Creative Writing Georgeta Stoenescu Georgeta Stoenescu has been a teacher of English for 35 years. Between 1998-2001 she worked as inspector for English for her region and did lesson observation and supervised the work of the teachers of English. She attended some ELT conferences and gave some presentations; in 2001 she was involved in a Creative Writing project financed by the British Council and published a few articles in Romance, a magazine for the Romanian teachers of English. At present she is a teacher of English.
Bibliography Acknowledgement I would like to thank Mark Roberts, British Council counselor, who
helped and encouraged me a lot.
Background Once upon a time, in a far-off country, Romania by name, there was an AGM* organized by the British Council. The people in charge laid emphasis on ‘promoting the skills of the individual and on managing the institution’, everybody present benefiting from training in project management. The British Council advisors informed the teachers of English that there was some money in store for the best designed projects in the area. As one of the meeting conclusions was that writing was the worst skill among Romanian students, I decided to do something in this respect. I studied all the textbooks in use at the time and concentrated my thoughts on writing in general.
No sooner had I sent my first draft to the BC than I was invited to join a small group of university and pre-university teachers of English from different parts of the country meant to design a project on Creative Writing. We worked hard for a few days and, as a result, the project was declared successful. Later on it was put under the same umbrella with Drama, its title being changed into New Expression in Drama and Writing. The five sessions of training included in the project came to an end in the autumn of 2003. Back to their schools the team members (trained by British and Irish writers) began to use the techniques they had just learned with their students, bearing in mind that the final aim of the project was developing Creative Writing skills within EFL/Literature classroom. As for me, I did my best to involve my students in similar exercises, too. The success of their pieces of writing entering the Creativity section of the English Competition (Iasi, Romania, 2002) was extremely encouraging. They got prizes in poetry, short story and essay writing.
What is creative writing? If one looks up in the ‘Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture’ he/she will find that the word creative means ‘producing new and original ideas and things, imaginative and inventive’, while creativity is defined as ‘the ability to produce new and original ideas and things.’
Creative Writing is associated with “freedom, fantasy, imagination, playfulness, making the familiar strange, generating language”*, etc. Creative Writing, which I hope most teachers of English will resort to either as a separate subject or as part of a larger subject called EFL, is in line with the learner-centred teaching approach. It stimulates students’ imagination and originality helping them to feel the thrill of expressing their own ideas in forms which are different from the usual writing tasks. When writing creatively students feel free to choose the audience they want to address to. In this way they liberate themselves from the constraints imposed on by their only reader, the teacher, who thinks that he/she has to do one single thing: to assess the correctness of the linguistic form used. Having certain audience in mind, student-writers can identify the particular context which will determine the form (poetry, prose, drama) and style of pieces of writing. In their book ‘The Inward Ear’, Alan Maley and Alan Duff make clear the idea that creative writing ‘is not just writing something down.’ On the contrary, creative writing is a process, the writer redrafting and reformulating ideas until he gets his/her message conveyed. In fact, ‘the writer does not know what his/her writing will be until the end of the process.’
Why teach creative writing? I feel I cannot give a clear answer to this question unless I answer another question: Why teach writing? Well, because it is just as important as teaching the other skills. “Writing, like speaking, is a means of communication – a way of getting ideas across,”* and teachers should deal with it as such. Nevertheless, things are different in practice. Speaking, reading and listening seem to occupy most of the time allotted to a lesson, writing being left at the end, when the teacher looks at it as at a proper piece of homework, a task usually meant to reinforce what learners have studied in class. When the next English lesson comes, two or three students read it as quickly as possible while most of their classmates are not involved at all. As for the teacher, he/she is satisfied that he/she has worked according to his/her plan, without thinking of its inefficiency.
Why teach creative writing? Any experienced teacher knows that students get easily bored unless the activities they are involved in are varied and meaningful. Not only does creative writing offer the learners the variety they need, but it rewards them for their effort as well. Students get used to handling language better by producing their own pieces of writing. In fact, this is the only way they find that new meaning is added to the vocabulary and grammar structures they are familiar with.
Living in the age of electronics, youngsters find literature more than time consuming. However compulsory an examination in literature may be, students do not develop a taste in fiction. I am of the opinion that the way Romanian teachers approach literature is also to blame. All that most students have to do with regard to native literature examinations is to reproduce what literary critics say. Writing in the native language is another burden, a literary essay consisting of a combination of statements copied from different books of literary criticism.
So, Creative Writing in the English classroom fills in the present gaps and invites students to look from the inside at the relationship between form and meaning. This way of approaching writing in class will help learners reconsider their attitude towards literature and, why not, change many of them not only into fiction ‘producers’ but also into fiction consumers.
How to explore creative writing in the teaching-learning process There are two ways for a teacher to help his/her students unlock their imagination:
to allot creative writing exercises one special class per week
to introduce creative writing exercises within the usual EFL class as a variation to other types of activities.
