Water Workshop at Cambridge University

This week I taught a workshop at Cambridge University’s Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio as part of Bhanu Kapil’s workshop cycle on Water, which forms a natural overlap with my own sequence of classes on the Four Elements.

I introduced the idea of the Four Elements as an alternative to binary ways of looking at writing (and the world – let’s be ambitious). And then we considered Water for its associations with feelings, which can so often be out of balance in writing. We listened to a passage from Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and through close readings identified aspects of craft that brought a particular emotional charge to that scene. We also read aloud from Joe Brainard’s I Remember, and discussed how memory can activate feeling through specific associations.

And then, after giving ourselves watery workshop names (including Pebble, Fleet, Kelp, Great White Shark, Newt, and Goddess of the Eels and Wrong Fishes), we did some contemplative drawing exercises and wrote some powerful I Remembers of our own.

What was special about this class was that it took place in the Judith E. Wilson Studio – we had watery props, and communed with a manatee! And we had lighting: I’ve not considered so deeply before how classroom lighting might affect how we write or how I teach, and it was a real treat to be working in such a shadowy turquoise space; it was like writing on the ocean floor. It reminds me of an exercise suggested in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature where she tasks students of Victorian literature to write by candlelight – such a simple idea, yet one with the potential for profound shifts in what we create. Thanks to Lorraine Carver from the English department for making this possible.

Thanks also to everyone who came for joining in so fully, and special thanks to Bhanu Kapil for hosting this workshop; the whole series of classes sounds rich and imaginative. Cambridge is one of my favourite cities, and it was a real pleasure to be teaching there.

I also saw the sacred lawns dug up by Extinction Rebellion, eek! See below. As a gardener, I was probably unconvinced … though as a teacher I’m thinking ahead to my next workshop on 21 March, when we shall mark the equinox with the WRites of Spring at Earth Works (shovels not required).

 

 

Water Ways

On Saturday a lovely group of writers came along to Water Ways, the newest of the Four Elements workshops that I’m running as a series with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Among the Four Elements, Water is identified with feeling, and as the workshop approached I realised the field of emotions presents a pretty HUGE and amorphous subject as a topic within writing. Given my ambition slash weakness of needing to be comprehensive, how would we cover it ALL?!

So we approached the subject of emotion through a few specific lenses. We started by discussing memory and symbolism as ways to activate, contain or convey feeling in writing. Inspired by Lynda Barry, we also gave ourselves watery names for the day – with my teacher hat on, I became Professor Newt.

We then looked at methods of crafting narrative tone, paying special attention to perspective and sentence structure and examining the emotional shifts within a particular scene in Brokeback Mountain. A good scene will contain CHANGE, especially in the feelings of characters – and readers. We also looked for Proulx’s use of water imagery.

And I forgot to ask: where in the story do Ennis and Jack say, ‘I love you’? What does that say?

Thinking about tone in relation to pitch, it also occurs to me now that we use the word pitch to describe that brief description we use to sell books. Which makes me think how a good sales pitch really goes to the heart of a book, and ideally grows out of the narrative tone and voice and style of telling the story.

We ended the day looking at the emotion created within the intimate space of a letter with reference to works by Ocean Vuong and Tove Jansson. And then we wrote thank you letters of our own.

I wish we’d discussed the idea of the unconscious a bit more. But it was certainly present; we talked plenty about Ocean Vuong, and only now do I realise: the clue is in his name! OCEAN = WATER, right?! There: the unconscious in beautiful action.

A highlight of the day was our brilliant guest tutor and resident wavemaker: author and illustrator Sally Kindberg. I am really keen in this series of workshops to experiment with practices and viewpoints from creative fields that rely less heavily on verbal forms, because words are so often the problem with writing – words can get in our way, just as writers often need to get out of their own way too, and it often makes sense to develop writing without actually doing any writing. So on Saturday we drew.

At the start of the day, instead of a meditation we did a contemplative drawing exercise using our hands and lines. And then in her drawing workshop Sally got us to make some (hilarious!) self-portraits, and, using her magic top hat, guided us through the creation of characters that we took on adventures in four-frame comic strips. Clouds became potatoes, and much mirth was had. Under my student pen name of Simon Seahorse, I was very pleased to learn how to draw wings in flight.

Comic strips also prompted a brief discussion about yonkoma manga and kishōtenketsu, and we bonded in questioning the necessity of conflict as the central drive in writing (an idea that many of us are fed up with – more on that anon).

Sally inspired me so much I spent the following afternoon watching the wild and brilliant Studio Ghibli classic Porco Rosso and then playing drawing games with a friend who’d come to visit. Thanks, Sally! I finally got to art school.

And thanks again to Sally for bringing drawing into our class so purposefully, and to everyone who came for joining in so fully.

Our next Four Elements workshop is Earth Works, where our guest earthshaker will be dancer and Physical Intelligence expert Claire Dale. It’s held on 21 March, which is the spring equinox; I promise we shall be marking the wRites of Spring in appropriate style!

