Wild Writing & Free-range Teaching

First published in Writing in Education Summer 2016

Kevan writing at Loch Maree Sep '12

Writing by the shores of Loch Maree, Highlands, Summer 2012

Imagine turning up to a lesson with no notes, no lesson plan, no ‘learning outcomes’ – just your years of experience, skills and writer’s imagination? By adopting a more fluid, sensitized, reciprocal approach (akin to what Philip Gross describes as ‘the discipline of indiscipline’ 2006) you, the lecturer, become the author of the moment. The act of creativity is restored to the classroom. The frisson of risk electrifies the process, as with one’s actual writing practice, when, in those precious hours snatched from the demands of the week, you sit down to do some of your own writing. Yes, you do the research, you make your preparations, but when you turn up at the page or the screen to write something else happens: a different part of the brain engages – a lateral process takes over. If we wish to authentically offer our students genuine techniques or practices, one’s we use ourselves in our craft, then where better than to start with this – the white heat of the moment –– when anything may emerge? As a writer it is this moment when I am freest and most fully alive. There is a sense of being an explorer in an undiscovered continent. This is the quality I wish to bring into the classroom. As Stephanie Vanderslice suggests, ‘it is more important than ever to draw back the curtain on the wizard and show undergraduates the many invention tricks writers rely upon to get started and to keep the well of inspiration at an optimum level.’ (2011: 32)

Alas, teaching (of the ‘factory farming’ kind: I’ve personally found this worse in FE than HE) can seriously debilitate the creative aquifer. Schemes of work … Lesson plans … Set texts … Assessments … The structures of creative writing as a taught discipline can stifle the very thing they are trying to nurture – resulting in exhausted, demoralized lecturers (as informal conversations at conferences suggest and the strikes of 2016 attest) and uninspired, disengaged students (re: the dreaded Student Survey). In this article I argue for a possibly radical approach (accepting that any writing teacher worth their salt probably uses some form of ‘wild writing’), but one that can still work in tandem with existing pedagogical systems. There is a place for the lecture, the seminar, the practical focus of a workshop, tutorials, assessment … for hard pedagogy – but also, as I would call it, for wild writing (following in the spirit of Roger Deakin’s ‘wild swimming’ (2000) and the other analogous activities his approach inspired). Wild writing empowers both the lecturer and students. It credits teachers with intelligence and resourcefulness. Wild writing encourages us to take risks, to go beyond comfort zones and familiar ways of doing things.

Although wild writing is a practice I have been intuitively cultivating all of my writing life – a cross-fertilisation of my storytelling, creative writing and teaching skills, I first articulated it as a practice when I was invited to North America in September 2015 to offer some workshops privately to a small group. Wild writing spontaneously happened as we toured Rhode Island and beyond. One time, a scintillating cove inspired some ‘reflections’; another time, it was the site of an old fun fair which unearthed long-buried emotions and memories. However, I will focus on the experience of devising my ‘Wild Writing’ class, which took place at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire, in the Spring term of 2016. In doing so I do not wish to be prescriptive, but at best inspirational – so I won’t be offering detailed activities – for the very spirit of wild writing is to be in the moment, to draw upon the actuality of the workshop, the resources and experience of the group, and your own ingenuity. This accords with what Harry Whitehead describes as a praxis of ‘nomadic emergence’  (2013).

Faced with the relentless treadmill of teaching – my life measured out in Tutor-Marked Assessments and coffee spoons, writing workshops and marking – my original motivation was to devise a way of breaking free of this cycle and reinvigorate my pedagogy. If I am bored the students will be too. Rather than regurgitate the usual saws about using notebooks, showing not telling, et cetera – which can be found in numerous books, blogs and MOOCs  –  I wondered what new approach I could offer based upon my actual practice as a writer? My USP, to use that hissing serpent of a marketing term. I don’t want to be a Mr Potato Head teacher: change my distinguishing features and I could be saying the same as anyone else. The best teachers, the ones you remember, are always the ones who do things differently. Who break the rules in some way, even if it’s just in their ‘manner’. My favourite English teacher at school, Mr Alsop, would at the drop of a hat, sound off about his pet subjects: Rugby and Bruce Springsteen. His droll delivery was reminiscent of the late comedian Mel Smith. Somehow, through his raconteur genius he enthused the class with his love of literature. We enjoyed his class and so we paid attention. He engaged our interest. And there was a frisson of unpredictability about his lessons: that we could go ‘off-piste’ at any moment.

