In the Creative Writing Department at Cardiff University, the first-year students begin their first semester in a course called Creative Reading, which covers (as the name implies) the importance of engaged reading on the craft of writing. But, Creative Reading, as a course, means more and teaches more than simply how to be a smart reader. It seeks to encourage students to become active readers, creative readers, who will use reading as a tool to enhance and inspire their writing, for as David Morley says in the first chapter of The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, “writers use reading as a type of caffeine, rather than a lotus blossom.” In this way, this course serves as a kind of Karate Kid, “wax on, wax off” experience for the young, budding student writers. In lectures like the one on the writer’s notebook, the course also encourages students to see the world around them and to record their new observations in a purposeful notebook. Under this paradigm, I have devised the following exercise meant to introduce first-year or freshman students to college-level creative writing. It is geared toward encouraging the students to get their eyes out onto the curious world around them. This exercise breaks down into two parts and takes the students through a kind of expectation versus reality writing experiment.
- In the last few minutes of a workshop, ask the students to choose either a café or a pub. While still in class, ask them to make a list of all sensory details about that type of place they can imagine. Those details could include physical descriptions of the location, the types of people they envision sitting inside, items lying about, the music, the smells—anything they want. (This assignment could be modified to focus on any number of locations, urban or rural.)
- Then, as part of a homework assignment, ask the students to visit the kind of place they described in the activity before they return to the next class.
- Once at their chosen location, the students should write on location, noting the sensory details they notice around them, paying special attention to items that they didn’t include in their in-class writing. They are also encouraged to look for objects that they don’t know the name of or the purpose for and seek out the language or information they need to describe these objects. They should also take note of the people around them, listening for tidbits of dialect, idiom, and conversation.
- Optional: For a slightly more advanced assignment or as an alternative, teachers could provide each student with an emotion word, like love or fear, and have the students describe the scene filtered through the consciousness of a character experiencing one of these emotions, noting how the place should be described based on the mental state of the character within the scene. This assignment could be paired with critical readings of relevant texts that rely heavily on place, such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
- As a second part to their homework assignment, the student should write a brief paragraph explaining (1) how writing from imagination or memory in class was different from writing on-site and (2) how the writing changed once they went to the place and began to really investigate the locale.
- Back in class, ask the students to talk about their experiences and ask for volunteers to share their observations.
Larger Assignment Prompt
As many creative writing students are assigned an end-of-the-term portfolio comprising their own original creative pieces, instructors may wish to offer ways that this assignment could be expanded into a piece of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, or playwriting. Prompts that piggyback on the pub/café observations could include writing a monologue based on a character they observed, writing an image-focused poem, or writing a short story using the pub or café as the setting.
Christie Collins is an American poet based in Cardiff, Wales. She moved to Wales in 2018 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she taught for five years as a full-time lecturer in the English Department at Louisiana State University in addition to working as a remote editorial assistant for Copper Canyon Press. In Cardiff, she is a doctoral candidate in creative and critical writing at Cardiff University, where she also teaches creative writing workshops. Her critical and creative work has been published or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Entropy, Cold Mountain Review, Chicago Review of Books, Canyon Voices, Appalachian Heritage, Poetry South, Poetry Wales, Still: The Journal, Wicked Alice, So to Speak, and Reunion: The Dallas Review. Her chapbook titled Along the Diminishing Stretch of Memory was published in 2014 by Dancing Girl Press.