C O U R S E S A N D W O R K S H O P S
I have run numerous workshops with school children; a selection of these follows:
- I organised and ran The Writing on the Wall, a series of workshops held at Worcester Art Gallery in July 1999, based on Here To Stay, an exhibition of contemporary British art (including Tracy Emin) on show at the Gallery.
- In August 2000, I ran another series of workshops, Roman Ways--Your Words, at the Commandery Civil War Centre in Worcester.
- In June 2001, I ran a day of poetry workshops at St. Barnabas’ School, Drakes Broughton, Worcestershire, as part of the school’s ‘Book Week’ events.
- In March 2002, I ran a series of workshops on ‘Animals and Adventures’ for schoolchildren in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear.
- In July 2003, I ran poetry and music workshops for pupils at Conway Primary School, Sparkbrook, Birmingham, as part of their ‘Summer Reading Week.’ Topics included ‘Being the Weather,’ ‘Growing’ and ‘How I Was and How I’ll Be’; activities included setting the pupils’ poems to music. The workshops involved the entire school.
- In April 2004, I ran poetry workshops on the theme of ‘Fantastic Adventures’ at Eckington First School, Pershore, Worcestershire, as part of the school’s ‘English’ week. Activities included: reading my adventure poems and stories to the whole school, to set the scene for the day; singing and playing ‘adventure’ songs to pupils in Years 3, 4 and 5; running poetry and illustration workshops for these years; leading a whole-school session in which the pupils read their poems and shared their illustrations.
- In Spring and Summer 2007, I was writer-in-residence at three primary schools in Birmingham, as part of the Write On! Project to guide and encourage pupils in all aspects of their creative writing, including stories, poetry and plays for performance.
Currently, I run adult education courses in Creative Writing at the Coachhouse Arts Centre, Oldswinford, West Midlands, and at Westhill College, Selly Oak, Birmingham. These courses are offered through the University of Birmingham School of Continuing Studies. Their themes include ‘Personalising the Self: Exploring First-Person Narratives,’ ‘Poetic Responses to the Twentieth Century’ and ‘Adventures in Biography and Autobiography.’ The courses cover all genres of creative writing. I also run the poetry elements in two further Birmingham courses, Year 1 ‘Introduction to Creative Writing,’ and Year 2 ‘Experimental Writing.’
From October to December, 2004, I ran Creative Writing workshops in all genres at HMP Long Lartin, South Littleton, Worcestershire.
From March 2005 to March 2006, I ran monthly workshops for Sandwell Writers’ Group, at the main Sandwell Library, West Bromwich. Funded by Sandwell Arts and Poetry Central, the sessions led to the production of Many, Many Mondays, an anthology of the group’s work, which I edited. The anthology was launched in December 2006 at the Library, an event which attracted much positive response from public and media alike, leading to great interest in the group’s writing.
Devizes Writers' Group, May 2008: 'Building Effective Characters.'
Aim: to consider how best to build character in a way that fits effectively into the kind of narrative you wish to write.
- Start with discussion of the ways in which character can be portrayed: mention Forster, Aspects of the Novel, ‘round’ and ‘flat’ characters;
- Characters can be built from the outside in—from appearance to personality—or vice versa. Often, writers will offer a hybrid of the two, eg, in genre writing or romance, emphasising some physical trait, mannerism, item of dress which then acts as a symbol of the person ‘within’: eg, shifty eyes, gimlet eyes, a careworn face, jolly ‘round’ build, etc. Equally, some writers will hardly mention physical characteristics or style of dress at all, preferring to leave the reader to ‘paint’ the exterior of the character from what they are told about the character’s attitudes, behaviour, interaction with others;
- Consideration of the opening pages of Gatsby, when Nick Carraway introduces himself. How is characterisation managed and presented to us here?
- 1. Getting started. Go round the table. Each person gives a sentence or two about a character. Then, in the manner of ‘consequences,’ the next person adds to this. The main guideline is that each piece of information, snippet of history, revelation of personality must appear to be in keeping with the character as they are built up.
- 1. Use exercise on p. 18, ‘Getting Started in Writing’—thinking of yourself as a character, the roles you’ve been assigned in life. Choose one episode from your life (work life, home life or something that happened to you as a holidaymaker or member of the general public). What happened? How did you react? What impression did it leave upon you? NB. By all means write as though it happened to someone else—this isn’t intended to be an uncomfortable ‘confession’ session. You can invent names and fictionalise situations here.
