Recreative writing: English literature at a level.
As we commence on the second year of the 'new' A Levels in Literature it is an appropriate time to reflect on their impact on teaching and learning in the classroom. The key differences (there is nothing 'new' under the sun) are: fewer modules, more texts, more coursework, texts in translation, critical and thematic approaches and 'recreative' (dread word) options.
There is no doubt that the new courses have necessitated a stark adjustment in teaching practice. The increase in the amount of texts to be studied has demanded that we no longer 'go through' the text, which has got to be a good thing. Some specifications suggest that we give some texts a 'light touch' and there is much scope for unpacking what exactly this means in teaching terms. Students have to do more independent learning--i.e. independent reading--which is all to the good apart from the fact that many come to A Level with very little skill in this area. The transition from GCSE to A Level remains a huge issue. We can only wait and see what the new GCSEs do to improve the situation. This, coupled with the fact that students may be asked to produce coursework in the first term of AS Level, makes the whole process particularly daunting. However I suspect that this is more daunting for the teacher than the student. This year I found AS groups impressively eager to step up to the mark. I, on the other hand, found myself supervising 120 pieces of Literature coursework and a little overwhelmed.
The biggest thrill however, for me, was the enthusiasm with which students--certainly not all, but a significant number--embraced the opportunity to tackle the recreative approach to text. I do wish someone would expunge the word, it is both unhelpful and inaccurate, but nevertheless it is the welcome return of the creative response to text.
Students have been starved of any outlet for creative writing ambitions in Literature assessment since Curriculum 2000. It was not surprising then that about a third of my charges this year jumped at the chance to express their engagement with text in a creative mode. Although I encouraged all students to have a go at recreative pieces, those that chose to submit them for coursework were ultimately self selecting. I was genuinely surprised, and not a little relieved, to find that those who were unable or unwilling to pursue their creativity didn't. There were no instances of unsuccessful work or of students so attached to their creative outpourings that they didn't recognise the need for editing and development. I was particularly pleased with those that transformed drama texts into poetry. This proved a very fruitful exercise and the close relationship between the two genres was explored very productively.
Here are some extracts from students' recreative responses to A Streetcar Named Desire. This proved a very popular text for this option, far more students tackled Williams in this way than chose to tackle Shakespeare. They enjoyed playing with his style of stage directions and found the character of Blanche, particularly her state of mind, quite compelling. It was also fascinating to watch them experimenting with the American idiom and how obvious it became when they hadn't got it quite right.
Here a student tackles stage directions full on, imagining a scene where the minor but pivotal character, Shaw, discovers the truth about Blanche that he is later to share with Stanley:
Shaw leaves the reception room and starts down the long, pink lit path of rooms, stopping briefly by number eight to light another cigarette. As he travels down the path, the light of the flamingo casts a formidable shadow across the wall of doors--accentuating his already prominent height and air of authority. Before reaching the door of number twelve, he rattles the keys in his hand and places the cigarette in his mouth. As he does so, the door beside him, number thirteen, begins to open. As Blanche emerges, a moth flickers by, unsuspectingly trailing into a spider's web. At first, the moth struggles desperately, its efforts only exacerbating the situation as its wings tangle further. Finally, as the spider emerges, the moth becomes subdued and motionless suggesting that it has accepted its tragic fate.
Blanche (dreamily) Why, hello there, stranger.
Shaw Oh--Hullo, Miss Dubois is it?
Blanche Yes, but you may address me as Blanche. I always love an unfamiliar face, there's so much to absorb. See, a stranger can hold no predisposition or prejudice against another so one can present oneself in a desirable light without the concerns of the past. I've always felt safe in the eyes of a stranger.
Shaw (having taken a thoughtful drag on his cigarette) That is only true, Dubois, if both strangers are unheard of.
Blanche I suppose you've heard all manner of prejudice against me then Mr--
Shaw Shaw. And, yes, I've heard some talk of you.
Here another student takes another minor character, the Tamale Vendor, and envisages the events of the play from their point of view:
Of course, he wasn't a docile character; he made sure his voice could be discerned above the melodic confusion of tinny jazz and laughter, advertising his not-so-lucrative business:
"Red Hot! Re-e-ed Ho-ts!"
Not an interruption, but a punctuation, he liked to think. For what would Elysian Fields be without the old Tamale Vendor to offer tasty pseudo-Mexican treats to those who would much rather just be on their way?
