-I hear she’s very good.
A hush comes over the students as the teacher comes in to a full class. She doesn’t look like much, almost the caricature of an old maid, with her hair in a bun, her large glasses and frumpy clothes. She’s even carrying a tote bag with what looks like skewers sticking out of them. She is wearing pumps. She is tall and wiry.
-She brought her lunch, says one.
The teacher breaks into a big smile, all her features suddenly animate, and the first impression evaporates.
-Good morning class, she says, surveying the assembly. This is the Creative Writing class. Please leave if you were expecting something different.
Nobody stirs. She puts the bag on the floor at her feet and rubs her hands together, her torso slightly bent towards them.
-All right. We have a very large class. Please sign the attendance sheet as you leave. My name is Ms. Gladstone. That’s “Ms.” And don’t get me started on patriarchy.
A few chuckles die as she surveys the class, intently, then turns abruptly to the blackboard. She has brought her own chalk, in a silver holder so her hands won’t end up as white as a gymnast’s before she starts her routine. “Today, I will introduce you to outline, audience, genres, etc. It will be fun.” She states that as a fact, and this time there are no chuckles, just the expectant silence of people who have paid good money for a show and want to get their money’s worth.
“I will assume you have all heard of the art of knitting.” She takes out knitting needles and small balls of wool, each a bright hue.
“Knitting is creating. A knitter will go about knitting in much the same way a writer goes about their craft. She – most knitters I know are female, so I will be using the feminine during the whole of my example. Grunt as much as you like, you lot do this to us all the time. It’s a great exercise on self-reflection, sirs.” The girls sit up straighter and look around them as the guys slump a bit in their chairs. The girls are grinning triumphantly, unused to having a professor voice their inner thoughts. “Sometimes, she will want to challenge herself with an intricate pattern she’s thought up or seen. She may or may not have a recipient in mind. Usually, she does, even if it’s not somebody she knows personally. Let’s say she’s knitting small bird nests for a rescue center. Or socks for soldiers. She still knows something of her audience, or at least has a mental image of who she is knitting for. In this case, let’s say she is knitting a sweater for her son. You see, I do love men! (the guys join in the laughter, still feeling under siege, but making the most of it.)
She writes on the board “Genre – sweater” followed by “Audience – son”. “She will follow a pattern. This pattern can come from anywhere. If she is experienced, she will make her own, from her own fancy. If not, she will copy from others. Still, she is making a sweater so it needs four holes. That is the basic design.” She adds “pattern – old, new, basic.” “She is feeling tenderness as she chooses the colours he is fond of.” She takes a few bright balls in her hand, white, blue, black and a pastel pink. “She’s not sure he will love the pink, but she feels a need to put a bit of herself in the story. She thinks the added colour will surprise and enhance the design.” She adds “Design – personal feelings, surprise, improve upon” under the first line. “We’re all agreed so far?” Nods all around. She mimics them, nods as she scans the room. Again, the engaging smile. Strands of hair have escaped the bun and are framing her face, softening it. A student is scribbling her likeness in a kitchen, over a slab, furiously rolling dough in a cloud of flour, her hair tied back messily.
-It’s easy to see how these elements relate to writing, no? Anybody care to try and explain?
A hand shoots up. She wants for others to offer their take on it. Three more hands go up. She points to a girl in the middle of class.
“I don’t think genre goes first when you’re writing. I mean, I don’t see that writing necessarily follows this order. I would say “Pattern – Design – Audience – Genre.”
The teacher claps her hands. “What is your name, love?”
-Thank you, Millicent. Does anybody else agree with Millicent?
About a third of the class raise their hand. “Does anybody disagree?” The same amount of hands goes up.
A third of the class has no opinion.
-We’re here to be told about writing, not to give you the answers, comes a voice from the back.
Ms. Gladstone hangs her head. “No, love. We’re all here to learn from each other. I want you to come out with a sweater sporting orange wings and long strands with colourful beads sticking out of it. I want you to surprise me with a mix of wool and fabric, with a dash of pink when the pattern calls for gray. I want your sweater to be unique though it has holes for the torso, and the head, and the arms. “
“Your assignment for today is to write a story with a tree character. Write down the process you follow, using the elements we’ve discussed: Genre – Audience – Pattern – Design. First, write following this order. Then write a second story using the same elements but in a different order. This story should feature a homeless person. Any questions?”
-How long, ma’am?
She looks annoyed, does not answer.
-Ma’am, how long?, he insists
And then, as an afterthought, “Ms. Gladstone, how long should each story be?”
Ms. Gladstone has been putting away her props. She looks up and smiles. “Around 500 words each, love. Please, remember to sign the attendance sheet before you leave.”
She stays behind as they file out, talking amongst themselves, the scribbler and the annoyed, the curious and the eager. She can’t stand the indifferent. They weigh her down, tie her in tight knots. She is sitting at her desk, has taken off her glasses and is making eye contact and smiling at the students. The first class is an unknown on both sides. It gives the tone to the rest of the session. She can’t wait to see what stories these bright minds will come up with. She hopes she’s inspired them and that they will try and surprise her. She has not used the tired words “creativity” or “structure”, “outline” or…
She looks up to see several young men who have gathered by the desk. One speaks up. “We appreciate your stance on gender politics but we were hoping for a class on creative writing.”
-You got both, didn’t you? You cannot separate the container from the content. You see, as a writer, you [i]must not[/i] give in to the temptation of fading behind your work. Your voice will always be there. Own it. Make it part of the narrative. Give your voice to your character. Express yourself knowingly instead of subconsciously. Your writing will be more powerful. I hope to see you next week. I look forward to your stories. Five hundred words! Give or take, of course.
With that, they walk out of the room, the boys headed to their next class, the teacher to knit in the teachers’ lounge. She just had this great idea for mittens…