 

 

Food in Writing

On Sunday I taught for the first time at the Victoria and Albert Museum: a workshop on food in writing called Food: Bigger Than The Page.

We started off talking about food as a genre or genres (plural) of writing. Some books of food writing have an investigative or campaigning approach, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and then there are works of food history such as Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod.

Someone also brought up the name of one of the great food writers: MFK Fisher. And I forgot, oops, to mention Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, which was inspired by the blog she wrote cooking her way through Julia Child’s classic cookbook – if you are interested in the publishing process, you might enjoy this piece from the publisher Knopf on The Making of … Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Moving on to the use of food in fiction and memoir, we discussed the role of food (and hunger) as symbol and driver of plot in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, then explored the part that food plays in activating memory, using Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Nigel Slater’s Toast.

Paying attention to the ways in which all five senses create images that bring writing to life, we listened to some poems by William Carlos WilliamsPablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell and Meryl Pugh. (Meryl teaches popular courses at Morley College and the Poetry School, should you be interested.) Some of these poems celebrate food or everyday life in very straightforward ways, while others have more layered meanings.

And then, after a brief palate-cleansing meditation, we became hunter-gatherers: we created Word Hoards of our sense perceptions by getting intimate with mint and star anise and kiwi fruits, and carrots and lime-blossom tea, and a fancy tiny pear called Piqa Reo (Waitrose, we salute you – and you’ve even given us a further way to use the Q tile without a U in Scrabble) (though the lime-blossom came from Gaia in St Margarets – support your local indie!).

We then paid a visit to supermarkets in California with Allen Ginsberg and Armistead Maupin, and created some characters of our own by thinking about the ways in which food acts as a social marker.

We fitted in a snack-sized look at recipes in food with Heartburn by Nora Ephron (and Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel also got a mention here). And then we finished off by discussing recipes as a form for poems with ecopoet Jack Collom – something to try at home?

I had a lot of fun putting this workshop together – see the links and titles above and also below in the list of resources. Thanks to the V&A and everyone who came along – and especially to Stacy for thinking a writing workshop would be a good idea (I first met her when I attended a V&A book club for The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – I’m going to tell myself that Frida Kahlo led me here). Thanks also to Michelle for the photos (and the kind words) below.

 

Further resources

Sandra M. Gilbert and Roger J. Porter, eds., Eating Words: A Norton Anthology of Food Writing

Mark Kurlansky, ed., Choice Cuts: A Savory Selection of Food Writing

Jill Foulston, ed., The Joy of Eating: The Virago Book of Food

Dianne Jacob, Will Write For Food (practical advice on writing about food)

Diana Henry, What Goes On Behind The Scenes Of A Cookbook (for more about the creative and production processes, and Diana Henry is an inspired writer and cook too: I have enjoyed many of her recipes)

Lynda Barry, Syllabus and Making Comics (great on creativity – you might also enjoy this interview with the genius herself: at the least, watch the first five or ten minutes)

Plus, just because, a gorgeous piece of food/cookery writing on candied oranges I read earlier today.  (Will edit for candied oranges: a trade, anyone?!)

 

And before I go: as I type, I believe there might be one space left on the day-long Four Elements workshop Water Ways on 8 February, which explores how we evoke feeling in writing, and I’ll also be looking at food among other experiences of the earthly realm in Earth Works on 21 March. More info via the links at the Words Away website.

 

One of our frondy inspirations.

 

Such a grand setting!

Workshops for 2020: Food, Water Ways, Earth Works

In 2020 I’m continuing the ongoing series of new Four Elements workshops with Kellie Jackson of Words Away.

Four Elements workshops follow a holistic approach, using mindfulness techniques and placing a strong emphasis on play and experiment, while also addressing practical matters of craft and the business of publishing. Each day-long workshop considers the symbolic powers and perspectives of the elements: fire for the energy it creates, water for the feelings it evokes, earth for conjuring up the material world, and air for the way in which it structures the world and brings clarity to our thinking. We also discuss ways to balance all four elements in our writing, as required.

We held the first new workshop last month; in Finding Your Fire we paid particular attention to how the power of fire fuels our intention and charges up our voices, with one session devoted to crafting dialogue, which is perhaps one of the most striking ways to add a spark to our writing. We also looked at many ways in which fire appears in writing.

Writers sometimes overthink our work (too much time spent in our own company?!), and we all gain something from getting out of our own heads, and to do so it often helps to work with creative materials other than words. So we are also inviting guest gurus to lead sessions during each day – practitioners who bring in fresh (and elemental) perspectives from different fields in the arts. In the pic above, guest firestarter Kate Beales is showing us how techniques from theatre help summon up fiery energies to empower our writing. In other workshops we’ll gain insights from teachers or coaches from the worlds of illustration, dance, and poetry.

I usually circulate brief writing assignments as well as reading suggestions in advance, so that everyone comes prepared. And of course there is plenty of writing during the day, and afterwards too, as I provide writing prompts and resources, as well as follow-up notes with plenty of suggestions for further writing and reading. We also make time for brief meditations.

