Showing posts with label creative writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creative writing. Show all posts

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Beginner's Guide to Écriture féminine

Is the obsession with logic and rationality a limitation imposed on the free flow of writing by the hegemony of patriarchal men?

Is it possible to interrogate order and structure in writing has a masculinised project of control; to think of it as a phallocentric, a logocentric project?

On first inspection, it is an odd notion that writing is a pre-determined product of the shape of our bodies. But the anatomical difference between the female and the male body has been considered a sufficient criterion throughout most of recorded time -  and across the majority of societies - to constitute a major difference between the sexes. It is a short step from the recognition of difference to the creation of a system of unequal treatment and discrimination.

The idea that writing as a cultural production participates in this project, perhaps even perpetuates it, is clearly not far-fetched. This critical feminist approach claims that the body is written into our daily discourse. Indeed, the project of feminism has not been merely to challenge social, cultural and economic inequality, but to interrogate the complicity of language at all levels in this process of construction of differences. But is it the case that women’s writing is essentially or necessarily different from men’s? Is it more accurate to attribute stylistic, technical or structural differences to social opportunities, educational experiences and unchallenged cultural conventions?

In different way, the binary opposition has been expressed as a conflict between men and women, nature and art, or between what we are essentially and what is merely a product of social construction. The idea that there is a marked difference between the writing styles and practices of the two sexes has been a contested topic in the academic field since the surge in feminist scholarship of the 1970s. 

Écriture féminine has emerged as the key term that celebrates and explores the qualities at work in women’s writing which are produced by the female body and by female difference. Writers such as Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Chantal Chawaf and Julia Kristeva have been influential in the interrogation of language as a male domain, and in offering a creative and critical challenge to the dominant discourse. Admittedly, the work of poststructuralist feminism has taken many different directions, with different results, and continuing controversy about its use and effectiveness for the emancipation of women. 

The starting point has been the assertion that women’s sexual pleasure has been denied; that deployment of language by men is oppressive; that jouissance, play, metamorphic mobility and transgression should be adopted as techniques and strategies for liberation from the patriarchal order. While the slogans and rhetoric are often exhilarating, and the refusal of logic, order and reason is enigmatic and engaging, it does not seem unfair to ask whether the project has enhanced the quality of women’s lives or brought about a revolution of consciousness. 

In order to form an opinion of écriture féminine the reader is advised to sample some of the key texts by the writers listed above. Some readers will be inspired by the approach taken while others will be frustrated and alienated by this species of writing. Similarly, the refusal to adopt a clear plan, and a linear structure that may be observed in works that adopt a ‘schizoid’ approach. This is a kind of anti-methodology, with planes and zones, and a nomadic tendency, rather than strict linear and logical progression. In Thousand Plateaux, for instance,  Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari explored this approach. It is the second volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and the successor to Anti-Oedipus (1972). The aim was to challenge the phallogocentric project which may be regarded as courageous experiments of flawed and failed enterprises.

One criticism is that écriture féminine, like poststructralism, has failed to live up to its ideals and that it has become a high-level theoretical game with limited impact on women’s lives and real world practical issues. Whether as a product of market forces, cultural resistance, or inherent weakness, modernist and postmodern writing has failed to activate a major shift in mainstream creative production. Traditional forms of writing practice are therefore still predominant in the sphere of industry, entertainment, and institutional education. There appears also to be a potential discrepancy or difference between the joy of writing such works, and the difficulty of reading them. This brings us back to a critique of reading as consumption, but perhaps it also returns us to the desire for transparency in communication, rather than a dream-like, impenetrable opacity. As the previous sentence suggests the inevitability of analysis falling back on a linguistic structure derived from the male body and masculine domination alerts us to the notion that the playful inner connections and coherence of écriture féminine appears to resist intrusive analysis derived from the exterior.

Nonetheless, the sceptical reaction to écriture féminine ought to be corrected by a recognition that in key respects contemporary writing and reading practice is shifting away from the traditional forms and modes. On one level, the tyranny of institutional moderation and commercial approval has been disrupted by the ability to express oneself by self-publishing. Nowadays one can easily participate digitally as a commentator and critic in both the ‘high’ official or the ‘low’ transgressive forums, with the result that sharp cultural hierarchies are being broken down. Writing is increasingly a dialogue, a conversation, and a flow, rather than a top-down imposition. Writing is increasingly fragmentary and ephemeral rather than structured and pre-determined in advance. For conservative critics this new age of writing has produced a dumbing-down of discourse and a free-for-all of unpleasant and rude amateurism. On the other hand, the reading process is also less linear. Increasingly,  reading is a mobile and shifting process, whimsical, diversified, aleatory and unlocked from the confines of the sentence, paragraph, the page and the essay. We leap between associated ideas or jump into unfamiliar and unexpected zones.