- 2. Often, characters’ histories are developed by means of a particular episode such as the ones explored above. This can be a crucial way for writers to get to know their characters. The following are all examples of situations that may well test your character’s fundamental view of life. How would he or she act if it happened?
- Your character is waiting at a supermarket checkout or anywhere else where there’s a queue. Glancing behind them, they see a child with its mother, walking along an aisle. The child takes something from a shelf and slips it in its pocket. The mother sees this—your character expects to hear some kind of reprimand, an insistence that the child return the item. Instead, the mother gives the child a pat on the shoulder and they speed up along the aisle. What does your character do?
- At a party—your character happens to go into a room or the kitchen and sees two people kissing who shouldn’t be. They don’t notice your character—no-one else is around to see it.
- A cheque arrives in the post. It’s made out to your character, but it becomes clear, when they read the accompanying letter, that this is an error: either an overpayment for something, or a payment that should have gone to someone else of the same name. The amount is quite handsome.
- A work colleague has suffered a bereavement and, in the nicest possible way, there is gentle pressure on everyone to attend the funeral. A condolence card starts doing the rounds. The problem is that, in your character’s experience, this colleague is a poisonous trouble-maker. Your character has had several confrontations with them. What does your character do—and how do they feel about what they do?
- A topic of your own choice, similarly geared to exploring your character in their quandary—the kind of choice they would make and decisions they would reach in the situation, and what this reveals about them.
- You don’t have to write a whole short story. You can just concentrate on this episode.
- Now that we know our character, we can start to move back and consider where they came from, what their history might plausibly be. . . .
Bridgnorth Writers' Group, July 2008: 'A Sense of Place.'
Words Out of Place-workshop.
- Focusing on the theme: discussion, Philip Larkin, ‘I Remember, I Remember.’ Key question: what is Larkin’s speaker saying about the power of place? What, in our culture, is one’s home town supposed to represent for us, even when (or especially when) we leave it? Does it always do this? What is this speaker’s predicament?
- Brainstorm session: home town or powerfully evocative place. Note down all the things you think of about its nature, its qualities, why it has such a hold over us-did particular events happen there? Is it associated with important people in our lives? General final discussion of what ‘place’ means to us.
- Broadening out: place as an element with general significance in our lives. Selection of maps, photos, guidebooks available for scrutiny . Choose one or more that appeal-visually, in terms of presentation of information, etc. Think about how your chosen texts are conveying senses of place to you. If eg, you locate your home town or any other well-known place on the map, does the map enforce all you feel about the place? What about places you haven’t visited? Does the map, guide-book etc generate a sense of appeal: eg, does it trigger romantic notions you may have about a particular place, or does it scale those notions down? What general features do the texts have as purveyors of place? Note down your feelings, reactions.
- Writing session: themes of place. Bearing in mind what we’ve discussed so far, either begin writing or sketching out a piece, in any genre, on the topic of place: eg,
- A descriptive account of the physical appearance of a map-the ways in which its structure and symbols connect, or don’t connect, with the physical actuality of a place;
- Old photographs: in most personal photographs, the main subjects are people. But what about the places in which the photos are taken? You may want to reflect on the background of the photos, develop a story about the ‘place’ you see there and about how the human subjects came to inhabit it and why.
- ‘The Place’s Fault’-a response to Larkin. His speaker says, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ But what about a place that is personal to you, a place of which you had high hopes, a place that (you feel) is forever associated with disappointments or unwanted discoveries? How do you present that particular place?
- ‘Home Again’-returning to your home town, to your supposedly ‘familiar’ place. Is it still a powerful location in your mind? Does it still provide, in an emotional sense, all that it once did?
- A topic of your own choice, using any theme of place you wish.
Coachhouse Writers Course, Autumn 07—Spring 08:
‘What Makes It Tick: Their Writing—and Yours’
In this course, we shall be looking at a variety of writing in all genres. We shall explore and discuss extracts in terms of:
• Their forms and elements of structure;
• The tone of the writing;
• How the various speakers are presented, such as the ‘voice’ in a poem, the narrator of a piece of fiction and the characters in fiction and drama;
• What kind of themes are explored;
• Whether the piece of writing ultimately appeals or not, and possible reasons for its positive, negative or mixed effect on the reader.
