By Wyl Menmuir, author, editor and Writer Co-Mentor on the Teachers as Writers programme
We stepped down into the sea and stood just beyond the breaking waves, looking up towards the beach. Although it was already late June, the still-cold Atlantic water was a shock. We were Anglo-Saxon travellers and we’d just jumped down from our boats onto the fringe of an unfamiliar land.
As we – thirty Year 5 children, the class teacher, a teaching assistant and me – stood in the sea, the children talked. And, as they talked, characters started to emerge: the warrior who was afraid to let his fear show to his fellow travellers, the girl who was out to prove she could be as fierce a raider as any of her male counterparts, the inexperienced fighter who wanted to return home crowned in glory. The children slipped in and out of role as fluidly as the waves lapped around us, discussing the textures of the stones beneath the soles of their feet, the sharpness of the water, their hopes and fears for this new land on which we had arrived.
Later, we sat in two circles further up the beach, toes buried in the sand, notepads spread across our laps. Some children had their eyes closed and were listening to the sound of tiny waves breaking a few metres away or to the gulls up on the rocks. Some were running the palms of their hands over the pebbles and sand.
Sounds nice? Sounds like a bit of a cushy number? Maybe it does, but I’d argue these behaviours demonstrated a deep engagement with the practice of writing.
As a former primary teacher I often felt there was more than a subtle pressure to make learning look like learning. Serious learning. You know? Proper learning. In classrooms. At desks. As a writer, though, I know the value of going out and gaining experience that will help bring your writing to life, as well as the value of exploring these in-depth experiences that motivate you to write harder, that drive you to make the words work harder.
After all, what are we doing when we write fiction? Among the many complex things we’re doing is translating experience into marks on the page. And if we’re successful in that, those words will have an impact on our reader and may – if we’ve ordered those marks in just the right way – convey some of that experience to them. And that’s a tall order. It’s a tall order to ask a child to take the everyday and mundane and transform it into the fictional and magnificent. It’s a tall order to ask them to render their infinitely complex experiences of the world into words. And even more so if they’ve not been given the chance to experience some of that for themselves and to consider it carefully before they put pen to paper.
When we sat down to write after our walk into the water, very few of the children found it difficult to make a start and they all had something to write about – and through the concentration on their faces, their eyes closed, capturing the sounds of the sea, the feet still fretting at the stones, I could see they were engaging with that struggle that writers worldwide grapple with – how to convert this raw experience into a format that will transmit and convey its richness, using only words.
If we want to avoid formulaic writing, I’d argue we need to give children the opportunity to explore their experiences. If we want to motivate children to write, we need to show them writing can be an inspirational activity, one worth engaging with.
It might be ‘nice’. It might sound cushy. But children need ammunition for their writing, opportunities to develop their ideas in settings other than the classroom. Opportunities for genuine dialogue and to test the waters, just as practicing writers do.