Teaching Creative Writing in Community Settings

Those new to a creative writing session often have little idea about what to expect. I’ve been teaching creative writing in community settings for over twenty years and in that time have run workshops in prisons, with refugees, with the elderly, in schools, bookshops, libraries and village halls. These sessions have varied from one-hour tasters designed to get participants interested and inspired, to longer courses based around starting a novel, writing for radio or for the stage.

I recently ran a one-off session at a WI centre and out of the twelve people who had signed up, only one had previously been to a creative writing class. As people came into the room they each let me know about their fears for the impending class: ‘I wrote a poem last night, just in case’, ‘You’re not going to get us to write, are you?’, ‘I’m terrified but intrigued’, ‘Don’t make me read anything out’. Ten minutes later the class were writing away and after half an hour all were keen to read their work out loud.

People often come to a class with pre-formed ideas about what will be involved and might think writing is for someone else, for someone with ‘an education’, someone who has ‘something to say’, or someone who has had an ‘interesting life’. So many times people say they have nothing to write about then go on to produce a startling and honest piece of writing. I’ve seen this in prisons, with probation groups, with people for whom English is a second or third language.

There is a particular power when a group writes together: ten or fifteen people talking about the same topic, reading the same poem or extract then writing their response. There is the initial anticipation about the work they have just produced. Other pieces might sound more professional, more complete, more eloquent. So people tend to start their reading with an apology. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite do what you asked’, ‘I’m sorry, mine’s just not very good’.  

The first time people come to a writing class can be a powerful experience. Quite often I’ve seen people overcome with emotion as they have not written or expressed themselves in this way for a long time. And then when they read, people listen. People value their experience, their story. I like the silence that follows after someone has clearly expressed themselves. There’s a short ‘wow’ moment before people start to speak or offer thoughts.

There can be a great sense of fun when running writing classes. Of course, people sometimes write about dark or traumatic moments. Putting pen to paper and organising words as a story, poem, list, or series of notes can help people reflect on and value what they have been through. We can all learn to improve style. We can re-work and edit pieces in order to make the work more presentable, more precise. But there is a beauty in rough ideas, the ones that often come out of nowhere, in ten or fifteen minutes.

Anthony Cropper, Lecturer in Creative Writing at NTU. If you want to discuss creative writing workshops in community settings with Anthony, please email him. You’ll find details on the ‘members’ page of this website.

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