As for me, I have used both ways so far, but I am of the opinion that the second one is the best. Why? Because learners do not like to do the same thing for too long. When I feel they get bored with their English in use/speaking/reading and listening exercises and are ready to get ‘asleep’ I take them to the magic world of employing language in a manner that may ‘wake them up.’ The first thing I do is to help them put feelings and ideas into poetry. Whenever I happen to have a new group/class I invite its members to introduce themselves in a five-line poem which is nothing else but a different way of saying who they are. The exercise does not belong to me; I learnt it during one of my training courses and have found that it works. The name mentioned in the first line is followed by a four-line characterization. According to the rule, each line (except the first) has to be no longer than seven syllables. Each piece of writing is done in class, so the students do not think of it as of an extra-burden, i.e. a piece of work they are supposed to do after school. They may be reticent at first, but I assure them that I am not a writer myself and when the allotted time (10 minutes) comes to an end, I ask them to read their lines aloud. If they do not feel confident enough I start by reading my own ‘achievement.’ Otherwise, I read it at the end. A very important condition for the teacher to encourage his/her students to write is that he/she does the same task his/her students do. This is what Mathew Sweeney* used to do with the teacher-trainees during his workshops. Here are some examples of my present students:
Me I was baptized as Sorin Gherghisan
I think I am witty and fun.
I wear glasses…that’s not cool
But after school
I will rule.
Myself Ioana is my name
And think that cool is lame.
I hate trends and fame
But though I am a hater
I’ll miss not seeing you later.
Even if learners find it difficult to obey all rules on their first try, I appreciate their effort with words and phrases such as: ‘good’, ‘well done’, ‘it’s a good start’, ‘not bad.’ The ‘poets’ of the high school I am working at at the moment felt so satisfied with their first ‘poetry’ exercise that the next lesson they tried their hand at introducing their English group by using rules of their own. They took pride in the rhythm and flow they lent their ‘productions’ and I invited them to share their happiness with their mates by reading them aloud:
Welcome to 10C!
I have to admit that I gained experience during the Creative Writing workshops I attended. Nevertheless, textbooks are also of great help in this respect. ‘English Panorama’ and ‘The Web of Words’ are very good examples for anyone who wants to deal with the subject in question. The easiest way for the students to try their hand at composing their own pieces of ‘poetry’ is, according to the authors of the above-mentioned textbooks, “to write something with a very clear structure”*, such as acrostics, haiku, limericks. Bearing in mind the fact that my students are between 15-19 years of age when they dream a lot and fall in love for the first time I give them the opportunity to shout their feelings associated with friendship and life and love and music etc. Acrostics seem to be really stimulating in this respect:
Morning with it
Usually in the bathroom
Some people enjoy it even
In the classroom
Classical, dance or metal.
Friends are forever in
Writing haiku comes second to acrostics. The difficulty lies in expressing an idea in seventeen syllables distributed in three lines of five/seven/five. Being guided by the teacher and using their own resources, the learners seem to be skilful enough in dealing with this kind of poetry:
The recess is over
And I smell of cigarettes
I’m in prison again.
A child of the time
Flies fast away with the wind
No one can catch it.
She’s waiting for me
There at the old bus station.
‘Will he come…or not?’
Teenagers also prove skilful at shaping limericks. They are exuberant and love humour, so they feel at ease while writing a five-line poem rhyming a a b b a and starting the same way:
There was a small boy of Hong-Kong
Who from the market bought a dog
The dog ran away
After he had to pay
So the boy bought a frog.
There was a gladiator of Rome
Who went fighting the sun in a dome
He went just for fun
And ate all the sun
Without thinking of leaving me some.
There was a boy of Berlin
Until everybody loved him.
So far I have presented activities which can make the English lesson less boring and more pleasant and useful. It is only later that our teenage students will realize how much they have learnt while playing with words and rhyme and a fixed number of lines and syllables, etc. Of course the younger the students, the easier the exercises. So they can start with guessing exercises consisting of filling in missing words or missing lines. Reordering jumbled lines is another way leading to the understanding of poetry and finally to writing it. Poets’ patterns, picture suggestions, given topics take students from guided poetry to personal productions. ‘The Inward Ear’ by Alan Maley and Alan Duff is really helpful for anyone who wants more exercise on writing poetry. An interesting exercise I was involved in as a teacher-trainee takes students further, giving them more freedom. The students are asked to walk home quietly and pay attention to everything that happens in the street. This involves people and things as well as what they can see and hear and smell and feel and touch, etc. The next English class they are asked to put down the result of their observation on paper under headlines such as: people, things, actions, feelings, smells, sounds. Adjectives are added to nouns, adverbs to verbs and finally all these are written in verse. This time the ‘poem’ does not have a fixed form or a compulsory rhyme scheme. What it needs is a certain flow and rhythm meant to please the one who listens to/reads it. Mention has to be made with regard to the length of the poem which does not have to be very long:
The People I Pass By
As I walk along the street
Conclusions Our school children, no matter how old they are, will always dream of a fairytale world populated by characters such as Prince Charming and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella and fairies and will forever be pleased to share their feelings with their peers. And how could they do it better than by putting them in forms that are different from the everyday ones? Let them enjoy the freedom Creative Writing offers them, having always in mind the fact that ‘language and imagination cannot be imprisoned.’* I strongly believe that in this way they will also develop both their writing skill and a taste in literature.
O’Dell, F. (1998) English Panorama 2, Cambridge University Press
Carter, R. & Long, M.N.(1987), The Web of Words, Cambridge University Press
Carter, R. & Long, M.N. (1991), Teaching Literature, Longman
Collie, J. & Slater, S. (1999), Short Stories for Creative Language Classrooms, Cambridge University Press