Teaching Creative Writing Through Storytelling
I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. Albert Einstein
Warning: this is not a quick read so save it for a time when you are relaxed and can curl up on the couch with a beverage of your choosing and take time to absorb the information. I am sure you will find something worthwhile here.
One of the great obstacles for English teachers is how to teach students to write creatively. One of the most difficult tasks for many students is learning how to write creatively. Students are able to write book reports or diary entries or essays or a myriad of other writing tasks but ask them to write their own stories and the majority of students struggle, at least initially, to do so. Some simply never develop that skill. Most produce mediocre, unsatisfactory efforts. A handful in any class find it an easy task. One or two
become skilled creative writers.
How do we get students to the point where they are able to express themselves easily in writing? We return to the roots of all writing. Trace the origins of all great cultures and you come to a period when there was no written language. Stories were passed on orally from generation to generation through repetition and memorisation. Some cultures in the world today still pass stories orally. Storytelling precedes all creative writing historically so why not teach creative writing through storytelling. Once a student masters storytelling, committing that story to paper is a simple recording task.
All very well to say that I hear you say but how do we teach students to tell stories? For some shy students that's even harder than writing stories. Yes that's true, storytelling in itself is a skill that needs to be taught and in order for students to become good storytellers they need to overcome shyness and any fear of public speaking. So here is a really worthwhile challenge. Teach students how to write creatively through the art of storytelling and you also teach them how to overcome the fear of public speaking in the process. From my point of view that is something really worth aiming for; as the fear of public speaking, according to some, is the number one fear worldwide.
Now the next question is; how do I teach storytelling? Well if we ask ourselves what the origin of storytelling is we come to the answer. The origin of storytelling is creative thinking. In order to teach the art of storytelling, in order to develop the skill of creative writing we need to teach students creative thinking. Now I could write a whole essay on the importance of developing creative thinking. The whole of the phenomenal progress over the last century or more stems from the power of creative thinking. Nothing is new that has not first been conceived in the mind of a creative thinker. Or as Albert Einstein
puts it, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
So now we have a threefold challenge, teach students to think creatively and they will develop the art of storytelling which in turn becomes the foundation for creative writing skills. When it comes to creative thinking that in its self is a lost art for many students. We live in a world where we are bombarded by media of all sorts from all directions; from the outside in. Our brains are constantly impacted with images, concepts and ideas that have been generated by other people. We spend a lot of our time simply soaking up stuff like a sponge. I think it is rather tragic but it is true to say that in this era of mass media many
people could go through life without generating anything much in the way of creative thinking. Creative thinking is obviously what brought us to the many wonders of the 21st Century but not everyone really knows how to think creatively. Imagination is a powerful thing once it is unleashed but only if, like the 'genie in a bottle', it is actually taken out and used. Once the 'genie is out of the bottle', imagination, if we develop it to the full, has the potential to lead us into unexplored territory and a life of fulfillment as we use it in our chosen field; whether it be business, science, education, entertainment etc. The world's
most successful people are all great creative thinkers.
So to re-iterate, the challenge is to create a program that leads students through exercises to develop creative thinking so that they can develop the art of storytelling and finally to develop skills as creative writers. In the process we can see that they will build a powerful imagination that can be used to gain success in whatever field they enter into in life. How do we do that? How do we swallow an elephant? The answer is one bite at a time. We need to start the process with a small enough bite and then proceed until the whole 'elephant' is consumed. There are of course endless possibilities but what follows is a suggested program of activities that teaches students in small easy chunks how to develop these skills.
How to Develop Creative Thinking?
Use your creative mind. Give it a chance to come out and play. You will find it is unique and different from all others. Billie F. Mathis
The creative mind is perhaps the most wonderful faculty of the human brain. Everyone has the capacity to use their imagination but not everyone does. Why? Because in order to use it effectively we have to let go. The conscious mind has to relinquish control and become an observer. True creativity is not the simple regurgitation of ideas that other people have expressed or the imitation of what has been seen in the media. True creativity always breaks new ground. It is not always original in the true sense but it is always original for the inspired individual. Creative thought is like a bright splash of colour on a blank canvas or a beam of light in a darkened room. It captivates the attention and produces a sense of euphoria, a knowing that something special has just occurred; that we have moved into a different realm; one where anything is possible. There is no greater joy for the writer or artist or musician than to enter into that realm. Anyone who has taken time to explore that realm understands what true fulfillment in life is. Hours can pass like minutes, every care and concern evaporates and a beautiful journey unfolds.
What Blocks Our Creative Thinking?
Blocks to creative thinking are stress, time constraints, worries, unsolved problems, other peoples opinions, fears and anxieties and the tyranny of the conscious mind. So the starting point of creative writing is to ensure that the process you lead your students through does not cause them stress; it fully engages their attention and gradually unlocks the potential of the creative mind.
How to Lead Students Into the Creative Thinking Process.
I always start with simple word games such as:
WORD ASSOCIATION - Can be played in pairs or as a whole group. One person starts by saying a word. Each person in turn should say a word related to the previous word but is not allowed to hesitate, repeat a word or say an unrelated word, or they are out.
LAST LETTER ASSOCIATION - This is an association game, where, instead of naming the first word you think of upon hearing a previous word, you name the first word you think of starting with the last letter of the previous word.
DISSOCIATION GAME - Players sit in a circle. One person (A) is selected to start. (A) calls out a word to her/his neighbour. The neighbour then calls out an disassociated word to his/her neighbour and so on around the circle. If anyone starts associating the game has to start again and move in the opposite direction. The aim is to get all the way around the circle without a word association.
For example: car, dandruff, frog, ocean, blue. The group would start again at this point because blue is obviously an association with ocean.
