Igniting writing

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Pie Corbett describes how to light the touch-paper to the imagination. Illustrations by Bee Willey.

Matthew was in my first class. A dark-haired, small boy with high cheek-bones and large brown eyes, he lived alone with his father.

I cannot remember why, but on one occasion I called round to their flat. It was immaculate - none of the sort of family stuff that we usually have around us. Matthew was in the dining room.

I can see him now, crouched on the carpet with a toy, dwarfed by the mahogany furniture, his pale face looking up at me.

Matthew wrote many poems that year. I remember showing them to the poet George MacBeth, who said: "Ted Hughes had better watch out."

The poem quoted above, remarkable for a seven-year-old, seems to me still to contain so much beauty and so much bitterness.

Ever since then I have been chasing the truth about imagination and creativity. How does imaginative writing happen? How do writers create?

Over the years, I have discussed the subject with many children and writers.

Creating the writing mood

Many writers cannot begin until the circumstances are right - George MacBeth liked to write with his feet up on a cushion.

Children's author Bernard Ashley uses a special fountain pen and a hardback book. He writes on one side of the page, leaving the facing page free for alterations.

Michael Morpurgo says, "I do most of my writing in bed - well, on the bed really." Some need music, others cannot begin without a cup of coffee. What seems to be true is that many writers need a routine to settle into the writing mood.

In school, however, when children write, the teacher sets the mood. For the writing to have a hope of containing that elusive, creative spark there may well have to be certain preconditions, such as:

* It has to be quiet;

* No one should spoil the atmosphere by mucking about;

* Everyone takes it seriously;

* The teacher uses movements, her voice and eyes to draw the children into the spell.

"I have got to write in silence or my characters and world just become ink on a page and I don't find magic in them." - Jolie, 11 Some children find quiet background music helps them to write.

"I need quiet to write best, but sometimes conversation or music around me gives me ideas. I can write nearly anywhere if the particular place gives me the right feeling." - Anthony, 11 Warming up the word Many effective teachers of writing begin sessions with quick-fire imaginative games. These limber up the mind to think swiftly and generate words and ideas.

Useful games include:

* Word association - call out a starting word, such as snow, flame or storm, and give children one minute to write as many words or phrases as possible;

* Rapid writing - give a time limit of three minutes. The children have to write rapidly about a subject, such as the moon, night, traffic jams, lightning;

* Crazy writing - give five minutes to write crazy lists, such as wishes: I wish I was a cricket flexing its violin knees, I wish I was an elephant blowing its trumpet;

* Asking questions - write down five questions you might ask something, such as Moon, where are your shoes? Moon, why do you keep so still?

* Odd Words - take two words that do not seem to go together, such as horse and pumpkin. Give the children a few minutes to begin a narrative linking them;

* What if..? - allow a few minutes' quick writing about what would happen if, say, pencils could talk, trees could walk.

Collecting good scraps The American writer Betsy Byars says in her autobiography, The Moon and Me:

"Plenty of good scraps are as important in making a book as in the making of a quilt. I often think of my books as scrapbooks of my life, because I put in them all the neat things that I see and read and hear.

"I sometimes wonder what people who don't write do with all their good stuff."

Her scraps are the things that we notice, that intrigue us for a moment, and they do not have to be dramatic events - often they will consist of a detail, a turn of phrase, the way a man holds his mobile phone.

Here are some of the scraps that have caught my interest recently:

* A black cat running through an estate with a goldfish in its mouth;

* An old woman with plasticrugby balls in her bags;

* A sausage dog in acarrier bag;

* A mum shouting at her son: "You big doughnut!" * A tortoise found on a motorway.

Writers are magpies Writers notice when something happens that might be useful in their writing, and often they write these scraps of experience down - or remember them - ready to use a resource.

In this way the "writing journal" becomes a storehouse of ideas and language. Without this, many writers would be impoverished.

Children, too, need to keep some sort of writing journal.

Anne Fine agrees: "You learn to recognise what sort of thing can make a story or fit in a book. You find yourself thinking, 'I can use that'."

Ways to trap ideas * Observation: looking directly at an object or experience. Ted Hughes actually stood outside a jaguar's cage, notebook in hand, watching it pace up and down.

"Poetry is when you say what things are really like." - Sally, nine * Using details from a memory: "Sometimes stories begin with real situations but after that I take off into the unknown," says children's writer Jenny Nimmo.

* Daydreaming: "What I like best is what I call 'dream time' - thinking about a story, weaving it in my head," says Michael Morpurgo.

"I get ideas from things out of this world which squeeze out from the back of my head." - Kerry, 10 * Visualising: picturing in the mind what you are writing about.

"Sometimes looking out of the window helps to bring pictures to my mind." - Mark, 10 * Things the children have read, heard or seen. "Ideas come from photos, questions I want answered, overheard snippets of conversations, daydreams," says Michelle Magorian.

Igniting the writing This may be as simple as passing round a rusty key or a golden ring as a starting point.

Teacher demonstration and shared writing are vital strategies for helping children see the different possibilities and to teach children how to improve their own writing.

Just before writing, reading examples aloud helps to set the atmosphere.

Once the children are ready to write, a swift transition into the act of composition is needed - too often the spell can be lost with interruptions.

During writing * Concentrate hard - let nothing else intrude, ignore interruptions;

* Write quickly - so speedily that there is barely time to think;

* Rehearse - mutter away the sentences as you write. "I always speak the dialogue aloud to see if it sounds right," says Jill Murphy.

* Reread - to make sure sentences flow on from each other;

* Picture - see what your are writing about in your mind's eye.

"I write because I enjoy making things happen to me, creating pictures which nobody else can see unless they read my stories." - Jolene, 11 * Tell it - listen to the inner voice telling the tale.

Grammar for imagination The more automatic the basics of writing become, the less they interfere with composition. If the child is worried about handwriting, spelling or where to put the full stop then the composition will lack flow.

These things have to become second nature. In the same way, the teaching of grammar should focus not on endless exercises (which probably slow progress in writing) but on how to use words, construct and vary sentences and make texts cohere.

After writing Some writers like to put their work away and revisit it later, more as a reader than as a writer. This helps them shape, polish and improve it.

Children should be used to reading their writing aloud to a partner or group. This helps the writer to hear or see where the words need improving.

In many ways, writing is like a serious game. Ted Hughes summed up the conditions for writing succinctly: "By showing to a pupil's imagination many opportunities and few restraints, and instilling into him confidence and a natural motive for writing, the odds are that something - maybe not much, but something - of our common genius will begin to put a word in."

Pie Corbett is a freelance educational consultant and writer. Some of the quotes are from Mammoth's Telling Tales series of author interviews.

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