Tag Archives: teaching

Image illustrating ideas

How to have ideas

Over the years a number of people have told me how they’d love to write a book – only, they don’t have an idea to write about. I used to be fairly dismissive of this. My view was that if someone doesn’t know what to write about, they don’t want to write but rather (lord knows why) to ‘be a writer’.

The longer I teach creative writing, though, the more sympathetic I’ve become to this attitude.

We are born creative creatures – as children we know how to play, how to make-believe. If you’re lucky, you’ll have encouraging parents and a good teacher or two; if you’re lucky, your creative instincts will survive and even thrive into adulthood. But for many of us, creativity is something that is not nurtured, is not developed. Pressures on schools to deliver academic results above all mean creative subjects are often sidelined (and sometimes, as by UK Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, actively discouraged). For many, by the time they leave secondary education, those creative instincts that were once so strong have been all but forgotten.

So when someone says they want to write but they don’t have anything to write about, they’re voicing a genuine need – an urge toward self expression which, carefully supported and nurtured, might well develop into an ability to write for a wider readership.

When I run creative writing sessions, my work often centres around helping participants to rediscover their creative skills – and when it comes to generating ideas, there are plenty of techniques that can help. Some of the activities I use involve striking two dissimilar things together (a snippet of overheard conversion, for instance, with a childhood memory of a place you once visited) to make new sparks; freewriting, using the prompt ‘I don’t want to write about…’ (this comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones); asking ‘what if?’ questions (What if London was flooded? What if a computer virus became conscious? What if sugar was banned?).

Even reading widely and noting what catches your eye can be a useful approach. In a recent series of workshops on creative writing about science and technology, we used copies of the New Scientist as source material. We selected interesting stories and news items, and made notes about possible themes that might emerge from this material (for instance, a theme of watching and being watched emerging from a news item about surveillance technology) along with any personal experiences that connected with our chosen material. By the end of the session the room was buzzing with scores of promising ideas.

Of course, some people have the opposite problem: they want to write, but they have too many ideas and can’t decide which to pursue. What then?

One option is to combine them all in a single project (probably a novel, since that form is stretchy enough to contain all kinds of disparate ideas). In her guide to novel writing Monkeys With Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas describes how she uses matrixes to harness all the ideas that are currently interesting her.

Or there’s another option, one I prefer: with each idea you have, pay close attention to your own reactions. I find this helps me distinguish between a promising idea that might be perfect for another writer but is just not for me, and one that feels like mine. If I can practically feel my pupils dilating, my mind’s eye focusing, I know I’ve got something worth exploring. In Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, Adam Marek describes how he experiences this particular sensation: ‘It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness.’

Once you’re attuned to this sensation, it becomes far easier to recognise an idea that really resonates with you, and to become generous with all those ideas it feels like anyone might write. You can become profligate: spread them around, give them away … and what you give you shall receive, tenfold.

Writer’s block? Why an art class might help…

Writing is necessarily solitary, and though I get to meet all kinds of interesting people through teaching creative writing, opportunities to share experiences with, and learn from, other writer-teachers can be hard to come by. So it was exciting to attend my first National Association of Writers in Education conference a couple of weeks back, and to find myself surrounded by hundreds of other professional ‘writers in education’. Over three days of seminars, workshops and presentations we covered subjects ranging from flash fiction for beginner writers, with the hugely enthusiastic Carrie Etter, to storytelling with military veterans.

One of the most surprising sessions for me focused on the benefits of integrating drawing with your writing practice. Though there are plenty of accomplished writer-artists (strangely, the examples that spring to mind are all Scottish: John Byrne, Alasdair Gray, Ian Hamilton Findlay…) I’ve tended to think of drawing and writing as mutually exclusive activities. Drawing is about looking – looking hard – and if I’m working on a piece of writing I’m usually oblivious to the detail of the world around me, because I’m so thoroughly absorbed in the world I’m imagining.

So what was surprising about the activities our experts (Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan from Columbia College Chicago) asked us to try? After some scribbly warm-ups, we made ‘blind mono’ drawings of something or someone in the room – line drawings made without looking at the subject and without lifting pen from paper. And while we drew, we were supposed to think about a piece of writing we were working on. Holding those two activities in my head at the same time was a challenge, and I didn’t feel I managed it very well. But then we turned over our paper and began a ‘blind writing’, working fast and covering up each line of text as soon as we’d written it – and I was amazed at how fluently ideas arrived for a a story that had been stuck for a while at the ‘vague inspiration’ stage.

Drawing with writing on reverse
My ‘blind mono’ drawing

Philip and Patricia suggested this effect may be to do with a physical openness, a loosening up that transfers itself from the physical process of drawing to the more static, hunched-over business of writing. Perhaps it’s as simple as using movement to shake the ideas loose, in the same way that going for a walk can unstick you creatively. And I’m not sure how it would work with writers who haven’t drawn since school, who might well have negative preconceptions about their ability to draw ‘well’. But – even though I’m quite pleased with my blind mono – this isn’t about drawing well: what I learned was that you have to let go of the idea of making a good picture, to make good writing.

Five reasons to be a writer-teacher

At a workshop last week I asked some of my creative writing students what they hoped to gain from their studies. You might think the answer would be obvious: I’d like to be a professional, published author. But interestingly, only one of a dozen students told me this was her goal, and the range of other reasons was much more wider than you might expect. They were learning variously for pleasure; to be able to use the skills of creative writing to enliven their academic or educational writing; to write a family history; to record their own lives for future generations; to try something new.

This diversity of ambition tends not to be considered in the conversation about whether or not creative writing can be taught. (As an ex-art student, I find it genuinely baffling that this is even a question when no-one seriously suggests that drawing, painting etc. might be unteachable; my favourite contribution to the debate comes from author Tim Clare: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick.)

Anyway, this made me consider the question from my own perspective: what do I hope to gain from teaching creative writing? The obvious answer is an income, and that’s certainly a factor. But in five years of teaching all different kinds of learners, at all levels, I’ve found there are other benefits, too.

1) It makes you a more thoughtful writer. When I began teaching creative writing, I had to become much more consciously aware of the techniques and strategies I was using in my own work so I could explain and illustrate them to others. This increased self-awareness is like switching on the light so you can see what’s in your tool-kit. There are still times when I find myself fumbling around in the dark – and a bit of fumbling has its place – but once you’ve got electricity, it’s hard to imagine how you ever built a whole house by candlelight.

2) It unsticks you. Just occasionally during a conversation with a student, a lightbulb appears above my head as I realise the solution I’m suggesting to them is the very thing I need to apply to my own work-in-progress. One story had been perplexing me  for years; then I had the lightbulb moment – to do with organising time – and it was finished that afternoon. And that solution worked for the student, too.

3) It makes you raise your game. When you realise how very many people there are out there who are talented writers bursting with inventive ideas, that’s a great incentive to work harder at developing your own skills – as well as a reminder that talent and inventiveness often need a third, less glamorous friend: persistence.

4) It gets you out of the house. Most of my days are spent reading, writing, thinking, procrastinating, going for walks and making tea – alone. I like alone, but I also like to be reminded from time to time that other people exist; that I exist. Teaching, especially with really varied groups, allows me to meet new people – to connect with the world outside my head.

5) It pays. Because unless you’re happy living in that garret, you’re going to need a day-job.