Yet all of this is manipulated at another level, with the prescription and anticipation of our existing taste preferences and local milieu. Also, we are reduced to the parameters of the data collected and arranged to suit the needs of increased consumption of the corporate product. The social life of the link is also the guided tour of corporate manipulation and metrics. In these respects, gender and sexuality are part of a complex set of force, but they are not the whole story.

Dr Ian McCormick served as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. His most recent book is The Art of Connection. [Quibble Academic, 2013]

Friday, 27 June 2014

7 steps to Prolific, or more Productive Writing

Most writers and intrigued by the idea that they might be more productive. Some writers want to become prolific. Some writers, such as Shakespeare, were able to churn out two or more major works every year; others, such as Charles Dickens or Walter Scott, astonish us by the sheer quantity of their work.

I was surprised to discover recently that my writing notebook lists plans for 23 books. Clearly some of these projects are little more than a title and an outline. So the problem is not having ideas, it’s more a question of having the time, the discipline and the confidence to see them through to completion as published works. In short, I am now trying to increase my productivity by researching some of the recurring ideas typically adopted by successful writers.

While doing some research recently on translations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I cam across the impressive productivity of JackLindsay, who produced 170 creative and non-fiction works during his long career.

But do you have to be a genius to be so prolific? Or is it more a case of responding efficiently and effectively to commercial deadlines?

1. The Necessity of Discipline.
“Rule your mind or it will rule you.” — Horace

Simply waiting for inspiration to drive your creative output is a highly risky strategy. Even the great romantic writers employed discipline. While it is essential to experience those fleeting moments of exuberant fancy and whimsical speculation, it is equally important to write them up in such a way that they will make sense at a later date. Your notebook is an essential tool for catching and capturing your creative flow.

2. The Benefits of Routine.
“I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours, a fixed salary, and very little original thinking to do.” — Roald Dahl

Design and create your routine rather than following someone else’s plan. Some writers find that they work best early morning; others burn the midnight oil. Some writers need the silence of the monastery or the peace of the nunnery, while others prefer the bustle of a café or the rhythm of a train or bus journey. Some writers work for thirty minutes, others for three hours. My advise therefore is to experiment with different routines and note down which combination of space and time produces the best results.

3. Maps, structures, outlines
“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” — Winston Churchill

Often there is a romantic sense that knowing your future direction at the outset will cramp your creativity; that writing becomes mechanical when it is strictly planned. On the other hand it is quite common to start projects with great enthusiasm but then to experience writer’s block in the more complex middle phases. Even worse, you may find that your work is fruitless because not matter how hard you try there is a lack of a suitable conclusion for your creative efforts. Radical uncertainty of this kind frequently leads to anxiety and paralysis. Moreover, there repeated experience of failure to complete leads to a weakening of your willpower and motivation in the medium term. By finishing projects your confidence grows and develops, allowing you to undertake more creative risks with a reduce chance of blockage or failure.

4. Speed Drafting
“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” — Henry David Thoreau

Having capture your key ideas and imposed a provisional structure it is now time to work in more detail. This means fleshing out your ideas and feelings. At this stage it is essential to write quickly and to avoid agonising over precise words and phrases. Don’t worry about writing the most astonishing and eye-catching first sentence; first paragraphs are often better written at the end of your writing phase.

5. Revisioning
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Writing typically moves from fleeting moments of inspiration to the discipline of the draft: the process of revisioning. This process requires critical insights more than creative flow. It is also often best accomplished several day or weeks after your speed drafting. This period allows time for critical thoughts to develop and for your to be more objective. The revision stage often involves contraction as well as amplification of your ideas. So be prepared for cutting down, chopping up, and repositioning your thoughts.

6. Taming the Dragons of Destruction.
“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” — T. S. Eliot

It is very important that we learn to apply critical perception to our creative works. However, for many writers the negative thoughts can crowd out the ability to write confidently. The inner voice that questions your skills and ability, that constantly interrogates your sense of having a worthwhile and unique vision is the viral plague that constantly affects the tribe of writers. With experience writers learn that each of the key stages outlined above requires different degrees of critical and creative insight, and they learn to enjoy the unique character of each of the different stages. Accordingly, switch of destructive and negative thoughts. Keep reminding yourself that others will want to read your work, and that your work has value because it is the product of your unique perspective on the world.

