The aims of the Writing 1: Writing Skills course were to learn to write effectively, drawing on sensory experience and observation; show development of language, style, and expression within my writing; draft, redraft, and edit self-generated texts with discrimination; and reflect on my own learning experience. I have provided three assignments that show how I have fulfilled the aims of this course.
My second assignment, Grace, is an extract from a larger story about my grandmother. Her husband has abandoned her. This extract features Grace coming home to an empty flat.
First, I free wrote about Grace, listing her features, clothes, and characteristics. Then, I started to play with these details, using imagery to bring uniqueness to this character. For example, I showed Grace’s posture by comparing her with the sofa: ‘She took her black coat and hat off, and placed them on the slumped sofa. Its shoulders drooped like hers.’ Goldberg states in Writing down the Bones: ‘You have all these ingredients, the details of your life, but just to list them is not enough… You must add the heat and energy of your heart’ (2005:50).
Next, I built the scenes, layer upon layer, adding detail and personification that would blend Grace’s mood with her surroundings. For example, she counts the steps as she walks up to her flat. There are thirteen. This shows her fear as she comes home alone to an empty flat. Her doorknocker sneers down at her, which highlights her shame at losing her husband.
Reading and writing poetry inspires me when describing characters and scenes. Writing poetry requires me to describe their essence and to be succinct. For example, in Out of the Dust, Hesse describes Billie Jo as having ‘cheekbones like bicycle handles’ (2007:9). This not only describes her face, but also her age: young girls like to ride bicycles.
My fourth assignment, Sid, is a short story about my grandfather. In WW1, my grandfather climbed a hill with horses that were hauling a gun to its position. When he got to the top of the hill, he turned around and all his friends were dead.
As I remember my family stories, I write them in my notebook. Writing classes and books suggest keeping a notebook or a journal. For example, Fairfax and Moat state in The Way to Write: ‘They make painless the priceless discipline of regular writing. And… becomes a memory to you, a storehouse of material, and a growing delight’ (1981:7).
The plot and scenes were developed by freewriting them to my Ideal Reader. Stephen King asserts in On Writing ‘someone… once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person… I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader’ (2012:256). My Ideal Reader is my mother and this story is about her father. Therefore, I wrote the first draft to her. Then, I mapped the plot using the list method. The list method works for me because I write using a computer. Listing the plot enables me to move sections around with ease.
Paying close attention to time and place, I followed the examples of other authors. In Englby, Faulks describes where his protagonist is in simple terms. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 5, he writes: ‘I was walking up Sidney Street yesterday and this beggar came towards me’ (2008:109). In Sid’s story, I followed this example by letting the reader know every time the scene changed. For example, as Sid moved from the barracks to the front line, I wrote: ‘A week later, we caught the train heading for Flanders. We went right into the thick of the fighting.’
David Lodge explains in The Art of Fiction: ‘The simplest way to tell a story… is to begin at the beginning, and go on until you reach the end. But even in antiquity, storytellers perceived the interesting effects that could be obtained by deviating from chronological order’ (2011:74-75). I chose to start this story on the day after the climax. This showed the effects of the culmination of events and provided a hook. Then, I went back to Sid’s childhood. I ended the story at the climax, after I had developed the main characters.
When choosing how to develop Sid’s persona, I decided that he was the best person to tell this story. He is the only one of his friends left alive at the end. When deciding on what point of view to choose, I considered Boehmer’s questions: ‘Whether to write a work in the first person – close-up, comfortable, intimate, too intimate? Or in the third – rounded out, out there, objectified, remote?’ (2001:154). I sought to illustrate close-up the agony of war. Also, first person would give the impression of a memoir. Mary Karr has suffered greatly in life and shows this in her memoir, The Liar’s Club. When her mother’s insanity finally breaks, Mary states: ‘Then a dark shape comes to occupy that light, a figure in the shape of my mom with a wild corona of hair… And swooping down from one hand is the twelve-inch shine of a butcher knife’ (2015:156). I wanted to bring this intimacy with suffering to my story.
