Thursday, 11 February 2010

How I was arrogant and became more humble by teaching creative writing - Meg Harper

One of the things I have done today is think about what I might do with my creative writing class which meets once a month – haven’t quite decided yet but I have a vague idea and I’m looking forward to it. The class lasts for 2 hours and we always over-run.
A few years ago I would have vowed I would never teach creative writing. I would never be part of a writing group. What? Go back to English teaching after discovering the liberation of drama teaching? No way! Sit around listening to wannabes read their dire stuff and be part of a back-scratching circle that hasn’t got the guts to say please go away and take up crotchet instead? Gosh, I was arrogant! Now I love both the teaching and the listening, I have started another (very tiny) writing group for people who want to write their autobiographies (thank you, Leslie Wilson for that lovely idea) and I am awe-struck by the talent of some of the writers and their dedication. Not only that, I am humbled by being part of a group, the bedrock of which is people who will graciously accept criticism and apply it and also give it where necessary with gentleness and sensitivity.
So how did I get from there (arrogant and dismissive) to here? (impressed and humbled)
Like a lot of the bits of my work portfolio, this happened by chance. The creative writing tutor at The Mill Arts Centre where I run the Youth Theatre, resigned suddenly. There was a gap. You write books, don’t you Meg? You’re a qualified teacher? Could you possibly.....? That was nearly three years ago. In the intervening summers I’ve run 2 intensive 3 days workshops where a tiny group has written and self-published an anthology of their work via lovely (if clunky at times) (Incidentally, is it just me but has the P&P multiplied a hundred-fold?) And what a learning curve that has been! For me, a spin-off looks like a new publication with A&C Black but I’ve yet to sign the contract so I’m not holding my breath!
It’s not all awe and wonder, of course! One aspect I didn’t anticipate is that whilst members come and go, I have two members who have been with me from the start and two other long-standing members – and there’s an overlap between the creative writing group and the autobiography group – so each session has to be new and original. There’s no re-cycling of old lessons! The downside of this is that every so often it does my head in and panic ensues! I’m primarily a children’s fiction writer – so what gives me any qualification whatsoever to teach poetry, travel writing, crime fiction, etc etc etc? The upside is that I have to jolly well find out! And it is very interesting and good for me. Last time we were dwelling on an idea culled from the Myslexia short story competition that a satisfying story is one in which change takes place, preferably within an intriguing context. It turned out to be quite a contraversial idea and led to an interesting discussion, not to mention some very original story plans.
So what will Saturday’s class hold? I don’t know yet – but the hour we devote to reading and commenting on what the members have brought along will be fascinating. Some will have taken what we did last time and worked on that. Others have on-going projects and they’ll share the next bit. I’m really hoping Stewart will have written the next instalment of his Sci-Fi novel and that Rebecca’s children’s novel is as funny as last time. But the best bit for me will be John’s poetry. I am gradually making a collection of his stunning poems. I am very happy to write the stuff I write – fluent, readable, light, accessible. But I cannot help being envious of those who can write poetry well. I will never write like John Vickers. Let me introduce you to his work. Those of you who are my Facebook friends may have already encountered this which is my favourite.
The Caravan and the Curlews

The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks.
we always come here in late September
where dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

The tin roof sags and bends and sinks and leaks
and dad woke at dawn cursing my mother -
the wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks.

I want to pursue what my dad pursues,
I've been stuck in here with mam forever
and dad searches the mudflats for curlews.

Is it really the long curved bill he seeks,
or has he found here something lovelier?
The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks,

and dad listens to the shoreline calls, clues
as to redshank, godwit, oystercatcher
but dad searches the mudflats for curlews

he's been thinking of little else for weeks.
Yet I wish we could bird-watch together.
The wind heaves, a door rattles, the floor creaks
and dad searches the mudflats for curlews.


steeleweed said...

Interesting form, similar to a sestina. Has a name?

20123 said...

人生是一連串的課程,必須活過才能明白。 ..................................................

Katherine Langrish said...

I love the poem! As you say - envy!

Julie P said...

Superb poetry! I bet your students are so appreciative of your teaching,


Leslie Wilson said...

I loved the poem, too, but what I wanted to say is how impressed I have been with the writing skill of many of my autobiography students, who have no ambitions for publication whatsoever, but are prepared to work really hard to make their memoirs, written for their grandchildren, children, or just for themselves, as lively and interesting as possible. And then there are the life stories, you hear such amazing ones..

Meg Harper said...

I'll ask him about the form when I see him. Glad you like it! And yes, Leslie, you are so right! I hear some fascinating stuff! Can't say John's poetry skill is anything to do with my teaching, sadly - but at least he comes to the group!