Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

I’ve been a very bad blogger recently, and not in a fun way.

A combination of life events and general malaise has resulted in an extremely unproductive writing period. I can only write (or blog) when I have something to say and I envy those who are disciplined enough to sit down every day,  inspired or not, and simply write. I am starting to realise that my usual tried-and-tested working method has now become counter-productive but doubt I can change it, since it is the same one I have employed for nearly forty years in my design career. This is how it works:

I have an idea and let it roll around in my head until my deadline approaches. In design terms it’s called visualisation and was something we HAD to do in the dark days before the advent of computers. Back in the 1970s, when I started out, we worked with pencils and pens on paper, so it saved a lot of waste and rubbing/scratching out if we had a clear idea in advance of what the finished design should look like. Then all we had to do was draw it down accurately for the printer to follow. Simples. But now that we can see instant results on a screen, visualisation techniques have been virtually lost. We don’t even have to imagine what our living rooms would look like in certain colours and fabrics any more because retailers can show us with their specialist applications! It’s great for those who have no eye for design but has induced laziness in the rest of us.

TBND 2013 Poster smallFor some years I found the visualisation technique worked very well for my stories. I had an idea, often stemming from personal experience, from something overheard, a passing image (as in The Beast Next Door) or, if I was very lucky, from a fully-formed opening line that popped unbidden into my head. I then let it swill around without directing it until it formed itself into a story. This could take weeks or even months and it never worked out if I tried to force it. I didn’t write anything down – no jottings of any kind – until it was virtually complete. I had to know what happened before I wasted my time actually writing it, much the same as in my early days designing with pencil and paper. As I wrote, extra nuances and clues/red herrings occurred but the basic storyline was settled – and even edited – by the time it hit the page.

Unfortunately, subliminal editing sometimes gains a momentum of its own and a story gets shortened to a point where it is no longer worth writing down. I recently had a fairly complex idea for a novel that gradually dwindled into a short, then a flash fiction, then a sentence. There is no way back at this juncture as everything added back in feels like padding. It’s a dangerous process when allowed free rein!

But generally, my ‘method’ also worked well when I had several ideas at once. I let them jostle for position until one or two fought their way to the top, relegating the others to the outskirts of memory until most of them vanished. This was a signal to me that they would never make decent stories and I was happy to let them go. However, these days my memory is not infallible and I am finding some ideas that really interest me are wandering off into the sunset without permission. Well then, you may say, why don’t I carry a notebook and write the bloody things down? My answer is, I don’t know. I have developed an aversion to it – almost a phobia – as if I believe I might end up putting out a story that hasn’t been through the rigorous selection processes my brain previously imposed. That’s nonsense, I know, but it is definitely having an effect on my output and it is something I need to address before too much more time slips by. Any suggestions gratefully received.

On the UP side, while I have been hatching and forgetting plots, some little successes have occurred without my having to make any effort! Firstly, the short feature film of The Beast Next Door has been completed and submitted to several film festivals. I now have an IMDb profile too, which is something I wasn’t expecting. And there’s a poster with my name on it…

Next, out of the blue, I had a request from Cambridge University Press for permission to use my flash fiction, The Prisoner, for teaching purposes. I’ve just seen the questions and they are really interesting – and difficult!

final cover smallThen Rosemary Kind, who runs Alfie Dog Fiction, asked if she could include The Seventh Christmas in a Christmas-themed anthology, both as an ebook and paperback. I am very pleased about this as the story is close to my heart.

I also heard that my flash, A Matter of Taste, has won a place in Raging Aardvaak’s anthology, Twisted Tales. And I had two stories shortlisted in the last Flash500 and one longlisted in the Fish flash competition earlier in the year. Also, Readwave have sent three  stories to World Reader, a charitable organisation that aims to help improve literacy in developing countries. So at least things are still happening in spite of my sloth.

Actually, writing this post is giving me a lift. Perhaps I’ll go and get one of those beautiful hardback notebooks in our lovely local bookshop. Or start a local writing group. Or get my husband to give me a kick up the backside. Hmmm…

Back soon – I hope.

I

(I,i) Once an entire jumble of lines and circles, the letter I has been slimmed down to a single line by the ingestation of Hi-Fibre, Lo-fi bran-based fad diets, steroids, cocaine and amphetamines. Professor Millicent Navratilova of Oxford University’s department of Lesbians describes I as indicative of an alphabet gone mad in a world held in thrall by celebrity culture, and says that letters should be proud of their shape like the number 8, pointing out that whilst numbers appear to celebrate their curves, letters in comparison sulk in angularity.

Inchbotting (n): The homosexual molestation of dwarves. George Michael and Marc Almond were arrested on Hampstead Heath for inchbotting on September 12th 1983. Their successful defence (“I thought he was Elton”) was accepted by the court due to the moonless darkness of the night in question, but undisclosed damages were paid to Truman Capote in relation to the incident, and it is rumoured that Capote never fully recovered.