7. Learning from others.
“Learning never exhausts the mind.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Great writers are also great readers. By studying the work of others we improve our writing skills. By becoming critical readers we sharpen our creative tools. Also, the creative work of others can allow the writer to contemplate re-tellings and re-visioning of the body of experience. Remember that the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays were derived from printed sources written by others. He also learned the craft of writing by collaborating, by being a member of writing community. Nor did he confine himself to the writer’s room. For writing is also a big, bold, bracing encounter with life itself, and that’s not be had by staring at a blank screen. Finding the most sustainable balance between real writing and real life might be your biggest strategic decision.

Writing Machine, Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726)

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” —  Paul J. Meyer

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Life Beyond Writer's Block

Building blocks, or Writer's Block ?
You do not have writer's block as such.

It's a myth!

It’s far more likely that you are stuck in an unimaginative rut, and that you are experiencing a shortage of stimuli, or a lack of variety in the brain and body soup that should be feeding and nourishing your creative mind. 

If the situation has been really bad for many weeks you may be depressed. The good news is that creative strategies may help to decrease the depth and frequency of your depressive phases. Increasingly, writing and other creativity strategies are being recognised as therapeutic techniques.
Why not change the sex of your main character, and/or make him/her drastically older or younger? Absurd tweaks should initially be treated as harmless fun; but they may, nonetheless lead you in an unexpected direction. 

Great art involves patterns and destiny, but the aleatory, random dimension deserves to be better understood. In this case, risk means experimentation with improbability. One effect of this process is that the initial elements of a composition are re-constituted. Again, the emphasis is on removing a creative blockage in the way that you have been working.

Why not try transplanting the action of your narrative to another country, and /or different timezone or historical period. With a word processor a Search and Replace is a quick solution to this issue. If you don’t like the result, it is very easy to undo.

Why not make your hero into a villain. Show a wicked streak in your virtuous heroine. Chill out! This strategy of blending good and evil, virtue and vice, also helps to prevent your characters becoming tedious predictable stereotypes.

Transformations of Genre
A popular exercise that many schools are now using in order to explore and develop style, and an awareness of a writer’s chosen linguistic effects, is to re-write a poem as a story, or a story as a poem, or a tragedy as a comedy, or to parody a fictional text using exaggeration of the stylistic effects. These can be seen as warm-ups to promote the parts of your brain that deals with words, thoughts and concepts.

In the Middle

Remember that you can start a story from the beginning, the middle, or the end. Many writers start in the middle (in medias res) in order to provide suspense. Then they explain how the characters came to be there (working backwards); finally they proceed to the end - which may involve another surprise.
e.g. car race; car hanging over a cliff; car falls (dull)
car hanging over a cliff;
feelings as the characters consider their selfish dull lives and learn to love each other for the first time;
they all die happy, unless there is a miraculous intervention, as their guardian angels intervene.
I often find that the opening is the last thing I write as it creates too much pressure to impress. Get your story down on paper and then select a new start by arranging your ideas in a way that is unusual and creative.

The Critical Voice and the Creative Impulse

Although I strongly recommend that you should distance yourself from negative thoughts, don’t be frightened of constructive criticism, or re-thinking how you theorise your practice.
Literary criticism is your creative friend, not your despised antagonist.

Other Common Solutions to poor creativity that you might wish to consider are:
  • Engage in a variety of activities that are uncharacteristic for you. This may involve taking up a new hobby. It almost certainly means moving away from the torture of staring into a flickering screen. (See my other blog on internet and social media addiction, here.)
  • Start a new project. Sometimes it’s your determination to stick at a dead project that explains why you can’t move forward. But you can always return to older projects in the future, equipped with a fresh mind and new ideas
  • Learn to meditate. Become human again. Sometimes you are blocked by having too many thoughts. Too much creative flow is exhausting, especially if it remains chaotic, or it lacks the sense of an emerging shape or direction.
  • Read a random page of a random book and underline three magic words. That wonderful eighteenth-century word ‘Serendipity’ involves the art of finding what you need while you are looking for something else.
  • Take randomness a step further by using Tarot Cards to build character, or like composer and inventor John Cage, use dice, or the I Ching, in order to explore patterns beyond conventional expectations, and to help you to move away from bland stereotypes.
  • Read some poetry. Even better, cut it up and rearrange the words. Poetry is the ultimate mind-gymnasium for the creative writer.

  • Take a long walk. Take a few words for a walk. Let them go wander. Many great writers such as Charles Dickens have employed walking as a way to compose and liberate their creativity.

