Disorientation and mindfulness in the creative writing classroom
Morley (2007:9) uses the word ‘defamilarisation’ to define a concept he prizes in the process of creativity, so that the world is looked at more carefully and without preconceptions. ‘Disorientation’ might be a better word for the process of making younger students more aware of the process of writing poetry. In preparing students for writing poetry, the groundwork is more concerned with taking away the usual boundaries of writing and allowing students to find ways of solving problems of language and expression for themselves through a series of challenges. This allows them to realise, as Michaels (1999:3) asserts, that poetry ‘can help us discover profound truths we didn’t realise we knew.’
Students are accustomed to being asked to produce all kinds of creative writing without too much stimulus or preparation. Clearly, writing ‘to order’ is a skill in itself and necessary in examinations in which the only stimulus provided is a title printed on the page. Even with such a dreary starting point, occasionally students find a subject which accidentally taps into a deeper flow of consciousness and come out from the examination claiming that they enjoyed it and feeling quite pleased with a story of sorrow or adventure on the high seas. From junior school onwards, students are provided with examples of writing or writing frameworks to help them but, rarely do they think about the process of writing or how they themselves can cultivate a mood or state of mind to help bring about the interest and absorption sometimes hit upon by a lucky accident.
To help with this, I have often taught pupils to relax by closing their eyes and listening to the voice of the teacher talk them through a peaceful scenario, intended to bring calm and concentration to the group. Several approaches can be used in ‘warming up’ the class for writing and all of them aim to disorientate students by circumventing the way writing is usually presented, enabling students to be more alert and mindful.
One way to begin is by the teacher dictating to the class, and then stopping in mid-sentence. Students should not be permitted to take pens from the paper, even if they write nonsense. The idea of the exercise is to go through the motions of writing as a rehearsal for writing more coherently later. Sometimes a piece of writing came from the exercise, but also students should be instructed not to take the pen from the paper even if they only wrote ‘blah, blah, blah’. It is the action of writing, rather than what is written, which is the significant factor in the exercise. However, the sentence stems chosen by the teacher need to offer possibilities. Examples provided for the class could include
- ‘Last night I dreamt again of….’;
- ‘Through the window that night I saw….’
- ‘I will always remember the time I went….’.
Interestingly, when questioned, classes rarely find the need to write nonsense but find that through this automatic writing there are possibilities to say whatever they wished. This exercise also provides a trigger over time which helps students to prepare for writing, as one pupil, student suggested when he commented ‘Oh good we are getting in the zone for writing’. This idea is an adaptation of the concept of automatic writing, not in its discredited spiritualist use, but more in the style of the Surrealists. For them, automatic art was used as a tool in order to tap the unconscious for ideas. The exercise is not as grand in its design as those claims, but is successful in creating the right ambience for concentrated writing.
Another way of creating the right ambience is asking students to think of a memory and then write of it, using the hand not normally used for writing. This technique is one which brings about extreme concentration and a frustration to express thought. It led one student to shout out ‘Please can I change hands; I need to get this down on paper’. By with-holding the usual flow of writing, students increase concentration and commitment. This commitment does not necessarily dictate that there was is no room for students’ own day-dreaming. Day-dreaming used to be banned from classrooms but sometimes daydreaming is an important part of writing. Sometimes, in preparation for writing, students can be asked to doodle on the page and simply day-dream about whatever is in their minds. This is a type of dreaming which helped Keats (1958:183) evoke ideas and when woken up to reality ‘found it truth’.
When focussing those day-dreams, students can be encouraged to make lists to help focus the mind and these sometimes develop into a poem either for the individual or as a group reading. Typical lists offered could include ‘Ten things I will never see again’ or ‘Five things I cannot live without’. The instruction should demand the concrete and individual over the general. Thus on the class list of ‘Things never to be seen’ there can be the poignancy of ‘my grandfather’s smile’ and the philosophical reflection of ‘my fifth birthday’ with the concrete detail of ‘my black leather glove I dropped in the snow’. When each student chooses their best line and put the lines together as a class poem, it is the very randomness and juxtapositioning of images which disorientates and leads alarmingly from laughter to tears with the freshness of surprise.