Play is an often forgotten element of learning, but one that the poet Paul Matthews advocates: ‘Writing can become very intense and inward at times, so play and laughter (as well as tears) are a vital part of any group work.’ (1994:7)

As I was teaching two Open University modules (A215; A363) and another Adult Education evening class locally on novel-writing, I wanted to try something different, something less technical and more spontaneous. This not only provided a personal ‘call to adventure’ to my own pedagogical ingenuity, it actually helped as a counter-balance to the other classes I taught. As I put it to a friend, one approach was ‘Apollonian’, the other ‘Dionysian’: left-brained and right-brained, if you will; although such crude demarcation of our mind’s complexity is flawed – a false dichotomy – as Gilchrist (2012) and others have demonstrated. The two approaches, the creative and the critical, cross-fertilise in the best workshops and writing practice – but for now, as an experiment, I wanted to separate the methodologies and see what would happen.

The first half of my week was dedicated to traditional pedagogy, but my Wednesday night ‘Wild Writing’ class became something I actually looked forward to: a safety valve from the assessment-focused pressure of the week. A chance to take a different approach; to turn off the SATs-nav.

Unlike my other classes, I deliberately did not devise a scheme of work for my wild writing workshops. I did only the vaguest of lesson plans – a hastily-scribbled idea which would emerge on the day of the class, usually while out ‘wild-running’ in my local woodland, allowing the birdsong, running water, sun-dappled shade, and green work its magic on my consciousness. Rather than forcing a theme or an activity onto the page or screen, I would allow things to emerge – by simply being fully present in a natural environment. Taking a leaf from WB Yeats’ ‘Wandering Aengus’, I went out to a hazel wood… Soon the fire in my head was lit.

In the first session I explained my ‘anti-outline’ – each week we will see what emerged. I might have a few prompts up my sleeve, just in case, but I was determined that the workshop would be an organic emergent process. To break the ice, I got everyone to give themselves a ‘wild’ epithet, an alliterative one which provided a useful mnemonic. This also encouraged them to ‘inhabit’ the wild paradigm, to feel the wildness inside themselves. I read out the course blurb, to focalize:

Are your words too tame? Your thoughts too feral? Do your ideas need liberating? Let them out of the cage, and allow them to prowl the page! This rule-breaking writing workshop is designed to encourage you to explore the untamed fringes of your desires and fears, to express that inner howl, to give voice to that long-denied cry. You’ll be supported in a friendly, safe environment to venture beyond comfort zones and tap into words that can electrify, shock, motivate and move. All you need is a pen and paper and a willingness to be wild!

I asked them to come up with their own definitions of ‘wild’ – writing suggestions on Post-its, and sticking them on the board. They came up with:

Raw

Unfettered

Free

Sensual

Vulnerable

Uncensored

Secrets

Passionate

Spontaneous

Edgy

Nature

Embodied

Fear/less

Landscape

Deep emotion

Out of the box

Undefined

Pure

Untamed

Energy

Down to Earth

From the unconscious

Climate

Nonsensical

Life going wrong

Experiential

Abstract/extreme

This was a promisingly wide-spread demarcation of territory. A freewrite on the theme also bore fruit – the very nature of that practice lent itself to the prompt perfectly.  The best freewrites are of course ‘wild’, that is ludic, non-linear, exploratory, transgressive, and syntactically feral. In the spirit of Natalie Goldberg, I encouraged my students to ‘lose control’ (1991:3).

The first lesson’s emergent theme was summed up by this in-the-moment acronym: SOAR (Sensuality; Observation; Awareness; Reflection), something of an OCD of mine! Being fond of creative acronyms and aware of the potential can of worms I was opening I created a ‘safety net’ for the workshops using my principle of MAC: Mindfulness; Autonomy; Confidentiality.

Mindfulness: being aware of the potential impact of what you are sharing. Not to censor yourself, but if the writing contains strong language, disturbing imagery, controversial elements, et cetera, just to let people know.

Autonomy: you always have the choice about what you share. No one is expected to share, although everyone is encouraged to do so at least once in the workshop.

Confidentiality: what is shared within the workshop is confidential. If you wish to share or discuss your own work outside of the workshop that must be your choice, but respect the privacy of others.

