This is the fifth post in a series in a series which looks at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching across the university? In each post, I speak to disciplinary experts from Macquarie and seek their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines.

Previous posts in the series include Psychology, Economics, Environmental Sciences and Interdisciplinary Research Training.

Today’s post focuses on Creative Writing.

I spoke with Dr Michelle Hamadache, Director of Creative Writing in the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Language, and Literature. She has taught literature and creative writing at Macquarie University since 2008, has had writing published in international and Australian literary journals, and worked as editor for Southerly and Mascara.

Michelle has a lovely turn of phrase in this conversation. We talked about the connection between writing and the self, building learning communities, the value of humour, and making space for imagination while learning how language works. There was a great moment at the end of the interview when Michelle finished my sentence for me!

What distinguishes the study of creative writing from other disciplines?

Creative writing, as a discipline, explores the relationship between language and self, language and experience, language in the world, and how to communicate so that stories can be shared.

Creative writing at university is not usually a vocational choice. Students tend to come to creative writing for existential reasons. It may be to make sense of their place in the world, to develop a language for talking about experiences, as an antidote for what’s going on in the world, or to think about what it means to be human.

As a teacher, Michelle feels an obligation to nurture these reasons for writing, which means the pedagogies of creative writing can differ from disciplines that focus on professional capabilities and employability.

Listen to Michelle in this one-minute audio excerpt:

Reading as a writer

Reading is one way that students learn how language works. In fact, it’s one of the first things Michelle says in first year creative writing: essentially, writing is reading.

If you are not a reader, you are not a writer.

In creative writing, students are taught to pay attention to the way words work, the way sentences work, and their effects. They learn to manage tone and register. How do you introduce an element of irony into your writing through tone? It requires a very fine-tuned attention to the way that language works and an awareness of audience and context. That’s the context on the page, in the story world, and for the reader. It takes time to learn how language works and to learn the technical vocabulary from focalisation to characterisation to time management. It’s complex!

Learning language skills involves looking closely at passages of writing, word by word, taking writing down to a granular level. It takes practice. Students have to analyse writing again and again, and receive feedback along the way.

Learning happens in increments. It also happens in flashes. Students will be reading somebody else’s writing to provide feedback, and they’ll think, ‘wow, it’s terrible.’ And then they’ll think, ‘but I do that all the time in my writing!’ And then: ‘Never again. I’m never doing that again!’

That’s learning.

The reward for teachers is seeing somebody who is better able to express themselves in language at the end of a semester than they were at the beginning of a semester.

An invitation to play

Students take an experiential (or learning by doing) approach to creative writing. Michelle wants students to turn up to the page.

Writing exercises invite students to play with language in a low-risk context. Students are invited to write badly, to write freely, to write as much as they possibly can, or to be constrained with very few words. It is an opportunity to try things that they may not do well or something they hate. As long as students try the writing exercise, they are ticking the box. A significant part of assessment is dedicated to such engagement with writing. Students are given a choice whether to share writing exercises in a public forum or use a private forum where only their tutor will see it. There is no difference in the way the exercises are marked.

In this one-minute audio excerpt, Michelle distinguishes between playful writing and writing for assessment:

Writing exercises provide an opportunity for students to form a habit of writing, as Michelle explains in this 50-second audio excerpt:

Michelle notes that an important part of creativity is nurturing and cultivating a sense of self that exceeds the constraints that are placed upon us. Without that, writers risk replicating dominant discourses or sounding like automatons. Creative writing requires free time or downtime as well as free writing.

Free writing can be surprising. Students can try things that they wouldn’t otherwise without being afraid of stuffing up.

It is important to reinforce to students that not everything they write needs to be meaningful or significant. A reminder: there is a large part of being human that is deeply enmeshed in play. Pretending and taking risks. And we are talking about small risks! What happens? They write a few bad sentences and have a little bit of a chuckle.

Creating communities

As Michelle puts it, the imagination is not solipsistic. It is relational. Imagination is constituted by others, by the world, by knowledge. Our everyday lives as humans in the world relies on imagination, and writers look outside themselves to imagine other ways of being.

Community is crucial for creative writing students, who are invited to be part of cohort formally, through in class exercises and workshopping, and informally through social media connections.

Students share writing in progress with other students. Teachers also provide close line editing and give feedback on the nitty gritty of where things are going wrong. Students are required to address the feedback from others in their final submissions. In this way, teachers model the editorial and interpersonal skills required to give effective feedback. For example, Michelle often injects humour into feedback. When reading a piece of writing, she can ask: Did you really mean to say that? Like the way it sounds? What was that going on there?

Listen to Michelle describe writers as observers and manipulators in this one-minute audio excerpt:

Creative writing is described by students as a pursuit that gives meaning to their lives. One of the real values of studying creative writing is having a sense of value for your experiences, and time and space to think beyond the everyday towards an enriched idea of what it means to live in the world.

Ever wanted to study creative writing?

For a taster, watch Michelle’s master class on hooking your audience:

Listen to the full 27-minute recording:

Download a PDF transcript of the full conversation:

Banner image: Photo by TierneyMJ on Shutterstock
Photo of Michelle Hamadache: Image source

Posted by Agnes Bosanquet

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