All of these tasks are designed to make students look at life differently in order to have a clearer sense of perception, to slow down time and to give a sharper focus to senses. One such challenge is to ask students to choose an event or task and describe it backwards. Charles Harper Webb’s (Brando5890:2008) poem ‘Retreat’ is a useful blueprint. In the poem, Webb describes the breaking up of a relationship, by giving the events backwards so that the poem starts at the moment before he hears ‘the cruncher’ and ends with him spitting his Manhattan Dry into a glass. In order to write their own poems, students need to break down an event into small actions, as if winding down time before winding it backwards.
Sometimes a student’s response poem gives us a sense of the pain of the situation because of its emotional content has resonance as in:
‘With a colossal ache in the head,
heart left discarded on the floor,
I hang up the phone
and listen to the harsh ruthlessness.’
She has created the emotion through the breaking of the event into its constituent parts, enabling her to look at the situation in a new way. Interestingly, many of the poems thus created are concerned with death-beds, broken relationships and rejections, giving a wish-fulfilment element to the writing where life’s trials are reversed and the moment returned to ‘the time before’. Time is broken down and reconstituted. In that sense the poems can have a therapeutic function for, as Angela Dove argues on the P. F. poetry web-site (http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/featurequestionoftherapyangeladove.html, 2008) art often has this therapeutic element. Dove quotes the psychoanalyst, Hana Sagal, who has asserted that:
‘All creation is really re-creation of a once loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object, a ruined internal world and self.’
In this sense, the exercise helps some students look again at painful experiences. This needs sensitive handling of material and raises issues of care and due regard to students’ feelings and situations.While some students use the exercise for therapeutic purposes, it is interesting to note that male voices tend to be more abstract, as in this vision of the act of writing vision of writing as surreal and monstrous:
‘My pen rips the notes from the manuscript
It sucks the black ink off the page
Up the plastic tube and I unclick the stand.’
In reverse, the student’s poem expresses the nightmare horror of all creators that their words or notes will disappear. He also illustrates a technique used by many students when he creates the construction unclick. In this exercise, as well as words that do exist, such as disassemble, unplug and unpack, there were many neologisms including unlearn, unplay and unsleep. This demonstrates, as Pinker (2007: 305) pointed out, that ‘English is riddled with so many gaps’ where words do not exist for the experience described. This was illustrated by the exercise and made students look at language with more attentiveness as a question that echoed around the classroom began, ‘What is the opposite of…?’ This resulted in an interesting discussion, especially when the class was shown a page from Bryson’s (2008) book on Shakespeare which pointed out words that Shakespeare had introduced such as unmask, unlock and untie, as well as his creations that we no longer use, such as undeaf and untent. An offshoot of the exercise was a discussion on neologisms and when and how a new word was needed, introducing an element of sophistication about language not usually encountered so spontaneously.
Another task, to encourage close observation, is the game, The Museum of the Future. The purpose of the game is to make students look again at ordinary objects with new eyes. Classes can be asked to write the names of objects on pieces of paper, fold them up and drop them in a hat. Each student chooses a slip of paper and is asked to visualise the object. The answer to the question ‘What if I have chosen my own?’ deserves either a cynical ‘Serve you right’ or a mystical ‘It is fate’. The important thing is not to be side-tracked by chat while the mind is in focus. The students are told that they are guides in museums of the future and that they must introduce their object (which no longer exists in its present form) to visitors. They have to imagine a world of the future and in so doing look again at their object as a relic or strangely interesting oddity from the past. Getting students to guess the identity of the objects from the descriptions is not crucial, but the whole purpose of the game element of this disorientating activity is to inject the element of play which is so important in the creative act.
The subject of artificial intelligence, does not look an immediately promising subject to look back on through time, but one student’s imagination creates a whole scenario of a future world and challenges the observer with a sinister dystopia:
‘From six score years of existence it surveys you,
With its programmed mind and engineered thoughts.’
The object returns the visitors’ looks and ‘engineered thoughts’ provides an interesting image with ambiguous suggestions of paradox. He imagines the computer as ‘bettering its maker’ and warns of man’s ‘barbaric ways of bloodshed’ before ending the poetic lecture with a warning:
‘Bear in those small minds of yours
the wisdom of ages past.’
The exercise has provided this student with the opportunity to enter an imaginative space where he has created a different world.
