Brainstorming and planning can be enjoyable activities but remain at that level unless they lead to something deeper. There comes a time when we have to commit ideas to paper and if the spadework of stimulus and experimentation are done then, hopefully, we will be ready to go with the flow, lose track of time and as one student put it ‘escape into your head’. To be able to write something worthwhile, time must be invested, for as Causley has said making something as intricate as a poem is like growing coral. Fisher makes a similar point when he writes that:
‘A characteristic of expert performance in widely different fields is the care,
effort and length of time that goes into the preparation of a creative act.’
One of the important skills, we can teach our students is how to use the process of writing to best effect. The process can be neatly summarised as:
• a warming up period to bring about a degree of mindfulness
• a preparatory fluency test where students try out several experiments
• writing in full flow
Lastly, there is the process, only partly achievable in tests and controlled conditions, of refining, checking and making meaning clearer.
Warming up and achieving fluency are initially led by the teacher through presentation of stimuli, such as pictures, memories, film clips, word chains etc. or the creation of mood as in the use of music, colour or meditation. Once they are part of writing routines, meditations [see example at the end of the post]can be used by candidates, even in examination settings, to calm the nerves and empower performance. Such control is extremely important in order to manage impulsivity which Kaniel believes needs ‘a regulation of processing tempo’. Creativity, according to Kaniel, is about connecting:
‘management, direction, order, control of physical motion
and relaxation, focusing of attention, setting behavioural rhythms
and coordination of internal and external stimuli.’
In particular, this is a great challenge for teenage boys, but in our classes, boys have been most vocal in expressing enjoyment of control, so that writing is about what one boy called ‘a quiet, concentrating moment’.
All writers, whether working professionally or producing work as students, are plagued with self-doubt. That is not difficult to understand, for as Spendlove and Hopper have pointed out:
‘To take risks and deal with uncertainty in order to be innovative
Requires the management of emotional discomfort that comes
with not always knowing how.’
One of the heartening aspects of teaching writing as a process is that students grow in confidence and relish both freedom of expression and risk-taking.
Writing in silence came to be an important part of the writing process in my classroom, although some teachers would disagree with me and seem reluctant to dispense with the idea of the classroom as a ‘talking shop’. They are discomforted by the idea of demanding ‘absolute quiet’. As Ollin has pointed out, this is a misunderstanding of the nature of silence:
‘As silence is not absolute because some sound is always present, it is the
nature of those sounds and the individual’s or cultural group’s perception
of those sounds that constitute the sense of silence.’
In a classroom, the absence of talk privileges other sounds such as distant traffic, or a music lesson in a remote classroom, or the buzz of a radiator. Within the creative cycle of writing, silence can be used to facilitate inner voices and daydreams and to aid absorption in the task. Such ‘flow’, as Csikszentmihalyi names it, means that our absorption is such that the writing takes up all of our thoughts. Gallwey makes a link between attentiveness and achievement when he writes that:
‘Attention is critical to all learning, understanding, and proficiency of action.
It is only when we are giving our full attention to what we are doing that we can
bring all our resources to bear effectively.’
Poet, David Morley has stated that ‘Writing is so absorbing and involving that it can make you feel more alive’. When students have a developed sense of the writing process they can, as in the ‘inner game’, find an absorption in the task.
Mindfulness can be an important prerequisite for writing. I often brought a class together before an examination which included writing using a voiced meditation to get the mind ready for a creative act. This does not work unless it is already established as part of classroom routine. Hopkins’ journals are full of the attentiveness of a writer tuned in to the world around him:
‘I watched the great bushes of foam-water, the texture of branchings and
water-spandrels which make them up.’
Similarly, students once concentrating with what Wordsworth calls ‘the watchful power of
love’ write with attentiveness as with a student who wrote ‘to breathe the scent of wild herbs; to splash spring water on the early morning stroll; to admire the sprawling mountain – all these make us become part of the world’. That feeling of ‘becoming part of the world’ has been backed up by the responses of other students who have, after being absorbed in writing, stated, as this one does, ‘It makes me happy to be able to express my thoughts and feelings – something I will continue to do’. In the present climate of getting students through examinations, it is worth reminding ourselves that we are also preparing them for life. The link between leading a creative life and a happy one is important. Baylis points out that:
‘If the elements are right, we will experience a complete lack
of self-consciousness, and time will pass unmeasured in a
warm and lasting glow of satisfaction.’
Some students have been explicit about supporting the importance of silence. Boys in a recent class recognised that in order to be creative the chattering world needs to be filtered out so that absorption in the task can more readily be found. It was this awareness of paying attention to one’s own thoughts that another student cited when he talked about creating ‘an atmosphere in your own head, which makes you ready for writing’. Silence and meditation have helped such students understand the writing process but also it helped in preparation for all kinds of projects and situations. Armstrong has commented that certain kinds of thinking are difficult at top speed and they require solitude and silence. She advocates the importance of waiting and thinking time:
‘In a slower, quieter time, ‘negative capability’ probably came more naturally, but we
may have to make a special effort to cultivate what Wordsworth called
The slowing down of time to create imaginative space and develop the seed-bed for writing
needs careful thought and planning.
Peer feedback is another important aspect of writing not only because of its intrinsic value as a sounding-board for ideas, but because it helps students to develop an objectivity which will aid them in becoming self-critical writers. One of the heartening aspects of teaching writing as a process is that students grow in confidence and relish the freedom of taking risks. Allowing students to share writing compensates for the dangers of walking the high wire of self-expression, by providing the net of peer endorsement and advice. In the period following silent writing, students need to be encouraged to talk about their work and the reasons for their choices. The onus is on teachers to model and directly equip students with the appropriate vocabulary so that having expressed meaning they can comment on the thinking process involved. This is working towards students being their own critics in situations such as examinations where no feedback is available.