Did you read 52 Examples of My Creative Writing Activities? Here.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (2013) ... 

Monday, 19 August 2013

What's wrong with using "said" in composition and creative writing?

Let's be clear: it is not incorrect to write 'he said' or 'she said.'

In fact, it may be advantageous to let the dialogue do the work and to leave the specific manner or tone of speech to the reader's imagination. The reader often has an intuitive grasp of the flow of emotions.

Close examination shows that there are many options if you want to replace the word 'said', but sometimes you don't need to use it at all.

The word 'said' also preserves a potential ambiguity. Again this can be helpful in creative writing if you do not want to direct the reader to a specific interpretation. Why not trust the reader to unmask irony and double-meanings in the speech? Often, the writer who lacks confidence wants to fill in all the gaps. Sometimes it is better to be less busy, and to leave some space for the reader to work on the prose. Writing presupposes a partnership; it is not a dictatorship.

The word 'said' can also be complemented by an action, or by a descriptive phrase:

He said, slipping the gold coin into his greasy pocket

Returning the frightened mouse to its cage, she said

This technique helps to develop character or to reveal a new aspect of a situation that contributes to plot development. Remember that readers enjoy hints; they enjoy being taken into confidence and they enjoy moments of revelation. What readers dislike is a unwieldy smack in the face.

Another advantage of the word 'said' is that it is unobtrusive. It does not draw attention to itself. Words such as beseeched or chortled tend to stand out, and they may also sound rather stilted and old-fashioned unless you're writing sensational fiction or romance.

In many cases it is possible to present dialogue without pointing to who the speaker and signifying how they spoke. By repeatedly inserting 'he said' or 'she said'  the flow of speech is interrupted, and the effect may become mechanical and monotonous. Effective dialogue requires pace: too much commentary from the writer is intrusive and tiresome. An irritated reader stops reading.

Excessive use of words other than said also runs the risk of starting to sound ridiculous. Writing should not sound like a regurgitated thesaurus! Sometimes writers try too hard to improve their writing and fall into a new category of error.

Try reading your work aloud if you are unsure about appropriate usage. By listening to your work you will move slowly from the craft of composition to the art of writing.

But if you do want to gain a sense of the rich opportunities for variation afforded by the English language there are more than 107 Ways to Avoid the word "said"

  1. Acknowledged 
  2. Added
  3. Admitted
  4. Affirmed
  5. Agreed
  6. Alleged
  7. Announced
  8. Answered
  9. Appealed
  10. Asked
  11. Asserted
  12. Barked
  13. Bawled
  14. Beckoned
  15. Begged
  16. Bellowed
  17. Beseeched
  18. Blubbered
  19. Blurted out
  20. Carped
  21. Cautioned
  22. Chortled
  23. Chuckled
  24. Claim
  25. Conceded
  26. Concurred
  27. Confessed
  28. Confided
  29. Confirmed
  30. Contended
  31. Continued
  32. Cried
  33. Croaked
  34. Declared
  35. Entreated
  36. Exclaimed
  37. Explained
  38. Fumed
  39. Giggled
  40. Grinned
  41. Groaned
  42. Growled
  43. Grumbled
  44. Hesitated
  45. Hinted
  46. Hissed
  47. Howled
  48. Implied
  49. Implored
  50. Indicated
  51. Informed
  52. Inquired
  53. Insisted
  54. Jabbered
  55. Joked
  56. Lamented
  57. Laughed
  58. Lilted
  59. Maintained
  60. Moaned
  61. Mocked
  62. Murmured
  63. Mused
  64. Noted
  65. Observed
  66. Offered
  67. Ordered
  68. Pleaded
  69. Preached
  70. Proclaimed
  71. Promised
  72. Proposed
  73. Protested
  74. Queried
  75. Quipped
  76. Ranted
  77. Remarked
  78. Remonstrated
  79. Repeated
  80. Replied
  81. Requested
  82. Retorted
  83. Roared
  84. Scoffed
  85. Scolded
  86. Shouted
  87. Shrieked
  88. Snarled
  89. Sobbed
  90. Specified
  91. Spluttered
  92. Stammered
  93. Stated
  94. Stuttered
  95. Stressed
  96. Suggested
  97. Swore
  98. Taunted
  99. Teased
  100. Testified
  101. Thundered
  102. Wailed
  103. Warned
  104. Whimpered
  105. Whined
  106. Whispered
  107. Yelled
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of

The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences (Quibble Academic 2013) 

Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Dr Ian McCormick served
until recently as Professor in the Arts at the University of Northampton. He works as a teaching adviser in educational creativity and participatory methodology. He has recently written a book on Shakespearean Tragedy.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Art of Description: 25 Tips

'Scott has spent pages and pages upon describing a country scene, this is very uninteresting, but it is intensely good literature.'