I also emphasised that the wildness should be focused on the page, and usual workshop etiquette applied. For such a class it was essential that ‘strong container’ was created to hold the participants in their process. My wish was to encourage my students to go beyond their comfort zones (in their writing). To try out new forms or genres. To go to the edge of what they think they ‘can’ or ‘should’ say, what they might be ‘allowed’ to write about. To inject their writing with some adrenalin, with strong emotions, with a bold, embodied voice. To have the courage to show up to the page and to face its nullifying whiteness, to shatter its silence, and defy those negative voices which might have inhibited in the past. As Whitman put it in ‘One Hour of Madness and Joy’: ‘O to have the gag removed from one’s mouth’ (1959:80). In response to my suggestion to recite this poem of Whitman’s out loud, outside, a student responded: ‘Just what I needed to shout right now. Thank you.’

Over the ten weeks I tried a range of approaches, using not only the usual examples of writing (‘wild writers’ such as Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, DH Lawrence, John Clare, Ivor Gurney, Gary Snyder, Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Ted Hughes, Helen MacDonald, and Henry Miller) but also different media and methodologies. Beyond the usual triggers of art, music, movement and objects that any creative writing teacher might draw upon I tried out the following: Using different approaches to handwriting (writing without looking at the page; writing in different directions, e.g. from the edges of the page inwards, across the margins); Using what arises (my experience of storytelling has taught me to use whatever arises as part of the performance, so, if a phone goes off, include it in the oral narrative. I applied this approach to each session. If we were interrupted, e.g. by a fire alarm test – I saw it as a gift. A news item, or the weather – anything may trigger a creative response). The details here are not as important as the general approach: be wildly inventive. What I deliberately did not do was draw upon my usual repertoire of creative writing resources – my tried-and-trusted handouts, my go-to activities. I did not want to be teaching on auto-pilot. This forced me to invest creative energy into the actuality of the workshop – what I love doing best. This is when I feel I am firing on all cylinders as a teacher – plucking ideas, quotes, activities and approaches from the air. Not as a micro-managed teaching drone. As Freire puts it, rather than being the ‘anti-dialogical banking educator’, focused on recruitment, retention and results, I wish to emphasize the ‘dialogical character of education as the practice of freedom’ (1996: 74). Student and teacher should enter into a porous space where learning can happen in any direction – where both parties can feel a sense of creative liberty within the classroom, as sacrosanct as the white page or blank screen.

Student Writing

Much of what was written in class was ephemeral by nature – composed quickly in response to a prompt, shared fresh from the notebook, and then ‘let go of’ like Buddhist sand mandalas. A few pieces were brought in the following week after being worked on at home (e.g. the prompt to ‘write about a wild time’, triggered a visceral, kinetic piece of life-writing about seeing a punk band as a student in the 70s – something the student hadn’t thought about ‘in years’). The emphasis of the workshops was on process more than polished ‘artefacts’, but here is a smattering to give some idea:

Shooting Crows

I watched a man shooting crows.

I felt the recoil and fall.

I teased apart the feathers

and the little cracked hearts for answers.

All I found was the finish,

the filth and the spore.

There’s no meaning in dried eyes.

The resting of the carcasses

in the field down by the burn

where the ducks nested;

the sorrel greened on the blood.

Student 1 Prompt: write about the natural world.

Elephant in the Room                                                          

In our room there’s a jade green hippo

with carving knife teeth in a man-trap jaw

Baleful eyes bubbling from the brown

sluggish river of sewage and mud

Submerged in slurping bellicosity

it’s poised to drown me in the sloppy miasma

and amputate my manhood

Give me an elephant in the room

any vindaloo Taj Mahal tiffin

with trumpet voluntary to welcome me,

an embracing trunk to snuffle my neck

and never to forget we’re lovers

It would sprinkle me with cool paddy water

Whilst we swayed through orchards of pink mango

Student 2 Prompt: Write about something extremely improbable.

 

‘You want wild words’

You want wild words

Man made creations

Tamed by the intellect

I will show you wild Ness

In her bare foot bare faced

Nakedness

crouching low amongst the

Dank rotting earth

Student 3  Prompt: What does wildness mean to you?

