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Writing Workshops: Recovering Your Creative Self by Claire Hennessy

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Article by Claire Hennessy ©.
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I don’t know when it begins. I suppose it’s different for everyone. But it’s rarely one great, big moment. Sometimes, yes, sometimes that happens for people. A bully of a teacher sets out to tear them down, to shame them. A parent screams at them and tells them they’re useless, that they need to stop wasting their time.

But mostly it is slow, incremental. Mostly it is an accumulation of things. It’s having your spelling mistakes circled in red, or being chastised for colouring outside the lines. It’s being told to follow the rules, both explicit and implicit. It’s being nudged into choosing the subjects that you’re good at – the ones where you succeed in colouring between the lines and will get a decent grade in.

It’s being told to be practical. To carefully consider each activity engaged in and weigh up whether it is worthwhile or not. To be sensible.

And this is how so many people find themselves in their twenties or thirties or forties or fifties or sixties or seventies or eighties (because it is never too late) wondering: what happened? When did I lose touch with my imagination?

There is a familiar story that people tell in the first session of a beginners’ creative writing workshop. “I used to . . . but now . . .” No one ever speaks of an uncreative childhood – though occasionally they will recognise the processes that made them afraid. Or unworthy. Or self-critical. They will point to a teacher (the nuns have a lot to answer for, in my experience) who made them feel small. “I was never any good at English in school,” is another statement that turns up fairly often.

Well. So what? And I say this not to devalue education in the slightest, but to note that school-level English and creative writing are different things. Sure, there’s a bit of an overlap, and there are extraordinary teachers out there who manage to both teach the syllabus and foster creativity, but they deserve medals because honestly? Their job, in a system that obsesses over exams, is to ensure you get through your exams. It would be irresponsible not to do that.

The thing is, I quite like exams. This is not a cool thing to say, but it’s true – I particularly got a kick out of college exams. I could ‘do’ exams. There were patterns. Rules. I could colour between the lines.

Exams of various sorts are what we trained for. We might resent them, but there is a safety to them. A predictability. This is how we are educated: for the practical, sensible matter of being tested, and assessed, in measurable ways.

Now. Here’s a blank page. There are no rules. Just your ideas. Go. Go on. Whatever you like. Go for it.

On the one hand, we can elevate The Blank Page to something impossibly difficult, something almost to revere, but on the other hand, of course it’s harder than it seems! We’ve had whispers and shouts in our ears about how to do things right and now we’re being asked to do something where there are no right answers? What is this madness?

And yet when we are young it’s easy to make stuff up. Songs, stories. We invent. We are naturally creative people – which might sound really grand or airy-fairy but it’s often so mundane we don’t really notice it. Ever speculated about what that text message ‘really’ meant, especially if it’s from a potential love interest? Or guessed what was going to happen next in your favourite TV show? Even seemingly mindless doodling is a way of creating something. (I’m not saying it’s an amazing something – but it’s something.)

If we want to be adults who tap into our creativity a bit more than the world encourages us to do, we need to take action. And I do think it is worth taking action – not for fame or any great success but simply because it is good for us to express ourselves and our ideas and to make things. Like going to the gym, except you can do it in your pyjamas. It means that you stop being that person talking about what you’d like to do one day and just get on with it.

For writers, creative writing workshops are one way of doing this, and certainly for beginners – and I include the many people who have their “I wrote lots of bad poetry when I was a teenager” stories in this – it’s important to have a safe space to share your work and have it read and responded to in an appropriate, encouraging, constructive way. Writers’ groups (peer-led rather than facilitator-led) can also be great for this, but when you’re just starting out it can be hard for you to assess whether it’s the right kind of group for you or not. They tend to be (and of course every group is different) better for writers who are already writing regularly.

If you’re still trying to figure out what you want to write about, or how to write it, or even just trying to allow yourself put words down on the page, as messy and unbrilliant as they might be at first, a beginners’ class provides the space to explore. To play.

Later, there can be refining. But you can’t edit a blank page. You need to fill it first. No lines to stay between, and any colour you like. Just fill it.

It gets easier. And then sometimes hard again. It’s an ongoing practice rather than something that we fix immediately. Workshops help. Writers’ groups help. Writer – and reader – friends help. And here are a few more things to try:

  • Read for 20 minutes. Fiction or poetry. Not, I repeat, not the newspaper.
  • Go to your local library and browse the shelves in a section you’ve never, or hardly ever, been to before.
  • Find an interview – print, video, audio – with one of your favourite living authors and pick out one quote you like. Copy it somewhere (into a journal, onto a sticky note, as your phone’s screensaver).
  • Spend a week taking 15 minutes every day to respond to a writing prompt (try the collection 642 Things To Write About or similar if you’re stuck, or there are many other resources online).
  • Find a self-help book you like (one you don’t roll your eyes at too much, for the cynics out there) and keep it close to hand. It mightn’t specifically focus on creativity but anything that encourages our general well-being feeds into that as well.

(c) Claire Hennessy

About Like Other Girls:

Here’s what Lauren knows: she’s not like other girls. She also knows it’s problematic to say that – what’s wrong with girls? She’s even fancied some in the past. But if you were stuck in St Agnes, her posh all-girls school, you’d feel like that too. Here everyone’s expected to be Perfect Young Ladies, it’s even a song in the painfully awful musical they’re putting on this year. And obviously said musical is directed by Lauren’s arch nemesis.

Under it all though, Lauren’s heart is bruised. Her boyfriend thinks she’s crazy and her best friend has issues of her own… so when Lauren realises she’s facing every teenage girl’s worst nightmare, she has nowhere to turn. Maybe she should just give in to everything. Be like other girls. That’s all so much easier … right?

Like Other Girls was shortlisted for the 2017 Irish Book Awards.

Order your copy online here.


Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, reviewer & tea-drinker based in Dublin. Her most recent YA novel, Like Other Girls, is published by Hot Key Books; she also has a short story in The Broken Spiral, an anthology in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. She teaches creative writing and is course programmer for the Big Smoke Writing Factory (www.bigsmokewritingfactory.com).
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