Another strategy to make students look more carefully at objects is to place a tangerine in front of each of them, with the instruction not to touch it (Brigley 1985: 27-29). To focus the mind, the classes should sketch individual fruit on the understanding that this is not the tangerine but a tangerine. To help, they should be encouraged to imagine the object as huge and to then shrink it in their imaginations, to make associations and descriptive phases and lastly write them in note form. Finally, they peel the fruit, describe the process, separate the pieces and describe them. They place a segment in the mouth, with the instruction to not bite or chew. At the end, they can eat the fruit, making sure that they are thinking consciously of the process. Apart from the written commentary, the process is not unlike a meditative exercise of Kabat-Zinn (2001) in its insistence on mindfulness through the whole process.
When that process is complete, the class can be asked to write up their notes in any style they wish. In the past typical titles included ‘Five ways to eat an orange’, ‘How to eat an orange’ and ‘Definition of a Clementine’. The images used were fresh and original as the orange was described ‘like a second tongue’ and its segments became ‘mirrored crescents’, or, in a more abstract metaphor, ‘The segments no longer slaves break free’. As Waldman (2001: 35) has commented ‘Objects are wonderful presences to focus writing upon’. In the case of the tangerines, the classes were able to make their descriptions more concrete and accurate because of the sensual experience which was immediate rather than a memory. One boy in the class had never tasted the fruit before and another commented, ‘I never thought about it before but it is quite wonderful. I understand now when my father says he used to get one in his Christmas stocking’. If nothing else, the exercise taught students to use their senses and look freshly at a subject.
These exercises are designed to strengthen students’ mindfulness of the world around them, and of themselves in the world, while trying to foster habits which would be useful in both creative and critical work in the future. Those habits of mind are not unlike those advocated by Costa and Kallick (2000), particularly in the managing of impulsivity. This impulsivity can be controlled through meditative process and as the students responded with awe and wonder to the challenges provided this was in turn maintained through a sense of fun and play. All of these habits are important to writing poetry and to study of texts. Most importantly, the process of disorientation brings stimulation and interest to the classroom so that teachers should not be surprised if students comment ‘That was fun’, ‘That was a great.’ The exercises help students develop positive attitudes towards their own writing and to focus in such a way that, as Galwey (2004) writes:
‘It is only when we are giving our full attention to what we are doing that we can bring all of our resources to bear effectively’.
Blegvad’s metaphor for writing poetry (‘Poetry is surgery performed on a paper patient’) refers back to his childhood games of imagination and implies that poetry is ‘not of this world’ a phrase used in one of his songs, ‘Bee dream’ (Just Woke Up: 1996). Only through imagination and in image-making can the life of the poem be created, made well or saved. To enable students to breathe life into their writing, as teachers we need to disorientate, slow down and help students be mindful of the world around them, for as Hughes (2008: 149) stated:
‘Poetry transforms the way we see the commonplace through new and fresh perspectives’.
Blegvad, P. (1996) Just Woke Up [CD], Surrey: ReR.
Blegvad, P. (2010) Interview with Jude Brigley
Brigley, J. (1985) ‘Writing as observation’, Schools’ Poetry Review No.10. pp 27-29.
Costa, A.L. & Kallick, B. (2008)
Available at: http://www.habits-of-mind.net
(Accessed: 4 March 2017).
Dove, A. (2005)
(Accessed: 26 July 2017).
Dymoke, S. (2008) ‘How does a poem mean?’ English in Education 42 (2) p.117.
Galwey, T. ‘The inner game of work’. Available at: http://theinnergame.com/html.(Accessed: 5 February 2017).
Hughes, J (2008) ‘The “screen size” art: using digital media to perform poetry’ English in Education 42 (2) pp.148-164.
Kabut-Zinn, J. (2001) Catastrophe Living: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditations. New York: Bantam.
Keats, J. (1958) Selected poems and letters. London: Heinemann.
Michaels, J.R. (1999) Risking intensity : reading and writing poetry with high school students. Urbana Illinois: NCTE Press.
Morley, D. (2007) Cambridge guide to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge.
Morley, D. (2010) Interview with Jude Brigley
Pinker, S. (2007) The stuff of thought. London: Penguin.
Waldman, A. (2001) ‘Intriguing objects exercise’, in Behn, R. & Twichell, C. The practice of poetry. New York: Collins.
Web, C.H. (2008) ‘Retreat’
Available at: Brando5890 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcK979jZ15M
(Accessed: 22 December 2018).