 

Skep Skin

 

A hive in my hand

honeycomb hollow

oozing nectar

golden energy

gathered again and again

a lifetime’s work

in a teaspoon

stir into your tea

consciously

soothing the raw edges

of the day

sweetness delivered

by black and yellow drones

a sticky note

from the flowers

a souvenir of the sun

summer on the wing

an orchard on my tongue

Student 4 Prompt: write about what’s in your pocket right now (a small tin of Burt’s Bees handsalve).

Conclusion

I found running my wild writing workshop one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have done in recent years in terms of my teaching. As in all teaching I learnt just as much in delivering it as I hoped my students did in experiencing it. It was a continual learning curve which forced me out of any kind of pedagogical complacency. It was challenging and engaging in the right places – making me re-evaluate everything I usually do in a writing workshop.

From my experience of running these workshops, I would advocate the following: include a ‘wild writing’ hour in your weekly schedule – it’ll be good for you and your students. Suggest it your department: see what happens. Get out of the classroom – take your group into nature and write ‘on the hoof’. Allow yourself to go to the edge of your practice, of your writing, explore those uncomfortable places, give voice to the shadows, the songs of the maniacs:

He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration, in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices, will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs. Plato (Flaherty, 2013: 63)

Institutional bureaucracy is inevitable, but when it actually impedes teaching and, as a result, impacts upon the sacred cow of ‘student experience’, then it must be questioned. Common sense would surely suggest that we only use systems that support what it is we are trying to do, rather than force ourselves into straitjackets that over-complicate, dessicate and demoralize. In recent years much has been written about the debilitating tendency in universities to focus on the financial aspects of the process (Warner, 2015). This mindset is counter-productive to the quality of teaching and research. Students are expecting guaranteed results as the pay-off of their ‘investment’. As student satisfaction is the gold standard that we are now beholden to, there is a worrying trend which those in HE are all too aware of (the thing that should not be spoken): reducing standards to ‘please the students’, because they ‘pay our bills’. Although I haven’t had to do this myself … yet … the notion appals me. When we compromise standards for the sake of student retention and satisfaction something is deeply-flawed. The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Surely we need to be less goal-driven and target-focused? The best writing does not emerge through narrow commercial imperatives or through a checklist of techniques, a dry naming of parts. We must create a culture of learning, knowledge, open-mindedness, exploration, and invention. Wild writing could be a small part of that: an oasis of creativity for creativity’s sake, mutually enriching to teachers and students.

NOTES:

Deakin, R. (2000) Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain, London: Vintage.

Flaherty, A.W. (2013) The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer’s block, and the creative brain, NY: Mariner Books.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos), London: Penguin.

Goldberg, N. (1991) Wild Mind: living the writer’s life, London: Rider.

Gross, P. (2015) ‘A Walk in the Abstract Garden: how creative writing might speak for itself in universities,’ Inaugural lecture, University of Glamorgan, 10 December 2006, published in Writing in Practice: 1. http://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition-2/articles/a-walk-in-the-abstract-garden-how-creative-writing-might-speak-for-itself-in-universities.html  [accessed 11.06.2016]

Matthews, P. (1994) Sing Me The Creation: a creative writing sourcebook, Stroud: Hawthorn Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2012) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press.

Miller, James E. (ed.), (1959) Completed Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, Jr, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Vanderslice, S. (2011) Rethinking Creative Writing, Ely: Frontinus.

Warner, M. (2015) ‘Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the disfiguring of higher education’, London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 6.

Whitehead, H. (2013) ‘Nomadic Emergence: Creative Writing Theory and Practice-Led Research,’ in New Ideas in the Writing Arts: Practice, Culture Literature, edited by Graeme Harper. Cambridge: CSP.

Many more titles were used during the development and delivery of these workshops. For an extensive reading list of Wild Writing titles, or to offer suggestions or comments, contact Kevan: km364@le.ac.uk

Kevan Manwaring is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester (Supervisor: Dr Harry Whitehead). Since 2004 he has taught creative writing for the Open University and is a Fellow of Hawthornden, The Eccles Centre for North American Studies (British Library) and the Higher Education Academy. He has co-judged The London Magazine annual short story competition and won an AHRC Essay prize for ‘The (Re)Imagined Book’. In 2015 he was a consultant academic for BBC TV’s The Secret Life of Books. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

Wild Writing is currently running at Hawkwood College (May 2017). Limited places are available. Book here: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/wild-writing—kevan-manwaring

 

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