We shall also assess the extracts in terms of their potential as sources or starting-points for our own writing. Approaches to this might include
• A continuation of the extract;
• A complementary response to it: for example, you may want to rewrite a prose extract from the viewpoint of your own invented character; you may want to consider the theme of a poem and then write your own version, offering a different, even opposing treatment of the theme; or a particular extract—whether appealing or otherwise—might lead you to explore a related (or unrelated) subject for a completely separate piece of writing;
• You may want to take the theme of an extract in one genre and rework it in another. (For example, Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess,’ with which we have already worked, might translate into a playscript for two voices, the Duke’s and the emissary’s.);
• You may want to do none of the above—that’s fine, as long as a piece of writing comes out of it.
These will cover all of the literary genres. Typical examples will include:
• Reflective poems by Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats;
• The opening of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf;
• The opening of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald;
• The opening of The Caretaker, Harold Pinter;
• V. S. Naipaul’s story ‘B. Wordsworth’ from his collection Miguel Street; or ‘The Tramp at Piraeus,’ the opening section of his novel, In A Free State.
• Poems by U.A. Fanthorpe;
• A short story by the American writer Raymond Carver.
Members of the group are welcome to bring in copies of their own chosen extracts for discussion.
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Outline of course delivered in Autumn 2004 to Coachhouse Writers.
Title: Sympathy, Distance, Atmosphere and Experiment.
Materials: hand-outs (selections of poetry and other writings)
Genres: Any--although poetry forms the main stimulus material, members of the group are free to adapt any theme for use in their preferred genre. The suggestions for writing, below, are intended to reflect this choice. It would be useful (and, I hope, enjoyable) for everyone to try ballad-writing, sessions 1 and 2. After that, however, if a writer wishes to pursue a particular theme in a particular genre, there is no obligation to work through all of the other writing suggestions.
Session 1: The Ballad--how the tale is told. We’ll be looking at conventions of the ballad form, the role of the narrator and some typical examples of how events are related.
Session 2: typical ballad characters, from Robin Hood to Wilde’s prisoner in ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’
Suggestions for writing connected to sessions 1 and 2:
? in ballad form, or in your own chosen genre, write the first section of a tale (as tall as you like); think about where it’s set, how the action might begin, the kind of narrator you would use and the kind of character(s) you might introduce.
Sessions 3 and 4: Characters pleasant and unpleasant.
This will be an opportunity to discuss the presentation of characters who may call up our sympathy, our antipathy or a mixture of the two. Again, we can look at ballads and other examples of characterisation. We can also explore some of the topics discussed in the group, eg, how possible is it to create an irredeemably bad or unremittingly good character and sustain the reader’s interest.
Suggestions for writing connected to sessions 3 and 4.
- a character sketch of your good, bad or mixed character(s);
- completion of the ballad (or chosen genre piece) presenting the character’s or characters’ tale.
Sessions 5 and 6: lyric poems (or chosen genre) evoking atmosphere. These sessions will include:
- consideration of atmosphere, with examples;
- how to set scenes and use details to create a particular atmosphere.
Suggestions for writing connected to sessions 5 and 6:
- two or three short, ‘lyric’ poems in which the emphasis is on a chosen atmosphere;
- a short piece of writing in a chosen genre which communicates a sense of atmosphere.
Sessions 7 and 8: Experimentation. These sessions will include:
- looking at haiku;
- looking at ‘concrete’ poetry and other ‘experimental’ forms of writing.
Suggestions for writing connected to sessions 7 and 8:
- a ‘concrete’ poem;
- a set of haiku (4 or 5) on the same or different themes;
- pieces of writing in a chosen genre--eg, dialogue or prose--but with an experimental purpose and/or setting.
Sessions 9 and 10: the Sonnet. These sessions will include:
- discussion of the sonnet form;
- the kind of uses to which it can be put (themes of love, reflections on aspects of life);
- how the form could be adapted for contemporary purposes.
Suggestions for writing connected to sessions 9 and 10:
- a sonnet on a specific theme;
- a piece of writing in a chosen genre, relating to that theme.
As with the previous course, you can continue and develop an extended piece of writing if you wish; and do feel free to bring in your own examples to any sessions.