Creative Writing – therapy, study or social event?

Mateja Mahnič

Writing is a skill which anybody with at least a trace of talent could practice. This common misconception creates all kinds of challenges to the adult educator in creative writing. In this article I will explain how I deal with these problems in my job teaching creative writing at the Third Age University in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

I have gone through service and school already’! complains Mrs. J.

Why are longer texts not allowed?” provokes Mrs. V.

My muse has deserted me’! is a frequent excuse which was used by almost every member of our creative group.

I prefer social dramas to science fiction’! complains Mrs. V.

I would like to write fairy tales, not criminal stories’! laments Mrs. D.

I usually reply that all such remarks were all very well grounded, but that in my opinion the writer’s first priority is to master the know-how of writing. But my lady writers didn’t welcome this idea: they continued with their complaints, and the discussion began to look like an old couple’s grumbling. In other words it started to resemble the scenes in the film ‘It’s complicated’ :).

Maybe it is worthwhile to point out that at the time of the complaints it was the third year of our study group. So it is possible that my authors have strengthened their self-assurance: after two years of writing training and after two successful public debuts they have developed an amnesia to the discipline, exercises and all other forms of working input that have conditioned their achievements …

The hidden context of these openhearted complains?!

The background of all remarks is well known to all who are involved with teaching creative writing. Since creative writing class is not a part of any of Slovenian art university programs, the public opinion of writing as a skill which anybody with at least trace of talent could practice, is still valid and has not been overcome …

The first logical outcome of such prevailing belief is that homework is not needed because potential writers ‘have gone through school already’! For me as mentor this is a big obstacle on the way to persuading my pupils that their writing condition depends on practicing writing at home too!

Possible solutions to the first complaint: how to change a nasty homework obligation into a joyful brainstorming?!

One of the possibilities is field work: I took the whole group to the second-hand shop run by homeless people, where we stayed looking at thousand of articles on sale. My writers then had to describe all the things they could see with concrete, not general names. For next class they all brought their homework and we were all surprised at how precise and concrete they were! This was not just about training their memories but also about rediscovering forgotten words.

Another excellent idea which has presented itself was surfing on printed press media web sites. For homework my students had to search for an interesting description of a criminal act and take it as a starting point of their story.

Even this was very well taken!

Possible solution to the second complaint: ‘Why are longer texts not allowed’?

They are allowed, but why can’t we first amuse ourselves with short stories?

If we know how to write a paragraph with 8-9 sequences, we can also create a story, which is composed of 13 such paragraphs. No sooner said that done: after writing one paragraph on the lesson, writers got the same theme for homework. Next time I was presented with a bunch of splendid paragraphs about writers’ loved ones. This time there was no complaints about duty to write homework and writers have learned how to focus on economical writing and how to be attentive to the choice of words …

How to answer the desperate declaration: ‘My muse has deserted me’?!

This is a big problem, because first you have to diagnose it if this is a real cry of despair or just a handy excuse for no homework. But whatever it is, calm reply and fast action are the best solutions.

Usually I offered proven methods against writing block to my writers. We started with association writing and free writing, when writers were left to use their imagination! But the absolute winner was the method called First sentence. For instance, on one of our meeting I put a quince on the table. The first sentence I wrote on the table was: »There was a quince lying on the table«. The writing block was overrun and the writing process started immediately. After five minutes they all proudly presented their short compositions. The main star was Mrs. N. who continued the first sentence with ‘… and of course my husband knew that I hated quinces’! and got the biggest applause.

What if the writer does not like the genre we are dealing with?

Allow it! If a writer detests writing fantasy and loves to write social stories, leave him to write it. And if the fairy tales are preferred to criminal stories, facilitate it! Sometimes different genre can be refreshment and sometimes may even make it better: one of the best criminal short stories from Mrs. A. was actually a parody with elements of fantasy and social story!

But of course is also true that for a really effective training we must take step by step and learn the specialties of every genre separately. But then, if the interests of writers are in diametrical opposition of one another, I do not recommend studying one genre per year!

For our next year we will try to study five or six genres of short stories. So more writers will get what they prefer but for smaller amounts of time they would like since every genre will get just two months.

Never jump to conclusions!

As a mentor I do not have illusions that with described methods I can answer to all dilemmas, but the fact is, that at the beginning of a new study year six new members have enroll into our study group …

My experience is that teaching creative writing is about establishing and maintaining a sensitive balance between discipline and leisure, professionalism and hobby, authority and democracy.

You must be creative in teaching creative subjects. For next year I am planning culinary short stories: recipes

European InfoNet Adult Education, 04.11.2014