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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 2; Issue 5; September 2000

Short Article

Humanising University Studies through Creative Writing

by Franz Andres, English Department, University of Berne, Switzerland


Assessment, one may be tempted to say, is the spice of academic life. It can seriously shake you out of your complacency, especially if, for once, students assess you. For me it was interesting to note that out of all the courses I teach – there were about ten in all last term, ranging from Use of English to Academic Writing Skills – the one that got the most consistently high rates of approval in the student questionnaire was the Creative Writing Workshop. I'd love to ascribe this to my charismatic personality and inescapably brilliant teaching, but, actually (and soberingly), the reasons for this feedback are much more mundane. I shall present them below, but before doing so, let me briefly give you a little background about how the Workshop fits into the spectrum of courses at our department.

Like most Swiss university departments for the study of foreign languages, ours is composed of the two subject areas literature and linguistics. In these fields students do their academic work under the tutelage of assistant lecturers and professors. Their academic studies are supplemented by practical courses (sometimes also called "service courses") in which students develop their language skills, but also learn some of the more basic tools of the trade, e.g. how to go about writing academic papers. It is in this segment of practical courses that the Creative Writing Workshop sits, somewhat uncomfortably until recently, for two reasons: firstly, it is not immediately obvious to what degree it really is a practical course and, secondly, there is the question as to what, if any, function it can fulfil in the academic context of the English Department.

The questions arising from the "practicality" of the course more specifically were/are the following: if creative writing is aimed at producing creative language, does this not also preclude or at least limit the use of "normal" language? If students are encouraged to write creatively, will they pay attention to linguistic norm? How, if at all, can students' output in creative writing be assessed or, more basically, corrected?

Similarly, there are several issues in the academic context. Creative writing would seem to be quite clearly outside the field of linguistics, but can those academics whose research focuses on literature and on published writers of some, if not indisputable, canonical standing take the efforts of non-native speakers (and students) seriously? Can the poetry, narrative fiction or dramatic sketches of, admittedly rather advanced language learners and budding academics ever amount to much more than the often embarrassing emotional outpourings of teenage magazines?

And then there are more general questions as well: Is it possible to learn – or teach – creativity? What is the purpose of students writing at all, given the fact that publication of their efforts is rather unlikely?

In an American or British context where children are already encouraged to write creatively in primary schools, and tertiary courses in creative writing are widespread, probably most of these questions would not arise. Switzerland, however, has no tradition of creative writing on any level. In fact, the Creative Writing Workshop until the beginning of the Summer term was the only one of its kind at a Swiss university.

For this reason I was originally rather unsure how to go about things. In fact I only knew that I wanted to provide an opportunity for students to do something quite different from the normal types of courses offered and that I was going to impose my view of writing (mainly poetry, as this genre allows you to complete a first draft in the actual session) on the Workshop; this has been influenced by poets such as Roger McGough, Adrian Mitchell, Benjamin Zephania, Wendy Cope, etc., whose work is often humourous and playful without being facile, and I wanted students to play with language elements, e.g. collocations, idiomatic phrases, etc., as well as with preconceived notions of logic. The basic approach to a session was and still is that there is a text production part kicked off by a (hopefully) entertaining/intriguing/challenging activity and a text presentation and feedback part, during which participants (including the "tutor") read or otherwise present their work for comments from the other participants.

Given the feedback by the students mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, what is the reason for the positive reaction to the Workshop, for which students, incidentally, do not even get any credits? To answer this question, I'd like to present a synthesis of the remarks made in the questionnaires and combine the responses with some personal remarks made by participants and increasingly by my academic colleagues.

Most tangibly, the writing done in the Workshop seems to lead to improved overall language control. This is mainly due to the discussions in the text presentation phase where all writers are questioned rigorously on their use of language, the precision of their expression and choice of vocabulary. The students are usually very perceptive and do not tolerate language errors; in fact the practice which has emerged over the years is that breaches of normative rules are only ever tolerated if they are conscious and achieve an effect that improves the impact of the text. Listening and reading critically is therefore, like the actual writing of texts, a very effective means of language practice without being seen as a normative exercise. Similarly, the need to be precise in expressing an idea or a concept in poetry, short fiction or a dramatic sketch leads to improved control of the students' vocabulary. The underlying rule could be summed up as: make every word count.

What has allayed some of the reservations of many of my academic colleagues is that creative writing students really have something to say in discussions in literary seminars. I believe this is due to two aspects inherent in doing creative writing and commenting on other students' work. Firstly, the need to give feedback immediately after a text has been presented in the Workshop requires thinking on your feet and being able to back up one's ideas about a text, obviously an ability that comes in handy in an academic discussion. However, there is a further element: anybody who's ever tried to build a bookshelf has a better appreciation of a master cabinet maker's work. In other words, your understanding of the art and craft of, say, a poet improves quite drastically if you've tried to do something similar yourself. You will appreciate technique, originality of perspective, liveliness of language, etc, considerably more if you've had a go at writing something comparable and experienced the highs and lows of creating a text. Needless to say that this also adds an element to working with literary texts that is not readily available to those who've never tried to express themselves creatively.

