metal pole
The striptease continues.
Slowly she sheds her dirty skin,
Leaving her lingering scent behind her.
Around the newly revealed figure,
Lie the peeled coils of colour.
As the rhythmic turns continue
A crowd of stubble gathers.
Tapping in trays, piles of ash form,
A dense black smoke mingles
Around her new body.
She turns: Clean. Pure. Sharp.
Getting straight to the point.
On occasions like this, when I’m privileged to be the midwife to creativity, I am reminded that there is no better job in the world than teaching – and these are not rare occasions. How lucky we are.