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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

On Teaching Writing

I have never taken writing lessons, I just write. I’ve sold 14 books, including some that have still not been published(but paid for)and many articles, but not because I took writing lessons. It worked well for me. Nobody has ever told me to “write what you know” or “show, not tell” - well, one editor on my novel for Random House Australia did suggest this at one point, but I explained that in this case, “showing” would take up several pages while telling just took a paragraph, and left it up to her. She didn’t argue. I would have done it if she still wanted me to, though.

However, I did once have to teach Creative Writing. It was an elective for Year 9 and 10. The Principal simply told me “You’re teaching Creative Writing next year.” I had no idea what to do. There was no curriculum for it. He assumed that as I was a writer I could teach it.

So, I had a think about my approach. Nobody cared how I handled it, so that gave me flexibility. In the end, I was the only Creative Writing teacher in the three campuses who actually taught it. I only got in about ten minutes discussion with one of the others, who, I’m pretty sure, ended up turning it into English Extensions. The other one told me that his group were such poor writers, he changed it to a film appreciation subject. Which wasn’t what the kids signed up for, but hey! 

I told my students ahead of time that this was not going to be about how to write an essay.  

 The small group who chose to do my subject did it because that was what they wanted. Not all of them were good - one boy chose it because his friend was doing it. I ended up giving him a template with questions that let him write a short autobiography. I even discovered from it that his brother was a Bollywood actor! But he wrote something. That made him feel good about himself.

I subscribed, for that year, to a magazine that published teenagers’ work, in case any of them wanted to try. 

We read a short story every week before we began the writing, and discussed it. That gave them some idea of how these stories work. 

I showed them a variety of books in the first lesson and asked them to guess what they had in common - two of them were The Outsiders by Susan Hinton and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. What they all had in common was that they were written by teenagers. I did this so I could show them that you don’t have to be an adult to get published. 

We did something different each week, though I also gave them time to finish their WIPs. Once, when we were all tired, we did a round robin. I gave them a choice of opening sentences and they had a couple of minutes to write a paragraph. Then we passed it on to the next person to continue. It was hilarious when we read them out loud. It worked! 

Another time we discussed fairytales. I pointed out that Cinderella is the basis of pretty much every YA romance they might have read. Then they got to do fractured fairytales, which they loved. I was chuffed to overhear one student say to another, as they headed for the computers, “I wish so and so was here!” because her friend would have loved it.

Once, I passed on some advice from a writing book I had read. If you absolutely can’t think of what to write, start off with “I remember…”. One girl ended up writing a wonderful piece about an incident in her own family, one of the best pieces that year.

Another good one was a picture book text about a hat that was blown off a man’s head and flew to various places before returning to his head. If there had been time I would have seen if there was a publisher who might be interested. It was, I thought, publishable stuff.

We had one student who joined us a bit late because he couldn’t afford the fees for the Foods elective. We all made him welcome. A couple of weeks later, when the welfare teacher came to tell him he could now do Foods if he wanted, she had arranged it, he said, “No, thanks, I’m fine.”

I had some students who had been in my History or English class the year before, so it was nice to know they still wanted to be with me. In fact, the girl who had done the hat story, who was one of them, told me at the end of the course that she had really enjoyed it. She also told that to her older sister, who passed it on to me as well.

I put the stories together into a book at the end of the year, with artwork from the Internet, and handed them to the students, as well as putting a copy in the library. 

So, a successful year and I had a curriculum I had worked out myself to repeat the next year…but it didn’t go on, because the school scrapped every elective that didn’t lead directly to a Year 11 subject. That included Horticulture, and I was sad to see the Horticulture garden pulled up after many years.

Still, it was a year I was proud of - and I, as a writer who had never taken lessons, was teaching them! 

Who would have thought?