Why is it important to teach creative writing?
Rather than using the word ‘teach’ I see myself as someone who facilitates writing, provides a space where writers feel safe. I firmly believe that new writing is tender writing. Words that have just hit the paper aren’t robust enough to stand up to scrutiny or critique. There’s plenty of time for that later, when you take your writing home and add to it, scratch out what doesn’t work, let it rest, come back to it again (and, if you’re anything like me, again and again). So it’s very important that the environment in the workshops is non-judgemental.
Having said that (and having now stepped down from one of my pet hobby horses), I think it’s important and very rewarding to facilitate creative writing, to create a space where people can write without fear or worry. I have heard so many people arrive at our workshops saying, ‘Oh, I can’t write’, or ‘I’m not a writer’, or ‘I’m scared of writing’, or ‘I wish I could write’. I love seeing the same people surprised, excited, delighted, elated, tearful or shaken by the words that have come from their pens.
So, yes, there are many people who can write and yet they are sceptical and fearful, reluctant to try. In the space of a morning, given the right space and care, those writers can produce work that shows them the value of taking that first step: putting pen to paper, and then chasing their pens to see what happens next.
How did you get into teaching creative writing?
Well, to start with, I had the absolute privilege and joy of being introduced to Anne Schuster’s creative writing courses. My friend, Tracey Farren, told me about them and I could have kicked myself for not listening to her earlier. Anne was a gifted and compassionate writer and I couldn’t believe how liberating her workshops were, how stories just seemed to be waiting to be written. It all sounds very away-with-the -pixies, but anyone who has entered that freewriting zone can tell you that’s what happens! I arrived at her workshop, not knowing what to expect, very nervous and very much ready to follow the rules (see a freewrite I did on this, below!). What I soon discovered, after hearing others read out what they had written, was that there was only one basic rule of free writing: keep your pen moving!
Even if you think you are writing the world’s worst junk there are no other rules. Freewriting has the power to block out the inner critic, that voice inside your head that says, ‘You’re hopeless’, ‘Don’t give up your day job’, ‘Why are you even trying this?’ It lets you chase after that first thought as it arrives and see where it leads. All you have to do is keep writing, as fast as you can, without worrying about anything except getting the words down.
At the same time as I was doing Anne’s courses my sons were in primary school and I noticed that they were doing very little in the way of creative writing. It didn’t seem to be catered for in the new OBE syllabus. I approached the school and asked if I could give workshops. I didn’t charge for this; I simply wanted to create a space where children could write for the joy of it, without fear of being corrected. Eventually I ran full-day creative writing marathons, where anyone from any grade could come and write, and stay for as long as they wanted. Often the ten-year-olds out lasted the older students. The only condition I attached to attendance was that the writing the students produced would not be graded. I didn’t mind it being edited by those young writers, but the last thing I wanted was to have a child told that a story was worth 5 out of 10; that a poem had been graded according to a rubric.
At the same time, I ran creative writing workshops at the local library – also on a voluntary basis. Anything to provide a space where children could write till their hands hurt and their hearts sang. Word spread and I was asked to give creative writing workshops at other schools. That was the beginning.
Chantal Stewart and I now take it in turns to run monthly workshops for adults – a most rewarding job. We have a great mix of new writers, poets, published writers, young writers, retired writers, women and men. There’s nothing quite as wonderful as seeing a roomful of writers messing around with words! And, on the other side of the table, there’s nothing quite as wonderful as sitting in a workshop, being guided by facilitators like Chantal or Rahla Xenopoulos, watching a story grow, listening to others, seeing how they have taken a particular prompt and run with it.
What creative writing exercise or prompt do you use that produces interesting results from writers?
I use prompts to get people going. I’ll give a prompt and that then leads into a timed freewrite. One thing I do frequently is set up a series of freewrites, all stemming from a set idea for a scene (for example something that might have happened in a childhood home). This shows writers they can produce a fully cohesive scene in less than thirty minutes. (A word to note here is ‘timed’. It’s reassuring for writers to know that they only have to keep going for a certain number of minutes.)
I encourage writers to gather prompts as they write and to use those when they are sitting down to write on their own. I have a huge box, filled with prompts, and whenever I sit to write something new, I’ll grab a prompt to get started. Also, I encourage writers to use the workshop exercises in whatever way they want to, to suit whatever they want to write. Many writers who come to our workshops use the exercises to generate material for their novels, to kick-start a new poem. Others are there to see what happens next, where a particular prompt or exercise will take them. That’s the joy of freewriting – it’s very much a one-size-fits-all (writers) sort of process. During our workshops there’s always a chance for people to read some of what they have written and the results are always interesting, often earth shatteringly good!
A mishmash of prompts culled from my own writing, from magazines, newspapers, wherever an interesting phrase catches my eye.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give to new writers who are at the beginning stages of exploring their craft?
Oh, gosh. Just one?
I’m such a firm believer in getting the story out, getting it all written down, so I suppose that’s what I would say. I’m not saying, ‘Don’t edit’. Of course there comes a stage when you have to stop, look back, look over, see where you are, what still needs to be written. But don’t get hung up on needing your writing to be perfect, particularly in that first flush of the first draft. It’s a bit like a new romance. Fall in love with what you’re writing, accept it as it is, and then, later, look at it again and see the bumps, the wrinkles, the flaws, the flawed characters.