At its best, such teaching equips students to cope with a tension between involvement and detachment in the creative process. In other words, the creative process of writing marries together the emotional self-expression of the writer with the detachment of the analytical critic who has a more detached eye as to why an opening sentence needs to be scrapped. When students become autonomous critics of their own work they show the typical schizophrenia of the artist who discards and builds while engaging with the process of making. It is a frustrating that the reason why some of our best writers lose marks in a GCSE examination is because of ‘messiness’ when in fact that ‘messiness’ can be a sign of higher order thinking, as the writer becomes a censor who eliminates choices whilst making them.
Getting students to talk about their own and other students’ work helps grow confidence and develop higher order skills in writing. Kaniel has pointed out that:
‘Pupils must observe their behaviour, increase their awareness of the
processes, thoughts and feelings that a task demands, break into
the sequence of automatic events that can lead to unwanted responses
and activate self-talk that focuses them in the proper direction.’
Such dialogue with oneself is to be encouraged because it clarifies the decisions already made and helps students devise questions to take their writing further. Encouraging students to create their own metaphors for the writing process is one way of giving students ownership of the process and possible admission into their own thinking practices. In this, I was influenced by Gruber who has suggested that one way of analysing a creative person’s mode of thinking is to look for their ‘ensemble of metaphors’ in order to trace developing thought processes. A creative act needs a creative mode of expression. I tried this out on poets. Peter Blegvad described writing as ‘surgery performed on a paper patient’ which harks back to his childhood playing fantasy games with people made from paper using his step-grandfather’s scalpel. He used a personal memory to explore the act of writing. David Morley who Read Zoology and conducted research into acid rain before becoming Professor of Creative Writing, drew parallels between different strands of his life not differentiating between his work in the laboratory and in the poetry workshop. He brings to both activities ‘concentration of attention which creates a series of shifting goals, no possibility of completion, only endless striving and second-guessing’. Lastly, Zoe Brigley chose the metaphor of diving for wreckage and then:
‘I take this material, hammer and break it and mould it into shapes, until
it’s a thing of great beauty.’
Brigley’s metaphor emphasises the work and craftsmanship of writing.
Students are no less reflective in creating their own metaphors for the process of writing. Many students have used imagery of transformation when trying to describe that process as with the student who saw the process as looking into a dark sky in which the stars were words and slowly emerged to be arranged in shapes. This is a tremendously empowering image with a sense of changing what the student called ‘an average view.’ Several students have used the useful metaphor of cooking though as one boy commented, ‘it should not be overcooked’. Yet another student has preferred a building metaphor describing writing as building a house, ‘You have to choose a place to put it, build an outer structure, furnish each room carefully.’ Such thinking is a useful tool for students, for as David Morley has written, ‘metaphor has power and permutation, almost like a magic force’.
Asking students to write a story may seem like a simple thing but writing is a complicated process, needing reflection, imagination, control and self-criticism. Whether writing for pleasure, practice or examination, habits of mind can help the writer fully engage with the process or as one student described to me ‘to make the thinking about writing a lifelong habit.’ By teaching students to respect and seek silence, to look with a critical eye at their language choices and to lay down the foundations of a process which can become habitual, we are equipping our learners to be real writers in life’s journey as well as preparing them for tests and examinations.
Voiced Meditation for preparing to write:
You are walking in a wood on a beautiful day. The leaves are dappled by the sun and casting shadows at your feet. You are feeling calm and happy as you walk in and out of the sunshine. Listen, you can hear the birds singing in the trees. You decide which bird it is. Look up in your mind and see it. The song is beautiful. As you walk along the path you look down and see something gleaming in front of you. The sun catches it. You bend down out of curiosity and to your surprise you see an object you associate with success. Maybe it is a golden pen or a harmonica or perhaps a book with your name in gold leaf. You choose. Whatever you pick up makes you feel happy. Hold it a moment. This object will bring you success as a writer. Put it on the grass, cover it with leaves. Look around you know this place. You can come back here. Step back and walk to a clearing. There is your house, open the door. You are happy and confident as you enter.
Armstrong, K . (2004) Available at: www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1202245,00.html
Baylis, M. (2009) The rough guide to happiness, London: Rough Guide.
Causley, Charles (2004) in Brown, C. & Paterson, D. [ed.] Don’t ask me what I mean: poets in their own words, London: Picador.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, New York: Harper Collins.
Fisher, R. (1990) Teaching children to think, London: Blackwell.
Galwey, T. ‘The inner game of work’ Available at http://theinnergame.com/html
Hopkins, G.M. (1975) Poems and Prose, Middlesex: Penguin.
Kaniel, S. (2003) ‘An optimal model for decision-making by individuals’, Gifted Education International, Vol. 17 No.3: Oxford pp213-232.
Morley, D. (2007) Cambridge guide to creative writing, Cambridge: Cambridge.
Spendlove, D. and Hopper, M. (2005) ‘Coping with uncertainty: an exploration of the place of emotion with the creative curriculum’, Paper presented at the BERA Conference University of Glamorgan 14-17 September 2005.
Ollin, R. (2005) Reconceptualising classroom practice: structuring teaching through silence rather than talk, in BERA Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005.
Wordsworth, W. (1984) The major works, Oxford: Oxford.