Our workshops are attended by published authors as well as beginning writers, and the spirit is engaged and collaborative; it’s good to observe community forming and writing partnerships developing.

If you are interested, below are the dates for the next workshops – my Forthcoming page also has more information, and you can find booking details via the links below:

* Saturday 8 February 2020, 9.45am-5pm Water Ways: A Four Elements Workshop on Feeling, Tone and Perspective – our guest wavemaker is artist and author Sally Kindberg

* Saturday 21 March 2020, 9.45am-5pm Earth Works: A Four Elements Workshop on Description and Action – our guest earthshaker is dancer and coach Claire Dale

* Saturday 16 May 2020, 9.45pm-5pm Writing On Air: A Four Elements Workshop on Structure, Form and Focus – our guest aeronaut is poet and performance artist Bhanu Kapil (more info and booking link to come)

* June 2020 (date to be confirmed), 9.45pm-5pm
The Four Elements of Editing (more info and booking link to come)

Also, on 26 January 2020, 2pm-5pm, I’m leading Writes at the Museum with Food – Bigger Than The Page, my rescheduled Sunday-afternoon workshop on food in writing at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Inspired by the V&A’s recent exhibition Food: Bigger Than The Plate, it will explore all sorts of ways in which we use food in writing. I might even wear a pinny.

Have a good holiday break – and I hope to see some of you in the new year. Let’s see 2020 as the beginning of something good – in our writing, in the world.

Syllabus for an Indie MA in Creative Writing 2019

In an earlier post I discussed how writers can assemble their own self-directed programme of studies: a DIY MA in creative writing.

Following further posts about that on Twitter last week, and inspired by my inner teacher as well as Lynda Barry’s wonderful book Syllabus, I’ve put together a syllabus for anyone who might want more specific guidance on what a good writing programme might need to include.

Follow this link for a PDF of the DIY MA in Creative Writing for 2019-2020 (version 1.3).

(This is very much a work-in-progress. As I tweak and add updates or corrections, I’m amend the date and version on the final page, just in case you too are a little obsessive about such things.)

A brief overview: it has four modules:

  • Craft Seminar
  • Writing Workshop
  • Manuscript Project
  • Professional Development Masterclass

I’ve chosen four textbooks that are in my experience the most helpful (and affordable – at current prices their total cost is less than £50):

  • Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction (tenth edition)
  • Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

The content is based on my own teaching in MA and MFA programmes as well as craft masterclasses and workshops I’ve taught such as the ones that I run with Words Away; it’s also informed by my intuition and experience from over thirty years of working as an editor and mentor.

This syllabus is never going to be a substitute for a classroom, physical or online, where you can speak and listen to a teacher and interact with other writers. But it does suggest readings and activities for anyone who wants to develop knowledge and skills not only of the craft of writing but also of the business of publishing.

One unit of five classes of the Craft Seminar, Styling Your Prose, is devoted to style, syntax, and grammar, which is something that doesn’t get much focused attention in most MA programmes I’ve investigated in the UK; these are the aspects of craft that really help a writer develop a stronger voice, and for me (and many readers and publishing professionals) voice is what defines a piece of writing. This unit is where I recommend reading (and rereading) Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax.

An important part of an MA is being part of a writing community and getting and giving feedback on writing, so it will be important to seek out writers who can help with this. On another occasion, and in collaboration with others, I hope to share more tangible suggestions for how writers can, e.g., find writing partners or create a writing group, and locate more specialised resources on genre. But for now, if you have any ideas on this or anything else that would be suitable for someone embarking on studies in writing, perhaps you could post them in a comment below?

 

A few tips for getting started

* Practise some (or even all) of your writing away from your masterpiece-in-waiting. Sometimes we put a great deal of investment in ideas for books, and this can get in the way of the actual process of learning. There can be greater freedom in using exercises and writing flash fiction or short stories; fresh and powerful things often emerge too. Spend some time developing the craft and your intuition as a writer – then tackle your novel. Your passion for a project will still be there.

* Develop writing as a regular practice. Julia Cameron recommends morning pages: three pages of freewriting. Natalie Goldberg gives lots of prompts for you to tackle in a notebook. Robert Olen Butler insists that you write every day to maintain the creative energy in your zone or dreamspace. Explore for yourself; find what works for you, but – as with any craft – regular practice will make writing come more easily.

* Write in short spurts. Timed writings of ten minutes using prompts can generate a lot of material. You might want to edit it later, and you might not even want to use any of these words – but good stuff often surfaces in these short bursts of writing, particularly, e.g., in the last minute of a ten-minute write. And then you can take this good stuff and make even greater stuff with it later.

 

PS and while I’m here: if you are interested in an in-person workshop, we still have spaces in the Everyday Magic workshop I am running with Words Away on Saturday 28 September. Using the idea of the Four Elements, it looks at craft and creativity through the lens of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. It’s a day full of reading and writing and listening and talking that, I hope, brings fresh perspectives on writing and new inspirations for writers.