(The Newbolt Report: “The Teaching of English in England” (1921))

In popular literature description appears to have been devalued in favour of character and plot. Description can be enjoyable in itself, but often it relates to, and helps to build the plot, mood, character, or atmosphere.  In our busy modern world perhaps we feel that we don’t have time to wallow in description. I have heard some writers saying that they don't bother doing the scene setting any more. This is sad.

In fact, our age is one of immense (simulated) visual and sonic richness and variety. Never have we had such an immense range of sensory stimuli. Nonetheless, we are often so caught up in the flow that we lack either the creative engagement or the critical detachment that would enable the production of delightful or striking descriptive prose.

Descriptive writing vividly re-connects us to the world, and it stimulates deeper, more sustainable thinking and feeling about our lived and our imagined experiences.

What techniques are involved in effective description, and what should be avoided?

In my view, description should avoid

  1. writing that is dull and flat.
  1. lazy words: had, was, get, nice, good, bad, really.
  1. padding - unnecessary description
  1. simply listing words or items
Effective description

  1. selects key details to convey and focus the primary impression of the scene
  2. cultivates magic and mystery
  3. presents what was plain or the banal so that it stands out in a more vivid way
  4. chooses interesting words
  5. aims for specificity and clarity in word choice 
  6. develops creative writing skills by reading and critically dissecting literary texts
  7. makes the scene vivid to the reader: clear, strong, credible
  8. considers handling of time and place, and transitions between them
  9. use frames, snapshots, or photographs. These can then be placed in a logical sequence
  10. considers the reflective mood of the observer
  11. employs the five senses
  12. copes well with a sense of proximity and distance
  13. plans its ideas in advance (e.g. spider diagram, mindmaps, notes)
  14. prioritises and foregrounds key details
  15. varies sentence type and structures, with a consciousness of pace and rhythm
  16. considers rhetorical strategies
  17. employs striking figurative tropes such as simile, pathetic fallacy and metaphors
  18. borrows from poetry a sense of sound (e.g. assonance, alliteration)
  19. employs a beginning, a middle and the sense of an ending
  20. attends to the flow of thoughts by using connectives and transitional words
  21. checks accuracy of spelling, grammar and punctuation

Sadly, even the models of excellence (A*) outlined by the exam boards seem to lack flair and imagination. But here they are, in case you need to refer to them:

Content and organisation

· content is well-judged, sustained and pertinent, firmly engaging the reader’s interest

· the writing is well-crafted in an appropriate form with distinctive structural or stylistic features

· paragraphs are effectively varied in length and structure to control detail and

· there is a sophisticated organisation of detailed content within and between paragraphs

· a wide range of appropriate, ambitious vocabulary is used to create effect or convey
precise meaning

Sentence structure, punctuation and spelling

· there is appropriate and effective variation of sentence structures 

· there is a sophisticated use of simple, compound and complex sentences to achieve
particular effects 

· accurate punctuation is used to vary pace, clarify meaning, avoid ambiguity and create deliberate effects 

· virtually all spelling, including that of complex irregular words, is correct

· tense changes are used confidently and purposefully

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

52 Creative Writing Activities

Beyond the apostrophe!

In this blog I appear to have sketched out fifty-two creative writing methods, strategies, and some pedagogic principles. Please add your suggestions and ideas to the comments section at the end of this blog.

52 Creative Writing Activities

1. The Forked Paths

This was a group exercise which was created on a large whiteboard. This game involved writing a story. At the end of each short sentence there are multiple pathways to carry on the story in different directions.

2. Adaptation

Work with the children to adapt the activities described in this list. When a child says, But Can I Do It This Way, that’s music to my ears. But remember that this approach only works if teachers and learners are constantly thriving on new inspiration, outgrowing their comfort zones, and moving beyond dull repetition.

3. Bite Size Steps

We create a three word poem. We can write the words anywhere on the page. The words can be small, medium or large. They can be hidden in a diagram. We are thinking about how they look on the page and how they relate to each other. This activity is very good for younger children; but also expect some surprises with the older ones.

4. Word Monster

We stick words together and deform our writing so that the result depicts a text-monster. Serpents are good for joining words, but we can also use long words for arms and legs and shorter ones for eyes, ears, noses, mouths, fingers and toes.