Itaprmont

1. (n): A type of beachwear favoured by elderly rock stars and fading supermodels that somehow manages to cover all their cosmetic surgery scars and injection bruises whilst revealing their sagging flesh to a nauseating extent. Donnatella Versace’s face was the first itaprmont, the name coming from the unintelligible expression she attempted to utter through lips that had become immobile from botox.

2. (n): An exclamation of disgust at finding one’s mouth full of Battenburg.

Buy Hand-Knitted Electricity here. Your gran will love it.

If someone had told me that one day I’d be writing for a living and running a very successful writing school I’d have laughed in their face. It had taken redundancy and then the death of my father for me to realise I had to do something about my dream of being a writer. Up until then I had scribbled short stories for my own enjoyment and written copy for my breed club magazine. I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to be a published writer and was frightened that my dream would fail. It was a very nervous me that ventured into an adult education class in 1998 after first checking that I wouldn’t have to stand up and read my work out loud. Within one term I was eager to learn more, I was devouring writing magazines, sending off submissions and entering competitions. I even started to send articles to magazines and was petrified when they sold. Surely before too long someone would find out what a fraud I really was?

Like many adult education courses our creative writing classes ceased due to low numbers and budget cuts. Determined not to give up on my writing and go back to full time work I kept writing and attended workshops and a local writing group. I fitted in the odd temporary job to top up the coffers. In 2002 I heard about a writing competition being run by BBC Radio Kent. They gave the first line of a story and we had to complete it. I won the April heat and went on to become the overall winner of the year long competition which was judged live on the radio by a panel of well known people in the media world. I won a mug and my story was broadcast, but that one win opened so many doors for me.

The following year I met a course manager at the very same adult education centre where I had been a student. We chatted about my successes and after an interview I was offered a contract to teach creative writing at three of their centres – I was being paid to teach my favourite subject and the first class was to be in the room where I had once been a very nervous student. I wouldn’t say it was easy being a tutor, especially as many of my students were retired teachers. It felt very intimidating. Gradually I became comfortable in my role as I found that my students had the very same dream that had started me on the path to be a writer. Thinking back to those first classes I realise now that I couldn’t have been that bad a tutor as many of those students are now good friends with whom I have shared the odd bottle of merlot at writing retreats and workshops. I also took the opportunity to study for a teaching qualification and learned so much about the world of education.

I began to realise that although I loved to teach my favourite subject and to motivate my students, the adult education service did not support creative writing students. I became sick of the form filling and having to drum up enough attendees so that classes would go ahead the following term. I began to feel like a salesman rather than an educator. The final straw was a new management team arriving who were not interested in the successes of the people who attended our courses but only counted the ‘bums on seats.’ I’m not ashamed to say that after one particularly annoying meeting where my manager ignored the list of competitions my students had won I picked up my briefcase and walked out. I felt awful as not only had I walked away from a well paid job but I had left many students without a tutor. What happened next still brings a lump to my throat. My students all left the adult education service and demanded that I start my own classes. It was a great idea but how to start and where?

It used to be easy to rent a church hall and run a workshop, I’d done it often with our writing group but to my dismay I found that most halls in our area were used for day nurseries and the evenings fully booked for many other activities. I tentatively approached The Mick Jagger Centre in Dartford. Attached to a boys grammar school the thriving arts centre had made a name for itself off the back of ex student Sir Mick and his group, The Rolling Stones. The man himself kept in touch with the centre and had funded many music ventures for young people. Already a haven for most forms of music and dance, would the centre be interested in renting rooms to a writing school? It was important that we were a school rather than a writing group as the idea was to be able to teach all forms of writing and also provide workshops with authors, speaker events, trips and competitions; many things we were not allowed to do within the confines of the adult education service. Thankfully the MJC welcomed us with open arms and classes have gone from strength to strength. With colleague and writer, Francesca Burgess we have been delighted with students being placed and winning competitions, selling stories to magazines as well as features in national newspapers. Some now work as writers whilst others just enjoy creating and enjoying the written word. We are close to seeing the first novel being picked up and already we have non-fiction books commissioned.

I feel privileged to have played a part in so many peoples’ writing lives and helped them on their way to publication. It has been hectic at times; after all I am still writing and still have goals to achieve myself. I am a working writer as well as a tutor so life is busy but it is also very rewarding.

***

Apart from running The Write Place creative writing school Elaine is a freelance journalist and author. She has a weekly column in canine publication, Our Dogs and has written three non-fiction books for dog owners. Her knowledge of the pedigree dog show world sees her broadcasting on radio about such subjects as micro chipping, dangerous dogs and picking up after our pets – her life is nothing if not glamorous!

Elaine has also written for over forty publications on topics as diverse as self building and nasty neighbours to organic apple juice production and how to set up a catering business. She was a finalist in the 2012 Harry Bowling competition as well as BBC Radio short story writer of the year in 2003.

Books available on Amazon:

A New Puppy in the Family

Showing Your Dog, A Beginner’s Guide

Canine Cuisine

Diamonds and Pearls (a collection of short stories)

…and Elaine’s Dog Blog