FIRING SQUAD - All players form a straight line. One player (A) is selected to face the ‘firing squad’ and stands at a distance from the group. The first player in line (B) calls out a word to (A), who responds as fast as he/she can with the first word that comes to mind. The next player in the line then throws another word, unrelated to the previous word, and again A needs to respond as quickly as possible. This continues rapidly down the line and then (B) takes (A’s) place and the whole process begins again.
I then move on to games that require more than one word responses. The transition is made through Group Story which starts with one word responses that require connection with the contributions of the previous players and develops into complete sentences.
GROUP STORY - Players sit in a circle. One player is chosen to begin telling a story, but may only contribute one word. Each player adds a word in turn as the story continues around the circle. This is an exercise in concentration. Players must speak clearly and listen to each other. They must form sentences. The story must make sense. This game can also be played with each person adding a sentence at a time, or even a paragraph.
FORTUNATELY /UNFORTUNATELY - Players are divided into groups of five; try to avoid an equal number in a group for this particular exercise. One member is selected to begin. The group then tells a story phrase by phrase. Each phrase begins alternately with ‘fortunately’ and ‘unfortunately’. The story should always move forward by each subsequent phrase and it is not permitted to repeat any previous phrase or situation.
An example of the start of such a story might be:
Fortunately Jack had remembered to pack his hiking boots for the journey. Unfortunately the bags did not arrive at the baggage collection. Fortunately for Jack he always carried a spare pair of boots in his backpack. Unfortunately as he left the airport he was mugged. Fortunately the mugger left his credit card but took his one and only pair of boots. Unfortunately Jack had foot condition that required specially made boots ……and so the story goes on.
Keep Adding Complexity to the Tasks
Then add more complexity to the task. If you started students off with this exercise it would be very stressful to some, but at the right time, after some more simple games, it adds a new dimension to the mental skills involved in creating a story.
ALPHABET GAME - Divide the players into pairs. The leader chooses a topic for conversation. The first player says a sentence whose first word must begin with the letter A; the next then says a sentence, which must begin with B; then back to the first for a sentence beginning with C, and so on. The sentences must follow on from each other logically and sensibly.
Variation: Try working through the alphabet backwards!
Revisit Group Story but this time divide the students into groups of 4 or 5 and have them tell a story to the rest of the group. The next exercises involves telling a group story to the class in a more challenging fun way. Because the focus is on action there is always laughter involved as students try to meet this challenge.
ACTION STORY - Players are divided into groups of 4 or 5. The object of the exercise is for the group to tell a story one sentence at a time but the emphasis must be on action. Each sentence must progress the story through action, much in the way an action movie does. The action must continue without stopping until the end of the story. Give some examples of the action movie genre. Eg. “Speed”, “Cliffhanger”, “Terminator”, " Mission Impossible" etc.
Adding a time constraint in group story telling in the form of Story or Death, at the right time, helps to get the creative mind producing ideas on demand. It is very important that this is done at the right time. Too soon and the stress involved shuts down the creative flow.
STORY OR DEATH - A group of players line up across the performance space. The leader selects one at random to start telling a story. At any point the leader can point to any other player and the story must be continued without hesitation or repetition of previous words. At no time can any player pause, stutter, or in any other way hinder the story-telling. To do so means elimination from the game.
The final step in the process involves students going solo in exercises like Hot Seat. This can be followed up with exercises like Nonsense Lecture and The Discovery.
At the Right Time - Have the Students Go Solo.
Creativity takes courage. Henri Matisse
HOT SEAT - Have one player sit in the ‘hot seat’. S/he is given a subject and must immediately talk for one minute on that subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Use a stopwatch to time the speech. The other members of the group are told to challenge if they spot H, D or R. The stop-watch is paused and, if the group leader agrees with the challenge, the challenger takes over for the time remaining.
NONSENSE LECTURE - The whole group participates in this exercise. One member of the group is selected as ‘Chairman’ and one as the ‘Speaker’. The rest are the audience. No prior planning is involved. The Chairman introduces the speaker to the audience setting the scene for the improvisation to follow. For example his/her introduction might begin as follows “Fellow members of the Royal Society of Surgeons”. The group immediately take on the roles of surgeons. “It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you the renowned German cosmetic surgeon Herman Von Schtunkle who will explain his groundbreaking use of genetic transformation to create astonishing changes to the human face and figure”. The Speaker has now learned: the identity of his audience, his identity, and his subject. Immediately s/he starts the lecture. At the conclusion, the Chairman asks for questions from the audience. Members of the audience then ask questions, keeping strictly to the subject and always remembering who or what they are.
THE DISCOVERY - Have all the players sit in a circle. The leader or an agreed group member starts the exercise by addressing the others as though they were in a meeting. S/he speaks of some important discovery and calls upon another member of the group to report on what has been found. The member is given a name and/or title and has to improvise from there. In the course of his/her remarks s/he then turns to a further member of the group to add to the general knowledge. The meeting continues with others providing reports, expert opinions, ideas, objections etc.
When the student has confidence to tell stories that are totally improvised s/he is set free to be creative in the use of any media; provided the creative foundation there. For example, there are plenty of brilliant story tellers who are also illiterate and couldn't write a sentence. The power of the imagination, like the 'genie in the bottle' has finally been unleashed, and there is no going back. Not every person who can write creatively through this process will end up being an author but they will be able to apply their creativity to any aspect of life they so desire.
I really hope you got something out of this? Every time I re-live the process I went through as a drama/acting student, I marvel at what it did for me as a whole person. The greatest asset I have gained from the many years of training and experience in using these sort of games and exercises is the gift of creative problem solving and lateral thinking.
Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.
Martin Luther King, Jr.