I love writing. It is one of my favourite ways to spend my time, whether I be writing a blog post, a poem, adding to my novel, writing a short story, or working on a piece of freelance work. I love the feeling of creating something new, something that didn’t exist before. Writing is mostly a hobby for me – although I am slowly dipping my toe into the freelance world as well and do hope to one day publish a book – but a big part of my day job is teaching my students to write. To write analysis. To write creatively. To write persuasively. In reality, it’s all actually teaching them to write for an exam. There is not a huge amount of freedom in it. It can be a struggle to walk the line between encouraging them to be creative whilst also doing what the exam requires of them. Some of my colleagues and I joke about the creative writing section of the exam actually being ‘non-creative writing’. It’s not a terribly funny joke when we all really wish that it was true creative writing. But we persevere and try, as much as possible, to instil some passion for the craft.
One of the things that often seems to be a huge barrier for my students is actually coming up with the ideas to write about in the first place. So this is where I try to let creativity run a little bit wild. One of my favourite things to do is to get them free-writing. This can be a little daunting at first, as they are so used to having to meet certain criteria and expectations. I like to use The Writer’s Toolbox to help them overcome that fear and encourage them to just write – even if it’s nonsense – because that’s where we’ll then find those little gems of ideas that they can grow and craft into something usable.
I also write alongside my students. There’s a partnership and community in that which is encouraging, and when they see me make mistakes, cross things out, change my mind, or hear me read something completely ridiculous and imperfect of my own, it seems to give them permission to be ridiculous and imperfect too.
I did this exercise with one of my classes a little while ago and it was good fun to do so I though I would share it with you.
The idea is that you use the given opening and closing lines and you have to incorporate the items/sensory details/people also listed below. You write for a fixed amount of time (30-ish minutes) and you’re not supposed to stop writing or think about it too much, just write and see what happens.
- Opening line: I had this system for getting exactly what I wanted out of people.
- Include: the smell of fresh mint, the sound of Marcie’s pacing
- A line to include part way through: On the following Friday, we’d packed our bags and planned out escape.
- Include: orange spray paint, a crooked umbrella, a ripe apple
- A line to include part way through: Every time she gets on television.
- Include: a half eaten box of fig newtons
- Closing line: the lemon sherbet that melted all over the counter.
(NB: When I did it with myself students they didn’t get all of them at once, they were given the opening and had to write for 10 minutes before I gave them the next thing to include, then they wrote for five minutes before the next etc, etc until they were given the closing line which they had five minutes to write towards.)
Why not have a go and see what you come up with? If you share what you’ve written, leave your link in the comments below – I’d love to see where the exercise takes you. You can read my free writing in response to these prompts below.
Free Writing Response:
I had this system for getting exactly what I wanted out of people. No one ever suspected they were being manipulated. Not by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, butter-wouldn’t-melt-faced innocent they saw when they looked at me. But that was the game. It’s dog-eat-dog out there, even for children. You have to be ruthless to survive but you don’t have to wear that ruthlessness on your sleeve. I learnt to use everything to my advantage, including my baby-faced charm.
I carried my innocence with me like the smell of fresh mint and I watched as everyone I met relaxed in my presence. Fools. So much that is beautiful hides viciousness. And nothing in this world in pure. Not anymore. The lives that look so perfect on the outside are like mouldy oranges at the bottom of the fruit bowl. You don’t see the rot until you turn them over. When you do, your stomach turns and the smell lingers in your nostrils for days.
Sitting in the stairwell at the back of the old hospice, I waited. The sound of Marcie’s feet fading in and out as she paced the corridor beyond the fire door behind me. Not much longer now. The trap would be sprung soon. I thought back to that time, just a few weeks ago, when we discovered his betrayal. We had been together, the three of us, for so long. A well oiled, three-cog machine. It took a few days for the truth to sink in. To realise that one of our cogs was not only rusty but had dropped out altogether, leaving a gaping hole in our systems. In our hearts.
On the following Friday, we’d packed out bags and planned out escape. It was all in the timing. It had to be perfect or we were done for. If they caught us…it didn’t bear thinking about. We’d all heard the screams. We just didn’t talk about it.
I rolled the nearly empty can of orange spray paint back and forth in my palms. Every corner of the stairwell behind me bled the sunset colour. It had been easy really. All I had to do was reach round the corners with my rag-tag, crooked umbrella to nudge the lenses of the security cameras out of focus (old tech was a boon for once) before reaching up from behind to spray until they were blind.
The sudden, quick rapping on the fire door jolted me out of my reverie. Shoving the can deep into the inside pocket of my parka, I straightened up and opened the door, just wide enough for me to squeeze through. Marcie passed me as I emerged. She didn’t look at me but I felt her press something firm and smooth into my hand. A ripe apple. The teacher was in.
I held back a curse. The teacher was more astute than most of the mindless drones in this place. Every time she gets on television to rattle off the party spiel, I swear I can feel her gaze burning through the glass. It’s like she knows.
I hurried down the corridor towards her office, steeling myself for the performance of a lifetime. If I couldn’t convince her, if she wouldn’t leave, it would all be over.
I knocked on the worn oak door, paint chips flaking at the tap of my knuckle. This place could do with some TLC.
I frowned and knocked again.
I tried to ignore the twisting feeling of foreboding that unfurled in my stomach. With rising trepidation, I pushed open the door. The first thing I noticed was the half-eaten box of fig newtons on the desk. A silly detail to remember, I know, but it was so incongruous with the machine I was coming to face. Such a human thing. It almost distracted me from the blood pooled on the carpet. And the body of the teacher sprawled behind the desk.
He raised the gun as I turned to flee – not fast enough. As I fell, I noticed another tiny detail: the bowl of sweets shattered on the sideboard, and the lemon sherbet that melted all over the counter.