For my fifth assignment, Maggie and Doyle, I started with dialogue. Recently, I have spent time listening to my neighbours argue. They often do not make sense nor do they listen to each other. I used these snippets of real dialogue as a base for my fictitious arguments. Then, I added description and action. The Writing Skills Course Book maintains: ‘Dialogue doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s usually broken by action, interior thought processes, and description’ (Mort, et al. 2013:119).
In Catcher in the Rye, I found examples of dialogue amid description and action. Holden is an angry young man and fights with everyone. For instance, he is furious with his roommate, because he thinks Stradlater has abused his friend. Stradlater throws Holden to the floor and kneels on him.
‘He said it over again. “Holden. If I letcha up, willya keep your mouth shut?”
He got up off me, and I got up too. My chest hurt like hell from his dirty knees. “You’re a dirty stupid sonuvabitch of a moron,” I told him.
That got him reallymad’ (Salinger, 2010:47).
The character of Doyle started with the idea of a wild, wolf man. Eventually, I changed the metaphor to a hyena. This was more appropriate to the characterisation of Doyle, because hyenas are scavengers and unromantic. In Lolita, Nabokov describes Quilty as a goat rather than the substantial ox to show us how skinny and effeminate he is: ‘We rolled over the floor… He was naked and goatish under his robe… and elderly readers will surely recall… the Westerns of their childhood. Our tussle however lacked the ox-stunning fisticuffs…’ (2015:299).
Then, I left this story to germinate for a while. As Draycott states in Creative Writing: Writers on Writing: ‘I had to wait for the rest to present itself… This scanning, waiting for the additional layers of imagery and narrative to stick ‘like burrs’… seems important. A subject won’t give itself up to you stared at straight on’ (2014:38). Also, the Writing Skills Course Book recommends doing the following before editing: ‘Put the piece away for a relative length of time… Retrieve it. On reading through… you will find you are looking at something that doesn’t feel quite so much like your own work’ (Mort et al., 2013:197). Other ideas surface when I leave a story alone. For example, in the first draft, Doyle was on his own when he came home. In later drafts, to exacerbate Maggie’s irritation, I invented Terry to play the harp and argue with Doyle.
In Moon Palace, Paul Auster uses specific nouns and strong verbs that help the reader to be in the story. For example: ‘Eventually, it got so bad that I could even smell my feet – a horrific stench that came right through the leather of my boots, invading my nostrils like a cloud of poison gas’ (2004:66). When I returned to Maggie’s story, I changed parts that were telling the reader what was happening rather than showing the reader by involving them in the story. I achieved this by scanning for abstract nouns, clichés and adverbs, and an excess of metaphors and similes. For example, I changed ‘Eventually, her stumbling brought her crashing to her knees’ to ‘Maggie stumbled and fell. Her knees smashed onto the flagstones.’
In conclusion, throughout the class I have practiced writing description, developing language and style, and redrafting and editing my texts. Specifically, this reflective commentary shows in assignment two, how I wrote effectively, drawing on sensory experience and observation; in assignment four, how I developed language, style, and expression; and in assignment five, how I edited my text with discrimination. Through these examples, I have shown how I have fulfilled the aims of this course on Writing Skills.
Auster, P. (2004) Moon Palace.London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Boehmer, E. (2001) ‘Writing in the First Person’ In: Bell, J. & Magrs, P. (ed.) The Creative Writing Coursebook.London: Macmillan. pp. 154-157.
Draycott, J. (2014) ‘The staircase’ In: Chatterjee, A. (ed.) Creative Writing: Writers on Writing.Newmarket: The Professional and Higher Partnership Ltd. pp. 37-44.
Fairfax, J. & Moat, J. (1981) The Way to Write: A Complete Guide to the Basic Skills of Good Writing.London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Faulks, S. (2008) Engleby.London: Vintage.
Goldberg, N. (2005) Writing Down the Bones. (2nded.) Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Hesse, K. (2007) Out of the Dust.London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.
Karr, M. (2015) The Liar’s Club. London: Picador.
King, S. (2012) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Lodge, D. (2011) The Art of Fiction.London: Vintage.
Mort, G., Milton, N. & Flower, T. (2013) Creative Writing 1: Writing Skills.Barnsley: Open College of Arts.
Nabokov, V. (2015) Lolita.UK: Penguin Classics.
Salinger, J. D. (2010) Catcher in the Rye. London: Penguin Books.