These exercises are designed to illustrate a progression in learning, supporting the development of a student’s capacity to respond to both analytical and creative outcomes. A three-step trajectory is implied within the exercises relevant to creative writing – firstly, the generation of creative response; secondly, the development of skills; and finally, the integration of skills in practice. This trajectory functions on both a horizontal and vertical axis through a student’s learning. Development from junior to senior school can function to support a student’s capacities at each point.
Salman Rushdie sees writers as:
“‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, ‘open the universe a little more.’”
Joseph Anton (2012)
Exercises at junior school level are designed to consolidate the capacity for creative response. As a secondary focus, they look to introduce basic skills within the creative skill set, and build the empathetic response in reading through an appreciation of narrative impact.
List poems are ideal in this setting, as they simplify the response demanded, and thus increase the student’s confidence in their ability to do so. They are also surprisingly effective. To raise the complexity as you move up year levels, add complexity of form – i.e. re-write the list created as a Haiku, or incorporate a specific skill, rhyme, enjambment, concrete forms, etc. The following exercises are divided between free-form writing and textual response, so that the creative response both develops independently, and comes to be associated with more complex textual forms.
- ‘Choose a colour, and create a list of all the things you associate with that colour. Arrange these into a list, using the syllables to create a beat.’
- ‘Five senses: Describe a place you love, with five words, one from each sense.’
- ‘Compile a list of emotions shown in the story. Create a second list of related words, objects from the story which you associate with each emotion. Combine the strongest words from these lists to create a poem.’ (The imperative of strongest here encourages students to transfer an awareness of narrative impact from the text to their own writing.)
- Choose a simile from the story. Create a list of five similes which could replace it.
Exercises at middle school level seek to build from the capacity to produce a response, and begin incorporating an awareness of the active application of skills. This can effectively accompany the introduction of close reading or language analysis. Textual response in this sense assumes an awareness of narrative impact and aims to build complexity in narrative awareness. Free-form creative work consolidates these skills in focusing on structured responses.
- ‘Develop a plot line for a murder mystery, complete with a main character. Feel out the rising tension, the point of conflict and the resolution.’ This can be developed into a long project, working through the different steps of character development, plot creation and scene writing.
- ‘You are walking through a busy park and a child lets go of a balloon.’ Write this (or any similar) scene:
- In present tense
- In past tense
- In first person perspective
- In third person perspective
- Using repetition (or similar simple technique)
- Using the balloon as a symbol for hope (or similar complex technique)
This is most effective when completed in runs of two/three, combined with a discussion of what has changed in the piece with each manifestation, what is easy/difficult and why; what they feel was effective.
- ‘Write a short story from the perspective of a small child. What do they see and think about from their point of view? Re-write the same story from the perspective of an old man. What has changed in the voice?’
- ‘How does silence function in a short story collection? Write a piece in which the climax is left for the reader to imagine.’ OR: ‘Write the story of a car crash, but stop at the point of collision. How does an ending like this open us up to think about our own lives?’
- An exercise in response to Susan Midalia’s ‘Because’, in Feet to the Stars (UWAP, 2015): ‘Read the passage on p. 96 and illustrate both a) the emotional shifts the narrator is experiencing; and b) how those emotions are created with language techniques. Then, write a piece which considers how would the mother have felt in leaving. Starting with the phrase ‘I have to, I have to go, I have to go’, write a letter from her to her daughter.’
Exercises at senior school level look to develop the skill set of students into an autonomous creative practice. This moves from the instinctive response towards a concerted response, wherein the student actively seeks a specific effect. Building from more complex texts will support this.
‘Write a story about a man who has lost his son in a war, without mentioning either death, war or the son. Write a story about the same man, from the perspective of his wife. Write a letter from the son, sent home before he died.’
Characterisation is a difficult process – this exercise works best if developed slowly and across several drafts, so that the student can develop a more rounded human response within the perspective. If they are struggling, suggest an opening which specifies a certain mundanity of setting – i.e. the man having breakfast. Encourage them to explore the ways in which a common scene can be plied with meaning and depth of character through the use of literary techniques. Suggest they focus particularly on the use of fine detail in description.
“How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceieved of her prey, blunders on without them. …How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness…” From: Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, London: Penguin, 1993, p.71.
Virginia Woolf has also described life as ‘a luminous halo’… What does this evoke for you? Map a story where in the climax is the protagonist’s realisation of this quality to life. Try and write it in Woolf’s meandering voice.
‘Write a piece with two narratorial voices. One exists only in their own world, the other talks directly to the reader. What do we need in a piece to create the suspension of disbelief?’
This type of exercise both encourages the development of specific techniques (more can be layered in if needed, i.e. specific personages for each voice); and asks the student to reflect on the practical application of the concept which underpins.
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