Saturday 12 March 2016

Making It Up As I Go Along.... by Tanya Landman

When I was first asked to do Creative Writing sessions in schools I was terrified. Being a writer didn’t automatically mean I could teach other people to do it!   I dreaded being ‘found out’: that someone would demand to know what I thought I was doing, standing there in front of a class.  But I soon discovered that I have a real passion for unlocking children’s natural talent for telling stories.

I’ve done it for over ten years now, and increasingly I find when I go into a class the pupils are very tense about the prospect of actually writing anything down.  They worry so much about getting their spelling or punctuation right it’s in danger of crippling their creativity.  So my emphasis is on generating ideas. Sometimes we just brainstorm as a class because after all, writing starts in the head long before it ends up the page. I’ve done whole Murder Mystery sessions where the children don’t write a word – but by the end they’ve plotted and imagined an epic crime thriller.

When it comes to inventing historical fiction one of the most useful triggers I’ve found is the real life story of a brass cup that was kept in a shoebox under the bed of a pensioner who lived in Taunton.

I remember reading an item in the local newspaper about it and wondering if it might intrigue the group of students I was working with that day.  I ripped the photograph out to take with me,  but not the article that went with it.

Because I’m a storyteller I daresay I embellished the truth a bit when I told the class the story. Improvising furiously I began with telling them about a rag and bone man who went around Somerset with a horse and cart collecting scrap metal.  He found a strange looking brass cup in a job lot of junk and gave it to his grandson, John.  The boy’s father had been killed in the war, so he liked to give John little treasures from time to time. 

John wasn’t all that impressed by it. In fact, he used to put the cup on the garden fence and use it for target practice with his air rifle.  When he grew up the cup was slung in a box and stored in the loft.  It didn’t see the light of day for sixty years.   

When John decided to move out of the family home into sheltered accommodation the house needed to be cleared out.  He was sorting through the rubbish in the attic when found the old brass cup. 

Everything else in the box was tarnished and discoloured with age.  But the brass cup looked the same as it always had. 

John realised there’s only one metal that doesn’t tarnish with age…

As those words left my mouth a few hushed whispers of ‘gold!’  rippled around the class.  They were gripped.

The cup did indeed turn out to be made of gold. In fact it was so pure and so soft that the marks made by the air rifle pellets all those years ago could be smoothed out with the back of a spoon.   When it was sent to experts the cup turned out to be a Persian treasure that was 2,400 years old and valued at £500,000.

After that it was easy to get the students wondering about the cup and its history. Who might have made it in the first place?  Who for?  A king or queen?  A warrior?  A priest?  Why?  Was it a reward?  A gift?  A wedding present?  Did it have some kind of ritual or magical purpose?

From there we started to imagine all the different people who might have owned it through its long history.  It was made before Jesus Christ was even born.  Britain was in the Iron Age. The Roman Empire was at its peak.  That cup had passed from hand to hand to hand for more than two thousand years before it finally ended up in an attic in Taunton.

After that I got the students to pick their favourite period in history.   (They all had one that had sparked their imagination at some point in their school career.)  They then had to imagine a character who had come into contact with the cup – either they had been given it, or found it, or stolen it.  What did they do with it afterwards?  Something that valuable would have been life changing.  How did they part with it? Sell it? Lose it? Throw it away?

By the end of the session we had thirty different stories from thirty different periods of history – from the creator of the cup in the Middle East, through ancient Rome all the way to the Second World War.  Thirty stories that could then be put together into one ‘volume’ telling the cup’s story.

Being a visiting author is so much easier than being a teacher: I get all the pleasure, and none of the paperwork.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like a great lesson! And thank you for admitting that the teachers are the ones who have to do all the "paperwork". I was ordered to teach creative writing too, only unlike you, I wasn't a visiting author, I had to do it every week, with the same class. That lesson you suggest will work very well for a writing workshop, but what would you have done if you were the kids' regular teacher? How would you follow up such a fabulous lesson? If it was me, I might spend the next few weeks developing that anthology and meanwhile thinking of what we'd do next. Bullshitting, in other words. ;-)

Becca McCallum said...

What a great workshop! It sounds very like being a heritage education worker - we get to do all the fun and creative stuff with the kids that come to us.

Sue Purkiss said...

Like this idea very much!

Catherine Johnson said...

So impressed Tanya! I find it near impossible to get kids writing about stealing a version of this....