Once upon a time ..

12th September 2008 at 01:00
A beginning, an end, characters, a plot - and a twist in the tale - are the essence of a story, pupils were told at a workshop to kickstart their Advanced Higher English studies

A man is travelling in a railway carriage with three people he doesn't know. To strike up a conversation, he asks if any of them believes in ghosts.

One man replies "Yes, I do" - and then promptly disappears.

"That is, in essence, a short story," Frederick Lindsay, eminent Scottish novelist, tells a group of Advanced Higher creative writing students. "It has a beginning and an end. It has characters, a meeting of characters, a setting, a journey - and a surprise."

Mr Lindsay then reads from a short story by American writer Ambrose Bierce, breaking off at a crucial point to ask the students to complete the story for themselves. "There's no right or wrong, but the ending should fit with what you've taken out of the story," he says.

Mr Lindsay emphasises that reading has to be active and participatory and that to be a writer you must first be an active reader. It is a salient piece of advice which is echoed throughout a day of different creative writing workshops, led by professional writers and classroom teachers.

More than 150 City of Edinburgh pupils, drawn from 17 of its 23 secondaries, are attending the workshop day at Edinburgh University, an event intended to give a lively kick-start to their AH English studies.

And it certainly proves to be a lively day, with contemporary Scots novelist Allan Bisset's opening keynote speech being applauded to the echo, followed by an equally rapturous response for performance poets Elspeth Murray and Richard Medrington.

"Literature should be about feeling and emotion over and above `work' or `criticism'," Mr Bissett tells them. "But you must keep a connection with what you are reading, because everything they don't want you to know is in books."

The workshops are as varied as they are colourful. Jane Cooper, an English teacher at Firrhill High, is introducing her group to crime, to murder in particular, as she shares with them the ideas and techniques of the "Body Find Scene" with which many detective novels (and TV shows) open. The inspiration here is to get the students to write the opening of a "page turner".

Allan Crosbie, poet and principal teacher of English at James Gillespie's High, offers the choice of poetry or novel openings. Most students opt for the latter. "There is some contradiction in what we're trying to do here," he says. "We are trying to inspire creativity but at the same time to measure it because the students' folio work will be marked.

"We have to find that balance between creativity and craft."

Performance poet Anita Govan weighs in heavily on the creative side in her workshop. "Poetry is a moment," she tells her group.

She gives them 20 seconds to write down 10 words about a journey, any journey - a physical, internal, emotional or relationship journey: "Don't try to be too clever or precious with your words."

The 10 words are then swapped among the students and all have two minutes to write a poem based on their given words.

"Allow mistakes. Don't think too much. Don't edit. That comes later. It's better to be constructive than critical," she says, before eliciting volunteers to read their poems out.

"I want the students to be free with thoughts and voice - to give them something to develop. Then they can lay it down like a wine and come back to it later."

There is a buzz about the day. The students are more vociferous as their confidence develops. Some felt daunted at 9am. By 3.30pm, they're saying they've loved it. They like meeting professional writers, sharing with students from other schools, and they like the university environment.

"It's the third annual workshop we've organised," says Liz Gray, Edinburgh's quality improvement officer for English and media studies. "The idea came from the schools themselves and we have lengthened the individual workshops because the pupils always say they want time to write on the day."

Frederick Lindsay agrees. "It's about active participation, not just about appreciating writing and literature. Writing is the best way of getting into someone else's mind."

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