Under these circumstances, publication mostly is not really an issue, certainly not as a raison-d'κtre for the Workshop. Nevertheless, we occasionally compile the work of a semester in a booklet for greater circulation and every year we have an event, the Homespun Evening, where students can present their work to the public. Publicity is clearly not the reason why quite a number of students attend the Workshop for several semesters and in some cases even attend as guest hearers after they have finished their studies. The reasons given are that the Workshop provides a counterbalance to the predominantly analytical focus of their university studies. As this often means channelling one's interests and energies in directions that do not always coincide with what one would want to do given the choice, creative writing allows fairly unfettered exploration of one's own potential, to express ideas and concepts for which there is no room in an academic course of studies. In other words, students are given an opportunity to introduce a part of themselves into their work at our hallowed alma mater, for which otherwise there is little call. Because their efforts are discussed and taken seriously in an environment that is clearly situated in the framework of their department, so students feel they benefit despite the fact that they do not actually get any study credits from attending the Workshop. Furthermore, on more than one occasion students stated that writing weekly in the Workshop provided a boost to their writing academic texts, mainly because putting pen to paper meant that they clearly were able to write, which helped some of them to overcome blocks in their research papers.

Finally, as most of the activities are designed to be humorous and playful, even though much of the students' work in their rewriting takes on a more serious note, the workshop is seen as a refreshingly light-hearted counterbalance to the inevitably more disciplined academic studies.

To summarise: in the framework of a department for the studies of foreign languages, creative writing can create substantial benefits in three areas. Firstly, it is an effective means for advanced language practice which is innovative, challenging, affective and learner-centred; secondly, it creates academic benefits in terms of text analysis and comprehension, both for content and form; and finally, it provides a creative and emotional counterbalance to the rather cerebral nature of academic study.

Some Creative Writing Ideas

Free fall association/ ping-pong poem

Aim:
a) to play with language
b) to overcome the worry about writing being a lonely business
Group size: ideally an even number
Organisation: pair work
Material: 1 piece of lined paper per student
Notes: Both partners write at the same time.
Example: "Wedding" by Alice Oswald

1. Write a word on the centre of the first line on a piece of paper.

2. Swap the paper with your partner and underneath write a word you associate with the first one on the piece of paper you got from your partner.

3. Continue swapping your papers until you feel you've exhausted the string of associations.

4. The piece of paper then goes to the partner who did not write the first word. Now write a line of a poem in which the first word occurs, i.e. the line is written around the first word.

5. Swap the paper and write a second line around the second word.

6. Continue until there are as many lines as there were associated words.

7. The partner who wrote the first word gives the poem a title.

Acknowledgement: This activity is a development from two exercises suggested by Roger McGough and Julia Wendt respectively.

What I have always wanted to tell you

Aim:
a) to verbalise what makes a person special and different from anybody else
b) to increase precision in your writing
Group size: irrelevant
Organisation: individual work
Examples: "Death on Two Legs" by Queen (as a hate poem) or almost any love poem

1. Think of someone you feel strongly about.

2. Pinpoint what it is you feel strongly about and why.

3. Think of yourself standing opposite the person with you having nothing to fear.

4. Now put your feelings into a text of the type "what I have always wanted to tell you".

If not for you

Aim:
a) to practice modals expressing hypothetical states/hypothetical conditionals
b) to create a love (or hate) poem
Group size: irrelevant
Organisation: individual work or work in small groups
Material: pen and paper
Examples: "Without you" by Adrian Henri, "If not for you" by Bob Dylan

1. Imagine a person who means a lot to you. Think about all the features that make this person special for you. Put together as many reasons as you can why this person is so important in your life, for example what this person does to your life.

2. a) Imagine what would happen if this person were no longer there to do these things. (Alternatively, if this person is not (yet) part of your life, what would be different if s/he was?)

b) Brainstorm a list of things typical for everyday life, then think of ways these would be (absurdly) different if it was not for this person.

3. Write down a list of 2a) or 2b) possibly using a repetitive phrase at the beginning of each line or each stanza to give the poem a structure.

4. If it is a love poem, give it to the person you wrote it for.

Nuns buying typewriters

Aim:
a) to develop an imaginary situation by thinking yourself into someone involved in this situation
b) to create a narrative
Group size: irrelevant
Organisation: individual work
Material: 3 small pieces of paper or cards per student

1. On three separate pieces of paper write three diary entries: they can be completely off the wall, e.g. "Saw three nuns buying a typewriter in a department store today. Nothing else happened" or very ordinary, e.g. "nothing much happened, took the dog for a walk".

2. Write the imaginary date on the back of the piece of paper.

3. Once all the pieces of paper are collected entries, choose three that are not yours. A certain amount of swapping is possible.

4. From the diary entries you now have, choose at least one.

5. From the information on it, decide what sort of a person would have written this entry.

6. Based on the above and the information or lack of it in the diary entry write a text, either a short story, a poem or a short sketch. Another possibility is to write diary entries "around" the one you've chosen, creating a fictitious diary.

Acknowledgement: The title and the first example in instruction 1 were inspired by a diary entry by Barbara Pym quoted in Alan Maley's Short and Sweet, vol 1.

You'll never believe what happened to me

Aim:
a) to develop an imaginary situation by adding new details
b) to develop a setting and characterise protagonists and in a story which highlight its effects
c) to practice telling an incident with shifting emphasis
d) to create a humourous/dramatic narrative, dialogue or monologue
Group size: ideally a multiple of four or five
Organisation: group work, four to five students each
Material: 1 large sheet of paper per student

1. Form groups of five; each student is given a large sheet paper. (At a pinch steps four and five can be combined then four students.)

2. Think of a situation or a social accident – fictional or real – that would be really embarrassing. Write it down in as few words a possible and pass the paper on.

3. Write an account of the situation or accident as graphically (and as humorously) as possible. Pass the paper on.

4. Underneath describe a person to whom the hero/heroine of the account has to confess or explain what happened. Pass the paper on.

5. Write down a situation in which the hero/heroine has to make the confession and why it has to be made there and then. Pass the paper on

6. Write the confession either as narrative, as a monologue, or as a dramatic dialogue.



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