They were probably sitting up in bed, my daughter Jade and son-in-law Sam, their sons asleep, peace having descended and racking their brains as to what to buy me for my big decade birthday last year. “Why don’t we pay for your Dad to do a Creative Writing course?” Sam might have said. Funny how I get sensitive to being called ‘Dad’, preferring Pa or Papa! If I had been a fly on the wall I might have heard ‘he needs to improve’ or ‘it might help him’ or ‘he obviously enjoys writing his PCs so this might make them better’. Time moved on and they saw something they liked more; but it had been mentioned to me and the seed sown, so I investigated the course at the City College/MET in Brighton and signed up.
Not really much idea what to expect apart from the sales pitch, which mentioned ‘writing autobiography, poetry and fiction’, and ‘exploring techniques for sparking imagination and tapping into inner creativity’. It sounded interesting I thought. The course started towards the end of April and as instructed I had collected my security pass a couple of days earlier; strange to go and study and have to have a pass but times have changed.
By the time we were ten minutes into the first class the last person had turned up. It’s in my DNA to be punctual, to be there at least 5 minutes before the start, but obviously my DNA is not shared by others!! We were a disparate bunch, genuinely reflecting the diversity of this City, three men, eleven women; I am not good at guessing ages but most 25-45 with one or two older than that. I wondered at some point during those first few minutes whether this class was for me and as the weeks progressed others must have thought the same.
Three dropped out: then there were 11
We filled out a form, indicating what we wanted from the course. Then we started, two hours with quite a lot of student participation, a little whiteboard guidance. We talked about characterisation, writing dialogue, believable plots and connecting people and events; we wrote a child’s simple bedtime story and we practised in class and with our homework. In the warm glow of the satisfaction at having completed each and every class, and having gained a great deal from them all, some things stand out:
One evening we were divided into groups of three and asked to tell the other two of a moment in your past you feared for your life. Then the group would choose one, and in class each member of that group would recount that experience as if it was their own, the others trying to guess whose actual tale it was. Got it? Well, I was grouped with Sophie and Steve; both had more tattoos than the owner of my local tattoo parlour, not to mention enough piercing for them both to leak if they stood on their heads and for Steve some green dye in his hair. We compared our experiences in the corridor, away from flapping ears. Steve told of his drunken stepfather throwing a supper plate at him as a child, shattering across his forehead; I told of being on a yacht in a race across the North Sea when we were hit by a 60 knot line squall which knocked the boat horizontal and the sea poured in: Sophie told of being at a Tattoo Convention in Kathmandu, Nepal at the time of the earthquake in 2015. We choose hers, but left out the bit about it being a Tattoo convention as it would have been visually obvious I have no interest in body art! Fun to recount someone else’s stories as if they are your own.
And then there were 8!
One topic was poetry, a form of expression I don’t enjoy either reading or listening to. The homework was to write a 40 line poem. “Forty lines!” the voice inside my head yelled at me as I reached for a clean sheet of paper and made my first half-hearted attempt; seemed like an impossible task. I eventually produced a basic effort on sailing; the fifth verse for example went like this:
“Sail’s flapping, pull in the sheet,
Yank the winch, clear the cleat.”
This challenge, of having to do something then, there, in class, in 10 minutes, in 100 words, that was fun! There was nowhere to hide; I wanted to produce something and not respond that I simply found this really too hard and “No, I don’t have anything!” which we occasionally heard.
For homework one week, I had to get someone to give me the names of two famous people and a newspaper headline; from these I was to concoct a story. Thanks Jon for suggesting David Beckham, Nelson Mandela and ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster”
With a bit of research I produced something which worked; email me if you want to read it.
One of the tasks I found most enjoyable was to rewrite a fairy-tale “with a twist”! Such fun …….. and maybe, just maybe, I’ll work it up into a short story and send it off somewhere.
And then there were 5! Life interrupts; Claudia was unwell, James’ partner had a baby, Francesca was often seduced by an offer from chums of a picnic on the beach in the warmth of the evening, with a glass of bubbly. Difficult huh?
We were given a colour reproduction of an Impressionist painting. Mine was Édouard Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’. In class, for this was the last one, we had to write about the picture. Then write about the picture from the point to view of someone in the picture; then from artist’s point of view. And finally create a story connected somehow with the picture. An interesting and challenging exercise.
At the end there were 4; Rachel, who had a delightfully creative and imaginative mind but hated the sound of her own voice, her friend Lydia who contributed lots although was very self-conscious about her efforts, Melanie who was very focused and who clearly will publish sometime ….. and me.
And what of Heather, our teacher? I spent some time on the teaching staff of the Royal School of Artillery and know that preparation beats chaos, confidence wins hands down but then I was simply imparting facts. Encouraging people to write creatively requires a completely different set of skills, trying to tease out ideas, challenging people to think laterally. Although Heather always seemed to have lost her password so she couldn’t log on and register our presence, I actually warmed to her over the weeks – people who write or try to teach writing must have a certain Je ne sais quoi huh?
Richard 29th July 2017