5. Rap, Rap, Rap

This activity involves writing songs, using music, creating funny tunes and rhythms based on real life situations. But don’t become too technique-obsessed: let this evolve. Re-writing serious songs in a comic vein ... lowering the tone. Humour is a great tool in teaching. Why not let the students choose the tunes?

6. If person A were an X, what would they be?

Starting with a list of characters, or real people, make a list of their equivalent ‘quality’ in terms of weather, plants, fruit, vegetables, animals, flowers, colours. This approach helps to build skills in metaphor, symbolism and personification.

7. Subject Ransack and Pillage

Each school subject/field/special topic has its own jargon, terminologies and discourses. Specialised or technical words can really stand out if you create a poem drawn from the language of a car repair manual, a biology casebook, a theory of physics article, an engineering study guide.

8. Surgical Cut and Entitlement

Take a story and cut out everything except the best phrase/sentence. The result becomes the new title for the story, which could then be retold in fewer words than the original, modified, or improved according to your taste preferences.

9. Choices and Combinations

We could try out different tasks, rather than having them chosen for us. Sometimes we combined three or more short  activities in one lesson. This approach allows learners to experiment with learning styles and to express their own preferences.

10. Morph the Limerick

Starting with a traditional limerick we replaced words one at a time in order to create a new poem. Students progress to explore ideas of the absurd, the bizarre, and the grotesque. You might end up with something more weirdly funny than the original. They key is to have fun with words and to relish their transformative power.

11. Acting Out

Acting out short stories (NOT learning lines) helps with confidence, spontaneity and improvisation. A sense of humour helps. Try picking random roles and characters rather than predictable ones. Why not add sound effects using your home-made instruments?

12. Ball of Wool

Working in a circle, we passed the ball of wool to the person who must supply the next sentence of the story. Stories are tangled webs! This activity is a brilliant way to demonstrate the intricacy of narrative in a kinaesthetic interpersonal fashion.

13. Superhero Job Advert

Write an advert designed to recruit a superhero. The task is to outline the most appropriate skills, qualifications and experience needed for the role. This activity leads naturally into storytelling.

14. Role Transformations

In this activity we invented a basic story but then made some major changes in the characters, e.g. male to female, young to old, human to animal, hero to victim etc. This approach encourages children to think outside their comfort zone.

15. Secret Instructions

These poems can be discovered or created. Secret instructions are hidden in a metaphor or a simile, on in highlighted words. This activity helps to build skills in skimming and scanning for key information.

16. In the Middle Game is the Opening Gambit

We start by writing a 3 or 5 part story as a ‘real time’ sequence. Then we re-write it, starting in the middle. This activity helps children to understand complex sequences and also flashback or foreshadowing techniques.

17. How Did I Get here?

As above. This means that your opening is rather weird, so you want to find out how you got there. ‘Here I am, writing this, covered in green paint, on the church bell-tower ...’ Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, began with the words: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it, the rest of me is on the draining board.’

18. New Locations

An old tired story can be renewed. Produce a new story by  giving it a more exotic location. Pictures from Google maps and images also helped to make this transformation from the local to something more exotic and strange. The new environment  presents innovative challenges for the actors in the story.

19. Animation

Use animation software, sound effects and text, in order to create our own animated short stories. This activity helps children to understand storyline or plotting techniques.

20. Superhero Job Application

We wrote a letter, and filled in an application form, explaining our relevant superhero skills. (See also activity 13.)

21. Word Magnet

These are the plastic words that you stick on your fridge, or on a metal surface. You re-arrange the words to make a poem, or to tell a story. Playing with words in this way functions as an effective warm-up exercise that promotes children’s creativity. It also prompts learners to work within the resources available.

22. The Land of Infinite Possibility

We used a sample of text by a published writer and started to deform/reform it using search and replace on a word processor. Persist in this process until the original has almost disappeared. Curiously, the bizarre results sometimes stimulate a new creative departure.

23. Comic Strip

Images and text are combined in order to create your own storybook. There are several companies online who will publish your book as print-on-demand publication that can be sent to your friends and family.

24. Riddle Poems

Read some riddles and then create your own, by working backwards ... from the answer .... to the questions and the clues.

25. Picture Captions

This could be a picture related to football, or some other sport, or cars, or games. Make a caption for the picture to give it maximum impact. Then writing the title for the newspaper story associated with it.

26. Sharing questions and answers as we write

What if? How? Why? When? What next?

27. Between Two Images

Choose two photographs and then wrote a story about the missing image that makes sense of the other two.

28. Recommendations / What next

Older boys/girls showed their work to younger children. They explained which activities they had enjoyed most, and why. There was a Q&A and a critical discussion afterwards.