A young sailor boy, red around the ears, strode past him. The nervous creature was asking after the Four Deuces, gingerly addressing two women who sat nestled on a staircase like fat geese. The vendor saw them often, those women, and understood the leaner of the two--whose name was something like Emily ... Eunice, perhaps--lived in one of the more aged buildings nearby. A structure so old it seemed to almost bend double, its lacklustre paintwork crackled and flaked, betraying the long hardships that the fortress had already faced.
"Re-e-e-ed Ho-ots! Red Hot!"
There was the man who lived downstairs, Stanley Kowalski, a rough man, carved solely from hard stone and testosterone, and who sometimes graced the Vendor with a purchase.
He was yelling to his wife--a pretty thing with a more reserved nature--something about bowling, although the Vendor could not hear clearly above the overlapping of voices and music. So it was bowling tonight, not poker.
A challenging option attempted by several students was to give voice to Blanche's inner state of mind. Here the light and dark imagery is used to great effect to evoke the sinister and overwhelming state of disjointed paranoia:
I am her past. I am becoming her present. I will be her future.
I stalk her mind, searching, hunting, devouring memories, terrible memories that I know she has.
I am part of her soul. I have control of the ghost. The ghost of the light. The love. The boy. Ha! Poor little Blanche, grieving over her lost love ... that's what people think, believing all her sad sob stories. No-one gives me any credit! I make her think; think about the cruel and harsh words she spoke to him. She made him die! And she will be punished. She says she loves him 'It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been in half a shadow. If she felt this way, why would she have hurt him like that? Why?
She created me, she did this to herself. Her foolish actions making me alive, draining the life out of her. She deserves it. She doesn't understand what it's like for me. In the dark, unacknowledged, uncared for. It was her decision to find me! Her way to get all the attention she wants. She craves it. Needs it. So much that she makes monstrous things. Me. I pounce at her in the vision of light. I replay 'the headlight of the locomotive' tearing her apart. Lights are everywhere, she can't escape. Escape that night , she is trapped, as the truth ' glares into the room'. She crumbles, crumbles under my grasp. The brightness tears away her guard, her safety and she is left alone, alone and remembering.
All these extracts clearly demonstrate engagement with and understanding of the text as well of a keen awareness of different interpretations. More importantly they reveal a sympathy for the language of the text that is rarely achieved by AS students in their critical essays. Although some find it tricky to make this language awareness explicit in their commentaries, their understanding of their own intentions gives them confidence in their ownership of the text.
In encouraging students to tackle the recreative option it is always a good idea to provide them with examples of the genre. Whilst they may not have time to read The Wide Sargasso Sea (re. Jane Eyre), they may be familiar with Bridget Jones's Diary (re. Pride and Prejudice) or Clueless (re. Emma). For concrete examples that can be easily and quickly exploited in class, poetry provides a wealth of options. Many AS students will have come across Carol Ann Duffy's 'Havisham' or 'Salome'. For those who know
Macbeth, show them U.A Fanthorpe's wonderful 'What, in our house?' Answering Back is a very useful anthology of 'living poets replying to the poetry of the past', edited by Carol Ann Duffy.
If you're looking for short, fun exercises to get the recreative ideas flowing here are two that work for me:
Rewrite the text as a Haiku. This 'encapusulates' the core ideas of the text or the impression it has had on the reader. It's also a great way of adding a bit of humour into the proceedings.
Dead Dad. Not what a boy needs while he's away at university.
Black white black white black. All this fuss for a hanky! Why not ask the girl?
Best Words, Best Order
Generate a random group of numbers by asking the class for their birth dates. Next open the set text on any page. Each student should then identify the first word on the left hand page as word number 1. They then count the number of words to the first of the random numbers and write that word down. Repeat again until you have a word for every number in the group. Students should now all have, say, 20 words from the text. They then have to make this into a poem without adding any words. The results can be strangely reflective of the text and really get students engaging with the language, even if some lines read 'the, the, it'.
As with all new courses, it will take us time to fully get to grips with the demands and details of the new AS and A2s. I am glad that students have to read more and I am glad they have to compare more. What I am most glad about is that they now have the chance to get credit for their creative writing talents. It is an option much missed and I, for one, welcome its return. As for the term recreative, I suppose I'll have to get used to it as it is what currently describes one of the most profitable and entertaining ways of engaging with text. For anyone who managed to plough through Richardson's Pamela at university, remember it was worth it just to read Fielding's brilliant Shamela.
With many thanks to the following students of Bilborough College, Nottingham for extracts of their work: Aleister Adamson, Ella Bailey and Hannah Skidmore.
NB: Don't forget that NATE publishes a study guide for teachers and pupils on A Streetcar Named Desire, in its Critical Reading series.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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