In the second part of my interview with writer and creative writing teacher, Martyn Bedford, we look at a couple of his favourite exercises that encourage us to work in different ways with characterization, scene construction and variation in voice and perspective. Martyn will take our September 10-16, 2017 week in Tuscany, teaching every morning. Don’t forget, these thoughts, this encouragement on writing, is for beginners and emerging writers. Though, as an established writer I adore hearing this stuff. It’s all about creative companionship.
You’ve taught writers for many years. What is the one common mistake you see your students make?
I’m not sure I’d call it a mistake, as such, but developing writers can become so tied up in getting the plot right, grappling with their prose style, organising the narrative, exploring their themes, that they lose sight of their character(s).
For me, character is at the heart of all good fiction – what are stories about, essentially, if not the human condition, and how people relate to themselves and to those around them? Those other very important aspects of fiction-writing (plot, ideas, structure, stylistic issues such as tone and register, etc.) emerge from, and in relation to, character. As readers, if we aren’t interested in the characters, we won’t care what they do or what happens to them. As writers, if we don’t ‘inhabit’ our characters we won’t create authentic voices for them or properly understand or convey their motivations, actions and interactions.
But, commonly, I find when reading my students’ work that a page or two will go by, sometimes entire scenes, in which the character’s perspective has dropped out of the narrative. So, when I’m providing feedback in a workshop or annotating a typescript, I often find myself commenting: What is your character thinking? Why is she/he thinking it? What are her/his emotions and mood? How is all of this affecting what she/he says or does?
In an age where so much information is readily available online (blogs, virtual courses, podcasts, etc) what are some benefits to personal instruction, based on your years as a lecturer?
I know I’m biased, but you can’t beat face-to-face contact when it comes to creative-writing tuition – or any form of teaching for that matter. Those kinds of remote support have their place and can be very helpful to developing writers, of course, but there’s something special about the dynamic of a group writing workshop led by an experienced tutor and the personal connection of one-to-one mentoring. And I speak not just as someone who’s been teaching creative writing for 17 years but as a graduate of an MA programme and former writing student on evening classes and residential courses.
Human beings are social animals, after all, and even the best virtual interaction is a pale imitation of the real thing. The back-and-forth of conversation, the sharing and testing of ideas, the discussion of constructive critical feedback, the posing and answering of questions, the supportive environment of kindred spirits . . . all of this can be replicated online but anyone who’s taken part in real-life creative writing sessions will agree (I hope!) that tutors and students alike benefit from being in a room together. It’s the difference between chatting to a bunch of friends on Facebook and having them round for dinner.
What is your favorite creative writing exercise that you like to teach your students? What is your favorite lesson on writing that you like to teach?
There’s a fairly simple exercise which I used when I began teaching creative writing that I’d nicked – er, I mean borrowed and adapted – from a tutor on a residential writing course I’d attended as a student. I still use it today as it’s a good way of encouraging writers to work with characterization, scene construction and variation in voice and perspective. And, while the set-up is quite basic, the exercise gives any student – whether beginner, intermediate or advanced – something to get their teeth into. Here it is:
A bicycle and a car are involved in a collision. Write the scene three times from three different viewpoints: the young male cyclist, the elderly female car driver, a passer-by.
And here’s a variation of it which allows more scope for dialogue:
A couple are having a fierce argument, witnessed/overheard by their young son or daughter. Write the scene three times, once from each character’s viewpoint.
As for a favourite lesson, there’s a class I run with my BA English & Creative Writing undergraduates at Leeds Trinity University which I always enjoy. It’s the final session on autobiography, on the Life Writing module, in which the topic is ‘lying’. We start by reading and discussing an article about the psychology of deception and the role that lying plays in human interaction. I then ask the students where, and in what circumstances, they would draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ deceit. We then play a version of one of the rounds of the British TV panel-show Would I Lie to You?, in which three (pre-briefed) students take turns to tell the class an unusual fact about themselves – two are true, one is false. The rest of the group has to ask the three students questions to try to establish which one is lying.
The exercise that follows is for each student to write an autobiographical piece about a particular lie they have told, or been told.
What I like about this session is the mix of seriousness and fun. And because it’s a topic everyone has experience of and can relate to, it invariably provokes strong opinions and plenty of lively discussion – and, often, some good, thoughtful, self-reflective writing.