This weekend just past included the first Saturday of the month and that is when, in regular times, I would have been to my writing class at the Castle. The group last met in early March, the museum being closed to visitors before the first Saturday in April. It was after that initial missed session that I decided to do my own, very private writing class on the first Saturday of May. I tried to stick closely to the structure of our meetings, but with obvious tweaks. So here is what I did.
The class meets from 1.30pm to 4.00pm but I normally leave home in the late morning and treat myself to something for lunch in either the Castle Museum café (they do a superb home-made quiche and salad) or in one of the coffee shops in the city. So I made a special trip out on Saturday morning and bought a ready-made salad to have for my lunch (and a cake for the mid-session break).
At 1.30pm I was sitting down at my desk with my writing notebook and pen ready to do the initial warm-up exercises. In a normal class our tutor/guide, Amanda Addison, sets a subject and the warm-up may be a case of coming up with words to describe a particular scene. For this early part of my session I turned to The Writer’ Toolbox, choosing a ‘First Sentence’ stick at random and spending three minutes coming up with a list of possible avenues to explore using this sentence. I then chose a second stick – one of the non-sequiteur ones – and looked at how that might change the story. Then I spent five minutes writing a rough piece inspired by the subject that came up.
After that initial warm-up we are often asked to choose an image from a range on an adjoining desk and to write about it. I decided to keep with the Toolbox and chose three ‘Sixth Sense’ cards. The idea of these is to explore the themes that come up with an emphasis on the senses (sight, smell, sound etc); three minutes for the first card then you turn up the second and do three minutes working that into your story and the same again with the third.
In class, we would then generally have a discussion and read one or two passages Amanda has prepared from books that illustrate the theme for that month. In my lesson, I chose to watch a brief YouTube video in which the author David Almond talked about using his notebook at the beginning of the process by which an idea becomes a book. It was aimed at children, but I found it very interesting. I watched it twice (it’s only about three minutes long), taking notes the second time through.
Then it was the point where the group would normally move from the classroom into the Castle Museum galleries and focus on three things which Amanda has used as a basis for the lesson’s theme. Often this will be three pictures, but sometimes it includes objects or even the fabric of the Castle itself. For this part I turned again to the internet and looked at the paintings on the National Gallery’s website, keeping in my mind the idea of using the senses. I wrote a few notes about each of three pictures: Still Life With Oysters by Philippe Rousseau, The Stove In The Studio by Paul Cézanne, and Still Life With Book, Papers and Inkwell by François Bonvin.
When we have seen each of the three objects we split up and spend around 15 minutes with one, fleshing out our notes before making our way back to the classroom for a break – at the Castle, we can buy a cup of coffee or, if we have brought our own drink, go back to the classroom and consume it. I happily wrote about the image by Bonvin for quarter of an hour and then made a cup of coffee and returned to my desk with it and the cake I’d bought in the morning.
Funnily enough, the break was the hardest part of the lesson to replicate because it’s where we usually sit and natter about what we’ve been writing, or totally unrelated things. I think that, and the feedback when we read pieces at the end, are the really big things that a writing group can give you that you can’t just do for yourself.
Anyway, once the break was over it was time to write for a further fifteen minutes. In group, we can either stay in the classroom or go back and sit with our chosen item; and we can expand on any of the things we’ve written that day, including the warm-up if that is what has most inspired us. I went on writing about the Bonvin painting because I was on a bit of a roll with it. I had decided quite early on to write from the point of view of the table, which is slightly odd, but if I’m stepping out of my comfort zone I might as well use a less predictable viewpoint.
I wrapped up my lesson by reading what I had written aloud to myself. In the group, we would be split into threes and each of us would read a little of what we’ve written and the other two would give feedback. However, reading your writing aloud is a recommended practice as it helps you to hear where you’ve got clunky sentences, or other things that could be improved, so I went that route.
As is always the case with the writing group, 4.00pm came around all too quickly, but I left my desk feeling happy with the work I’d done and firmly of the opinion I will do this again whenever the group isn’t able to meet.
I hope you have enjoyed hearing what goes on in a writing group and how I managed to do it myself, alone in my ivory tower. I am in the process of setting up a separate blog for creative writing, but more on that another time.