'Read and Remember' Workshops

As part of Aberdeen City Libraries’ WW1 ‘Read and Remember’ campaign, I was asked to lead two creative writing workshops last week, one for adults and one for teenagers. Both workshops took place in a fantastic meeting room in the Central Library complete with fireplace, oak table and high walls which gave the feeling we’d been transported back to 1892, the year the large granite building was opened by Andrew Carnegie. Knowing it had existed through both world wars also made it an ideal setting, which was enhanced by the selection of WW1 collections the library kindly laid out for the workshops such as war medals, diaries and a selection of images from the Local Studies library.

I decided the focus of the adult workshop would be on short fiction forms, such as flash fiction and the short story, as we only had an hour and a half per session and it would allow us to read through a couple of examples, and also give the participants the chance to potentially write a complete piece. Shorter forms are also a great way for beginner writers to appreciate the discipline required for an effective story through precise language and omission, which can be applied to all other forms.

For reading stimuli, I selected Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Very Short Story’ and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’ since they are two successfully taut pieces which have a focus on The Great War in unexpected ways. This ‘unexpectedness’ was important because I wanted to encourage the participants to consider how their own pre-conceptions about war literature could lead them down well-trodden paths (or trenches!), and that they should try and take a new angle on the topic, otherwise there would be a danger of writing something that will inevitably pale in comparison to the powerful literature we already have from first-hand accounts. As well as their stories, we also looked at writing advice from these two authors; this included Hemingway’s famous ‘iceberg’ principle which is especially pertinent when writing about historical events as, while writers must really do their research, they should avoid including too much factual detail if it’s only going to dampen the narrative force.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
— Ernest Hemingway (1932)

Inspired by Mansfield’s unexpected introduction of a fly into her remembrance story, I asked each participant to choose one of the WW1 images from the Local Studies collections and then connect it to a random image from a selection I provided which included a butterfly, a dream-catcher, a ragdoll, a guitar, a rail of vintage military jackets and a tinned can of tuna. Thankfully, the writing each participant produced was so unique and I was pleasantly surprised at just how high the writing quality in this particular workshop was – I have a sneaking suspicion some of them may have had a lot more writing practice than they let on! The use of time in several of the pieces was particularly strong, and some of the participants commented on the influence of Mansfield’s story on this, which I’d recommend everyone read.

For the teenage workshop, I decided to look at characterisation as I often find that children (and many adults) often neglect to develop their characterisation as they are more concerned with what the plot should be, or about ‘ticking boxes’ in terms of descriptive techniques they’ve been taught at school, such as shoehorning in adjectives and similes…

We started off with a discussion of where each participant takes character inspiration from for their own writing: themselves, other people they know, or something completely made up? It became apparent that they stuck to one of the three, so we discussed how it might be better to take elements from each to produce fully rounded characters. This is important as young people will often rely on what they know too heavily, leading to flat narratives about things that only interest them instead of exploring new ways of thinking and seeing, which writing should really be about just as reading is.

To aid this process, we first read through and discussed examples of different types of characterisation in four different stories from Stories of WW1, a selection of young adult fiction edited by Tony Bradman. We then played a game in which we created a set of unique characters that incorporated different aspects from everyone in the group. Each participant was then given one of these characters at random, and asked to write a narrative which displayed some of the flaws and positive traits the character had been bestowed. Once again, I was really impressed by the writing produced, and found that the WW1 theme had influenced the participants to consider the use of time in their narrative in unusual ways.

To round off the session we discussed how writing using pen and paper, instead of a computer, is the best way to get new ideas into existence as it allows for an unrestricted flow to creativity, instead of the temptation to go back and begin self-editing on a computer. I felt it was important to get this across to young writers particularly, who are being pushed more towards technology within schools and at home, and who may have neglected good old paper and ink. There are several articles online about the benefits of writing by hand, and it’s definitely something I’d consider returning to if you have long neglected the practice yourself.

I was very grateful to by a part of Aberdeen City Libraries' ‘Read and Remember’ campaign, a campaign that has taken place all over Scotland this year. It has now come to an end, but all the books and resources will still be on the shelves in your local library, and I’d definitely recommend a trip to your own Local Studies archives if you’re looking for inspiration from years gone by for your own writing. Having a focused theme of ‘WW1’ during each workshop was a new experience for me as I haven’t run workshops with a connected theme in the past, but it’s definitely something I’ll consider in the future: it led to a lot more dialogue between the participants themselves and a more general sense of cohesion across each session.

For one final piece of writing advice, I thought I would follow Mansfield and take inspiration from this Chekhov quote, which reminds us what stories should really invoke, an important point when writing about a topic like war in which there is often very little comfort and resolution to be found:

What the writer does is not so much to solve the question but to put the question [...] There must be the question put. That seems to me a very nice dividing line between the true and false writer.
— Anton Chekhov, quoted by Katherine Mansfield in a letter to Virginia Woolf (1919)