29. Ekphrastic Writing

This involves writing a poem or a story based on, and inspired by another art work, such as a painting or a sculpture, or a piece of music

30. Detective Writer as Character

This activity involved reading a short story. But then the child  turns up in the story as a detective ...

31. Upright Creativity

Writing standing up or composing while you are walking around. Writing does not have to be sedentary. Some of our most prodigious and creative writers such as Charles Dickens were great walkers. And didn’t Virginia Woolf write standing up?

32. Chaos Notebooks

Many artists don’t have tidy notebooks. In fact, you can scrawl any crazy ideas in any way. Tidy writing and full sentences are banned. You can start writing in the middle of your book, or work backwards. We can stick in any pictures that we find. We make weird diagrams of machines and inventions. Creative notebooks are a space to be messy.

33. Secret productions

We use codes to keep an idea secret. This can involve pictures and symbols. This makes our writing feel precious. Its revelation is a gift to the world.

34. Creating our own Newspaper

Taking on different newspaper roles each day, we created a daily newspaper covering the celebrity gossip and gang warfare between the Montagues and the Capulets. The ‘Mantle of the Expert’ approach usually involves the taking on of a professional role that is acted out in an evolving ‘process’  drama.

35. Funny Character Names

We invented ridiculous, absurd, and memorable names for our characters. This approach also helps children to understand that characters are sometimes symbolic or allegorical, rather than attempt to create real-life people.

36. Character Catchphrases

We invented a catch-phrase for a person in a story. This activity helps children to explore and challenge clichés, or to think about the main quality/ruling emotion of a character.

37. The Living and the Dead

This was an opportunity to think about crazy ways of killing off characters and then bringing them back to life. These became our new stories. Gruesome and miraculous. Children love this rather brutal activity.

38. Word theft and remix

We cut up all the words in a poem and then remixed them to make shorter new poems.

39. Finding You way out of the Maze

This is a found poem. In this activity  we highlighted the words contained in someone else’s writing in order to create our own poem. Sometimes writers don’t know that they have a little  poem lurking in their prose.

40. The Espionage (Spy) Poem

This poem is written with invisible ink, so you can choose who you want to read it. It was also fun to hide poems somewhere in the classroom, in the school, or in the playground. Some have still not been discovered.

41. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

We make words and sentences disappear, and put new ones in their place. We experimented with turning sentences and ideas into their opposites. Reversal of expectations can have amusing and unexpected outcomes.

42. Parallel Universes

These verbal universes are like our known world but with very slightly different structural or theoretical principles, or arcane and odd rules. The game involves guessing or inventing the rules for the parallel universe. For instance, all words with double letter are banned in the World of Og; ‘in the World of Og ... they have forks but no spoons, windows but no glass.’

43. The Obstacle Challenge

Working in pairs, one of us maps out a character’s journey. The other person has to invent obstacles at each stage of the journey. These challenges test the strength and intelligence of the character. A map and pictures help to visualise/structure this adventure story.

44. Conflict role play

In pairs we tried out our skills in creative arguments. E.g. dialogues or conversation battles between father/son, mother/daughter, hero/villain, human/animal, hero/monster ...

45. Poems and Pen knives

We enjoyed carving words in wood and cardboard. Wordcraft.

46. The Flyting Match

This activity involve the use of insults and counter-insults in the form of a contest. This is a cruel and wicked creative game, but rude/offensive words are banned. ‘Flyting’ started in Scotland, but exists in many oral cultures. Basically it’s the art of creative quarrelling.

47. Sculpture poems

In this activity we learned that poems are shapes like sculptures, and that these can be made from any objects, and stuck together; they just have to be eye-catching. Think of this activity as three-dimensional writing.

48. Spray cans / Paint spray

This was a bit messy, but it was fun to create gigantic poems using lots of shape and colour and images. Creative vandalism at work? Don’t try this activity in your living room or kitchen unless you want a permanent record of children’s creativity.

49. Voting with our friends on our best creative work so far

We were a bit nervous about this at first, but everyone has one thing that’s their best work, and as it’s your friends deciding on what they liked best it’s not the same as the teacher stepping in and marking your work. Usually you know what your best work is, but sometimes there are surprises and something that did not start very well turns out to have a life of its own.

51. The Essential Gadget Show

We invented and described the gadgets that our characters can use on their adventures. Words come with a diagram and/or a picture, or a user manual.

52. Sharing and Valuing Our Work

We showed the younger children our work, and explained some of our tricks-of-the-trade. We took pictures of our works or scanned them to make an online resource and record of our achievements.

