how to write

pic school roofline

I stayed late at school with my Year 12 students earlier in the week. Their writing portfolio was due at four o’clock, and I sat at my desk after the bell had gone and watched them typing furiously. I could have left them to it, but it was satisfying watching them work. After a year of English four periods a week, they were finally discovering themselves as active agents in their learning. They had decided they were actually going to try and nail this thing.

I’m a reluctant writing teacher. I don’t like making students write about things they don’t want to write about. I’ve never enjoyed contrived writing exercises and I rally against the notion that if you throw a bunch of adjectives and adverbs into a description you’ve improved it. I see writing that shows evidence of this faulty thinking all the time. It is not pleasant reading.  And I resent the expectation that fifteen and sixteen year olds should be able to “craft” a piece of writing into a polished product. I couldn’t have, not at that age. I could write, certainly. But I couldn’t tell you exactly what I did that worked. I just wrote.

If it was sixteen year old me sitting in that class, I’d be the one who bombed out at the last minute. I would have written one inspired piece, something that arrived perfectly formed on the edges of my consciousness. I would have been overjoyed with my creation, as attached to it as a mother is to a newborn. But the second piece needed for the portfolio would have had me stumped. My muse never performed on command. It wouldn’t have mattered how many different writing tasks the teacher gave me, something in me would have rejected all of them. No one could tell me how to write.

This resistance to being taught to write lasted well into the third year of my BA when I took the only creative writing paper offered. In the midst of what was a mixed experience at university I had been looking forward to taking that paper. But when the time came I was disappointed. I did not want to write a poem for homework. I did not want to write a poem with the same five words as the rest of the class. I did not want to write the first chapter of a novel, or the last chapter of a novel. As far as I was concerned, if I had the ability to write said beginning or ending of novel I would be writing the novel.

I must have been a difficult student. The feedback and grades I received that year reflect that. I probably presented an uncomfortable mix of arrogance, petulance and insecurity. I had begun my university degree clueless as to what I really wanted to do with life, besides write, and by the time I turned twenty-one in my final year I had even less idea. I was desperate to find some kind of identity that filled my deep need for approval, and if “writer” was no longer the identity that gave me the affirmation I craved, then I was more than willing to trade it for one that did.

I could have done some useful writing that year. I could have written about how I felt about myself as a student, about how I saw myself moving out beyond the confines of university. I could have written about my childhood which was ripe with stories. I could have written an autobiography in books, a story about the stories that befriended me as I grew up. I could have written about the bus ride into the city from the suburbs, or the sky outside the window of our classroom, or the view from the top floor of the library, which always filled me with a strange kind of certainty that I had places to go, and words to write. Any of the above would have been therapeutic. Any of the above would have assisted me, in small increments, to develop my voice as a writer.

There’s nothing about voice in the assessment criteria for the portfolio I will be sitting down to mark next week. I’m supposed to be looking for evidence that a selection of writing has been crafted, structured and controlled, and evidence of language features used for effect. Language features. If you’d told me at sixteen that I needed to use them in my writing I would have rolled my eyes and stopped listening to you.  I didn’t have to try to write, I just wrote.  It was nothing more conscious than that.

I sat in an empty classroom one day at the end of summer the year I turned sixteen, and wrote looking up at the exact same roof line you see in the picture above.  The sky was blue and clear just like it is in the photo; the predictable red brick of the building I was looking up at contrasting with the bright blue sky above. The words that came were stream of consciousness, purely automatic. I had no plan, no structure, and no sense even in the slightest of what I was writing. I was sitting at a desk eating a marshmallow easter egg, my cassette tape walkman beside me on the table. I’d found my cat dead on the side of the driveway that morning.  I didn’t need to be told to write. No one had to suggest that it would be a good thing for me to do. I just found myself, by the luck of the day’s timetable, in an empty room. I got out my pen and started writing.

It had rained in the night and the next day she went to school. Her teacher said now we have read six stories we have read six stories and then the teacher counted them aloud, reciting the titles the authors saying now we are enriched. But she was writing a story – she was writing and nobody knew and the teacher said what do you think what do you think and the teacher didn’t know, nobody knew that that morning she had walked past a dead cat a dead stiff cat wet stuck together fur looked like it was lying normally until you turned it over and saw it was flat on one side and they’d stood there outside on an almost cold nearly winter morning in their dressing gowns looking at this flat on one side cat trying to work out if it was theirs, trying to remember what their cat looked like, it had rained in the night… 

Plenty of people could have questioned whether my story was in fact a “story.”  My lecturers in the creative writing paper perhaps would have done so.  But I thought it was a story, a good one, and enough other people thought so too. The story won a prize, I was interviewed on the radio, and I distinctly remember being asked how long the story took me to write. I thought for a minute, and then answered honestly. “About an hour” I said. The interviewer thought that was hilarious.

Perhaps I haven’t written anything quite as good as that flat cat story ever since. Perhaps that was the peak of my creativity, right there sitting in an empty classroom twenty years ago.  Every time I write now, whether here on this page, in my journal or on the novel,  I can feel my fingers itching to go some where good. To get the kind of automatic flow I still remember feeling the day I wrote that cat story. And happily, it does come. It comes when the circumstances are right. When I am feeling full of words, when the room is quiet, when I am separated from the rest of the world by a closed door, and the sky is a bright square of light through the window above me.

I am the worst person to teach creative writing. I should probably apologise to my students and come clean. I have no techniques, no strategies.  “Just write” I say, as if it’s as natural to them as it is to me. And when they come to me with the ten lines they ached over for an hour, twisting and contorting each sentence until it sounds nothing like them at all, I take a deep breath, smile, and tell them to “say it simply.” Then I watch as their faces fall. In one small sentence I have contradicted everything they’ve ever been taught about writing.

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