Learn to look - and see

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Bill Herbert introduces a summer series of creative writing challenges. Enjoy them at home and save for next term.

I've been teaching creative writing in schools for 15 years. I've done day visits, summer schools and residencies lasting for months. I've organised web pages, performances and films. It's always worth the endless driving, the weird food and the occasional looks of incomprehension to see children realise they can create work that's important to them, using only words.

Teachers are an integral part of this work. Unless teachers feel they can teach something based on what I do, creative writing is just a rest from a busy curriculum. Without integration into classroom practice (and not only in English lessons), what is really being taught is that creativity is separate from "proper" learning. So now I teach the teachers, through a course run by Newcastle University's School of English. I ask teachers to explore their creativity using the same exercises I teach their pupils.

They discover what writing feels like from the inside, gaining insight into what a child experiences when asked to produce a poem. They can then make informed decisions as to what they might teach themselves.

Over the next seven weeks, myself and the writers I work with will set some exercises for you to try. These have all been tested by that toughest of audiences - schoolchildren. See if there's something here you could use.

Remember: teaching writing is no more difficult than teaching any other subject, it's being creative in the first place that's the challenge.

For this initial session I'm not going to ask you to write anything, I'd just like you to picture something. I frequently ask a class to "see" some object in their mind's eye, then discuss it. Imagine a sphere that's perfectly transparent, as though made of glass or plastic. On the inside of this sphere are streets and houses, cars and factories, and these too are completely see-through. People move through the streets and live in the houses, and they are see-through too - yet no one bumps into anyone else or crashes into a wall: they all know exactly where they're going. All these people talk to each other, but make no sound. Despite this, everyone understands exactly what everyone else is saying.

What do you think this is? In class I get all kinds of descriptions, from a snow globe to a planet of ghosts. What I say is: this is your neighbourhood. We don't usually look at our surroundings, we don't listen to how we speak, and ordinarily we don't need to. But to express ourselves, we must see and hear differently.

So next week we'll do exactly that: we'll begin to pay attention to the world and to the word.

Bill Herbert is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. See www.ncl.ac.ukelllstaffprofile xen19. He publishes poetry in English and Scots as WN Herbert. His latest collection is The Big Bumper Book of Troy (Bloodaxe; www.bloodaxebooks.com)

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