Festivals and teaching: beyond the desk ...
Teaching creative writing
Teaching is a total buzz. I lead workshops and teach classes for both adults and kids, and there's nothing better than seeing a student go on to achieve something great with their writing.
But writing isn't always about achieving the pinnacles, it's also about enjoying the journey, which is often a very personal one. Teaching students on the cusp of their teen years – 10-12 year olds – has an energy and effervescence that is a reward in itself. It can be a bit like herding cats, but the irrepressible enthusiasm of that age group is really special. Teens become more focussed, clearer in their goals but the raw talent they bring, and their reaction when they really get it, surprising themselves with what they can achieve, is great.
One of the nicest experiences I've had of teaching short workshops was when I was working with a group of film students in Brussels. Mostly in their early twenties, they were linguistically playful, excited by the possibilities and focussed on the outcomes – a real delight to work with.
When teaching adults, the rewards tend to come on a more subdued scale – they're less exuberant than younger groups, and often more varied in their aims and expectations. There's a rewarding challenge in holding all the different levels and desired outcomes together as a group, to endeavouring to ensure everyone goes away with something – either what they came along looking for or – better yet – something that surprises and refreshes their approach to their work.
My preferred format with teaching is to have enough time available to allow critiquing of new work, because that is undoubtedly one of the best ways to learn.
There's no doubt about it, festivals are fun. There's a crackle of energy about them, a flash of celebration.
They're also the reward for all those hours, weeks, months spent working in isolation, with a narrow focus and a looming deadline. They expand the writer's world to include their audience, and they have the power to remind you why it is that you do what you do.
I love the challenge that considered or unexpected questions can bring. I love that the process can shed new light on your work, and the sheer celebration of writing that festivals offer as a given.
Alongside that, there's the collegiality of being part of a community of writers, of catching up with others who work in your field – or in an entirely different but still word-based world. Writers are a diverse and sometimes challenging bunch – and that all adds to the fun.
I've enjoyed participating in festivals from London to Dunedin and various points between. A real highlight was the 2016 NZ Festival and using the giant screen at Wellington's Embassy theatre to backdrop my presentation 'WWI Voices', covering family stories, research in Europe, and my latest novel, Evie's War.
Whenever and wherever I can fit festivals in, I do – because each one is different and every audience leaves you with some moment or idea or – dare I say – story to treasure.
It can be easy to commit so much time and energy to teaching and touring and festivals that there is no longer enough left for your own work – but how could I not commit some time to mentoring emerging writers?
I take on mentoring contracts through NZSA, run with the support of CreativeNZ. I limit myself – if I didn't I'd never get any writing done – but who didn't once need a fresh perspective on ways to move forward? As well it's an investment in the future: I've got a 'potential classics' reading list to expand after all!
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