Further Information

Thanks for reading: I look forward to hearing about your experiences and to reading your views.

© Dr Ian McCormick 2013

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)
This recent Guardian Education article is also worth reading.

Creative Writing: 5 Old Problems and 14 New Principles

Why are boys underperforming in English classes?

I am frequently dissatisfied with the resources on, and approaches to, Creative Writing in the Classroom.

Five of the Problems:

1. Traditional writing exercises are predictable and dull:


Describe an interesting encounter
Make a story based on an overheard conversation
Write on a topic chosen by the teacher
Do a 60 minute exam essay.

2. Negative criticism from teachers just makes us feel embarrassed and reminds us of our sense of inadequacy. None the less, some creative productions are better than others, and children can be trusted to see this for themselves!

3. The disobedient curriculum. The creative activities outlined were exercises in being grammatical and were not a spelling test. It's so easy to pick on the tick and the cross, the right and the wrong. We need quality of expression rather than quantification of results.

4. There is a gender gap in English studies that needs to be addressed urgently. Writing exercises often fail to resonate with the boys. We must change this situation.

5. Writing tasks are too safe. We need to aim for risk rather than rules and restrictions.

My Fourteen Principles for Action

1. Work Out

We need to fry our brain, then take a break to recharge our batteries. Making full use of words is like doing a work-out.These outlines are based on short, intense activities, not week long topics and term-long programmes.

2. Locksmiths

Having fun with words is like having lots of keys to unlock the imagination. If we design our own keys we create poetry locksmiths rather than prisons.

3. Play

By having lots of different games and varieties of stimulus we turbo-charge our creativity. The play element is at the core of these activities, rather than performance in curriculum-specific, examined activities.

4. Aesthetics

The children work out the principles of success (good and bad rules) after they have seen for themselves what the best feels like. This approach involves trusting the child’s native, natural capacity for aesthetic delight in great creative work!

5. Freedom

Activities will not be based on the tedious repetition of skills; rote learning; copying; complex techniques; rhetorical jargon. These have their place, but not here.

6. Teacher's roles

Children are far more effective critics than teachers. But teachers can help by fostering creative environments based on diplomacy, decency, fairness, positive tone and pitch, timekeeping, and by helping to develop and manage critical and creative frameworks.

7. Brevity

Writers tend to work in multiple ways across time, and across the writing process. They seldom sit down and write 90-minute exam answers. In my creative activities, the “warm-up” IS the activity. In my view, multiple short tasks need to displace longer concentration-heavy solo activities. In my experience most writers (creative, critical, practical or academic – all sorts) work best in 10-15 minute bursts.

8. Randomness and Risk

Adopting risk means moving away from safe predictability to a capacity to embrace randomness as a starting point. This strategy runs against the grain of the current orthodoxy that builds on strict lesson planning, schemes of work, hard rules, tight instructions etc. I’ll be writing a longer, more theoretical essay on modernism and aleatory creativity at a later date. Suffice to say for now that in my view creativity is Empedoclean: between chaos and structure.

9. Pataphysics and Nonsense

 To become more liberated we had to risk taking a few steps away from sense towards nonsense. This is a paradigm shift. Edward Lear and King Lear have more in common that we imagine. Or, following Alfred Jarry, start to think with pataphysics

10. The Tools

Technology helps in many ways, but remember that it is only a tool, not a displacement activity. Shakespeare was not a genius because he had great hands.  Human interactivity is infinitely more subtle and varied than mechanical reproduction, and iterative simulation is always just what it is: a second hand experience.

11. Screens

Likewise, remember that we spend too much time looking into screens. The screen can become a prison house; recall that the screen/veil blocks out other forms of interpersonal encounters and experiences.

12. Unmaking

Turn the world/word upside down and back to front. Creativity is the power of making and unmaking. Worlds make words and words make worlds.

13. Age of Discovery

We have become obsessed with activities designed for a specific age or ability range. The Genius is a Child at Heart, and the reverse is also true. Some of the activities that I used I classes worked just as well with 5 year old children as they did with students in their final year at University.

14. Trust

While there’s quite a lot for the teacher to do as an experimental facilitator and inspiring guide, a high degree of responsibility, ownership and trust is ideally passed back to the creative learners.

Further Information

In the next blog in this sequence, there is a work in progress that outlines 52 Creative Writing Activities.

See also my blog on The Myth of Writer's Block.

Thanks for reading: I look forward to hearing about your experiences and to reading your views.

© Dr Ian McCormick 2013