One of Anne Schuster’s maxims which I have taken to heart in my own writing, comes from the Japanese term wabi-sabi, the idea of embracing something as it stands, accepting that it’s “good enough for now”, in all its imperfection. This isn’t to imply that you won’t strive to make your writing the very best it can be, but it does mean that you can relax into it, accept it and appreciate it as it is in the present moment, promise that you will return and work on it. For now it’s good enough, let your story flow, allow new images to filter through and into the poem you are working on, watch as one memory nudges against another, then floats up and out of the recesses of the past in your memoir. Seeing your writing in this way stops you tinkering, and often, saves your writing from being flattened and left lifeless and dull because of the need to make it perfect/acceptable/correct/precise …
There will always be time to revise later, but if you stop and worry about that full stop, that spelling, whether you should be writing in first person or third, whether you’re taking too much of a chance, whether you might offend your aunt/your brother/your grandmother, chances are you’ll lose sight of a thought that was starting to form. Writing can be slippery, don’t lose your grip on it!
This is what works for me, and what I’ve seen working for other writers. If the thought of treating your writing like this fills you with dread, sends cold fingers creeping up your spine, then disregard all of the above. Because that’s the other thing … each writer I know has, with practice, as word piles onto word, found what suits them. So … give “good enough for now” a go and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, then try another tack. That’s the joy of writing, it lets you try and try again. It lets you explore new territory without a map and then it nods graciously when you realise you have to turn back and try again.
All I ask is that you stay in love with writing, and that you show your love by picking up your pen and getting your words onto the page. Don’t stay in love with the idea of writing. Don’t spend too much time talking about writing. Don’t discuss your ideas to death so that by the time you finally sit down, what seemed like a marvellous story has lost its lustre. You won’t necessarily find what suits you immediately, but the more you write (remember that means words on paper not words about words) the more you’ll feel that click that tells you, “Yes, this is what you should keep doing. Keep doing it this way.”
I wrote the following after I’d been extolling the joys and virtues of freewriting. It’s very much a first draft freewrite, but I haven’t wanted to correct it. It’s good enough to show how I felt. I read it every now and then to remind myself that writing can be scary, and daunting. The ground under your feet can feel shaky. But that bell does go. And if you keep writing until it does, you’ll have words on the page. Piles of them!
Remembering my first writing workshop
The bell rings. I am sitting on a hard chair at an aluminium table. There are four other women at the table and I don’t know them at all. I’m here because I want to be, but I don’t really know what to expect. We are doing something called freewriting which means that we have to take a thought and write with it for as long as we can, without stopping to think, or question or correct. I am terrified. I have spent so much of my life making sure that what is written is proper and correct, with all the bits in the right places. Surrendering conventional approaches isn’t easy, and I’m battling, wanting to go back over what I’ve written. I’m sure there’s a fullstop missing somewhere. This is the fourth one of these I’ve had to do this morning and I can’t say it’s any easier than the first. The women next to me are scribbling, heads bent, hands flying across pages. I’d really like to stop now, to think, see what I’ve written, what it sounds like in my mind, where I should change things, but we’ve been told not to do that, and if anything, I am good at following rules. So I do as I am told, and keep writing. It’s a strange feeling, and I’m not sure where all these words want to lead and where I will land up at the end of them. Earlier, a woman sitting at another table read out what she’d written, and it sounded so good. Outside cars are swishing past and I want to pause a while and see where I am rushing to. I feel like I’m on a boat skippered by someone else, I have to trust the skipper, but it’s hard. It goes against a grain which runs deep in me. Hers sounded good because she went along with her words, to where they wanted to take her. Mine drag at my pen and hold me back and say things like subject and verb, concord, and where is the punctuation? I’ve just sneaked a quick look at my watch. After this it will be teatime and I’ll have a chance to relax the cramped muscles of my brain, my hand. The bell goes.
Any particular resource (website or book or anything) that you would recommend to writers?
Oh, so many! What I love to do is treat creative writing handbooks like novels. I keep them next to my bed and read my way through them, marking places where an idea leads to a thought for a creative writing exercise. The internet is brimming with writing advice, prompts, reviews of books on writing.
Some absolute favourites:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Writing down the bones and anything else by Natalie Goldberg
Light in the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process – edited by Joe Fassler
I’m sure I’ve forgotten some really important ones, but these were the first that came to mind.
Máire Fisher lives in Cape Town, where she works as a writer, workshop facilitator and writing mentor. Máire’s first novel, Birdseye was published in 2014 by Umuzi (Penguin Random House, South Africa). Her second novel, The Enumerations, was published by Umuzi in August, 2018.
She runs writing workshops in Cape Town with Chantal Stewart and is a founder member of a group that meets for writing retreats at Volmoed, in the Hemel-en Aarde Valley near Hermanus.
In addition to her novels, Maire’s work has been published in several anthologies and online on various writing sites. She has also written several stories for FunDza, a South African non-profit dedicated to improving literacy among teens and young adults. Máire helped to compile Women Flashing, a collection of flash fiction; and edited Writing the Self.
For three years Máire co-facilitated the PEG Fiction Editors’ Conference in Franschhoek along with Joanne Hichens and Nella Freund. In 2013 she co-edited Bloody Satisfied, an anthology of crime fiction, with Joanne Hichens. As an editor, Máire has edited (or mentored the writing process of) numerous South African novels.
Facebook writer’s page: https://www.facebook.com/mairefisher.writer/
(Author photo credit: Nardus Englebrecht)