This week I took a two-part writing workshop with a group of year 8 students at Carey. Their teacher (hello Mr Mason) and I decided it would be interesting to focus on the idea of ‘place’, following on from their elective study area ‘Backpacking with Books’.
We looked at short excerpts by some fantastic writers, from Chekhov to John Green & David Levithan, and how they evoke a sense of place. We looked at some strategies for the toolbox that can be used when writing descriptive prose. And then the years 8s wrote, using some of these strategies. Workshop writing is more about process than product, but some really beautiful work came out of the exercises we did.
So I asked the group if I could share some of their work, and here are some snippets from an exercise in which each student had an envelope containing four random words they had to incorporate into five fast minutes of writing:
‘The feathers she wore hung lifelessly upon her body as she waited. She wore them like a coat, to keep out the chill, to keep out the loneliness.’
‘The air smelt of eucalyptus – the scent coming from the tree hovering over my head.’
‘His brat of a daughter had called the river a ‘dangerous, uncontrollable wreck’, but she is blind to the truth. The river caresses tenderly.’
‘The whole city goes quiet and all I can hear is a song, a song that I have never heard before.’
”Where is she?’ We sprint around the dusty carpark near the beach… It’s new year’s, and Elly has disappeared.’
‘The soft tapping of the rain was rhythm on the hard tin roof. I closed my eyes and surrendered to my thoughts.’
‘I roll onto my side – my nose is filled with the smell of freshly cut grass. I lift my hand and notice it has already started to bruise.’
‘She was leaving at the end of this year. She was going to fly away to a new world, using her wings, her feathers and her spirit.’
‘Underneath the railway line that goes over town, between the housing commission and the local hangout for drug abusers and graffiti artists, there is a house.’
‘In the fridge was a mouldy sandwich. It was covered in slime and had green things growing out of it, but I had to eat it.’
‘Tears begin rolling down his cheek as they keep pushing and kicking him. They all make him look so tiny, like an ant. The view from where I stand is horrific.’
I could go on – there was so much fantastic writing. And I can see the use of things we discussed such as specific detail, interesting word combinations, metaphors and similes, remembering the senses – and the idea that ‘place’ is never neutral – it is always described from a particular perspective or point of view.
Because I knew they were about to be released for fresh air and food, and I could see they had stamina, we also talked about the notion of ‘suspension of disbelief’, and how important it is to invite a reader into a world that feels real. (That doesn’t mean it has to be realistic, but we need to ‘believe’ in it.)
We ran out of time before I could do the last exercise which was to respond to fortune cookie messages. So the students took a cookie on the way out, and I took the leftovers home.
I had to eat three (okay, four) cookies before I got a fortune I liked: it says ‘You are original and creative’, and that is the message I would like to send to the year 8 workshop students!