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Teaching writing – my backstory – chapter 1

Aerial magazineRobert Berold and I started a creative writing course run through the ISEA at Rhodes in 1997. I’m pleased to report the course is still running. And to some extent it was the precursor of the MA in Creative Writing now run at Rhodes. This year is the ISEA‘s 50th birthday and a couple of months ago Robert asked me to contribute a piece to a 50th birthday publication celebrating the work of the ISEA.

I’m also posting this now as a way of contributing to bringing back BooksLive as a Platform of Choice.

My history as a writer and a writing teacher is very long and deep and could form a central theme of a memoir, if I were to write one. But briefly – I wrote stories, poems, notes, ideas for novels, fragments, plays and many other things as a child and as a teenager. From about the age of 14 I kept journals faithfully, this practice continues, not quite as faithfully as when I was younger. I did a degree in English Literature – partly because of my love for reading and writing. They are threaded together very closely in my mind and experience. My desire to write was partly about wanting to join in the conversation.

I discovered the approach to teaching creative writing that we used in the ISEA course when I was invited by Bobby Marie of the National of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) to run a workshop with an American writer and activist named Louise Dunlap in about 1993. I worked with her on a 10 week workshop with NUMSA shop stewards and organisers; she was only there for the first 4 workshops or so. Louise also did some work at Wits (where I was working at the time) and in other contexts. I did a kind of shadow internship with her. She was the first person I’d met who was using Peter Elbow’s method of freewriting, which later influenced Natalie Goldberg.

Louise Dunlap gave me a book by Natalie Goldberg as a gift, called Writing Down the Bones, this book changed my life as a writer. At the time I was working in Academic Development and with tutors at Wits, and became very interested in teaching academic writing the way Elbow and Goldberg suggested – using freewriting, group feedback processes for example. I had already become familiar with some of the ways in which writing teachers in the US were working, and had ordered and read books published by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, written by Ron Padgett, Alan Ziegler, and others. I taught a few six week courses at the Centre for Continuing Education at Wits in 1994 and 1995.

Even then, I was interested in publishing – I wanted to teach writing, but also to encourage writers to publish. I was the first person in my family to go to university, so I didn’t take intellectual capital for granted. For me because of my experience as a teacher and because of working in academic development, I was aware that you could learn how to do things – like write academic essays, and that you could learn to become more accomplished if you learnt approaches and practices in doing new things. I had also experienced the Paolo Freirean notion that you learn much more when you teach people something, than when you are taught, so my desire to teach writing was not completely altruistic – it was a way to learn how to be a writer and how to write in a more accomplished way myself. Louise Dunlap was very influenced by Paolo Freire and his approaches to teaching and learning. And I had also done some training in teaching Literacy, which used Freirean methods.

When I moved to Grahamstown at the end of 1995, I brought some freelance writing work with me, developing educational materials. I also wanted to do explore the idea of teaching creative writing, so Robert Berold and I approached the ISEA to set up a course. We ran the first course in 1997, and it took off immediately: I was surprised at how many people were interested in doing it. We got people started with freewriting, and then later we sat in groups and discussed our work in a non-judgmental way (in the way I had learned from Louise Dunlap).

Some of the principles of this approach to feedback and discussion are:

First the writer reads out their own piece of writing: it works best if everyone involved has a printed copy of the writing to refer to. Then the writer asks the readers/ listeners for the answers to some questions that s/he has about her/his own writing. For example: What worked? Where did I lose you? Is there anything that jarred or worried you? All responses are to be owned by those giving them, so that the writer doesn’t feel attacked, but feels rather that the writing has been listened to and attended to closely.

There were hardly any creative writing courses in the country then, and Robert and I had to make it up as we went along. The two of us would do all the exercises that the ‘students’ did, which got us writing, and helped us understand the impact and effectiveness of the exercises. It also shifted the dynamics in the sessions, and made them less teacher-centric. This practice is one that came from Louise Dunlap and Peter Elbow.

I think we held the space together quite well. We opened the course to everyone – you didn’t have to be a Rhodes student or connected to the university. From the beginning we had the idea that there should be a publication at the end of each course. Robert was good at one-on-one interactions with the other writers, and would read their writing with them and suggest edits and directions for the writing. I was better at holding the whole group, and making up exercises. My background as a teacher and a teacher educator meant I had experience in managing big groups.

I taught on the course for four years, from 1997 until I left Grahamstown at the end of 2000, which meant four issues of Aerial, the magazine we published. Some of the people I remember who came to the course were Arona Dison, Charlotte Jefferay, John Forbis, Louise Green, Nadine Botha, Crystal Warren, Sandile ‘Dudu’ Saki, Paulette Coetzee and Deborah Seddon. Robert and I also ran two week-long courses for writers from further afield, called Writing from Here – they included people like Mzwandile Matiwana, Mike Alfred, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Christina Coates, Colleen Crawford Cousins.

I loved it. It was a very exciting space for a lot of people, and it was inspiring for me. You get to know people differently when you meet them in their writing. And I think that for many of the writers we worked with, having work published in Aerial was their first time to be published.


A selected Bibliography of books that have influenced my work as a writer and a writing teacher

Brande, Dorothea. (1934 first published, republished 1996) Becoming a writer. London: Macmillan.
Cameron, Julia. (2000) The right to write. London: Macmillan.
Dunlap, Louise. (2007) Undoing the silence: Six tools for social change writing. New Village Press, Oakland, California.
Elbow, Peter. (1973) Writing without teachers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Goldberg, Natalie. (1986) Writing down the bones. Boston & London: Shambhala and (1990) Wild mind. New York: Bantam Books.
King, Stephen. (2000) On writing: a memoir. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Lamott, Anne. (1994) Bird by bird – some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday.
Reeves, Judy. (1999) A writer’s book of days – a spirited companion and lively muse for the writing life. Novato, California: New World Library.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    November 28th, 2014 @15:08 #

    I LOVE backstories. And this is so interesting. I'm impressed, because I'm not sure I could ever teach writing -- my editor's eye is too cutting, I am used to homing in on flaws, not strengths. So kudos to you, and thanks for the useful bibliography.

  • Annetjie
    November 28th, 2014 @15:25 #

    I studied at Rhodes and I know a few people who went through the creative writing MA and speak quite highly of it.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    November 28th, 2014 @17:22 #

    Wonderful piece, Colleen. I had no idea that this was where you started out. I completed a B.Journ at Rhodes ('83-'85) before I left for Amsterdam, and I reckon I would have found a creative writing course pretty daunting at the time. Also, I was pretty distracted by the concept of sex before marriage, which was something of a novelty for me in those days.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    November 29th, 2014 @10:42 #

    Thanks Richard, it wasn't where I started out, in fact I started my working life as a high school teacher of English and History at Edenvale High School! This was quite a few years in. Life is long, and then suddenly it compresses (it seems) and is too short :)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    November 29th, 2014 @10:43 #

    Oh and weren't we all - distracted by sex before marriage, that's also a long story, one I probably won't tell!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    November 29th, 2014 @21:24 #

    Edenvale - that certainly brings back memories. I know a couple of swimmers who were at school there. In fact, I took one of them to my matric dance. This was before the distraction began, of course.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    December 1st, 2014 @10:59 #

    Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron - all formative influences for me too. They made it doable, manageable.


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