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Thoughts on: Teaching Creative Writing

Every time I walk through the streets of a city I often feel I am walking through a forest of stories. That there are stories hidden behind each windows, stories just waiting to be discovered, stories just waiting to be told.

Perhaps that is why I began this workshop by taking my (somewhat bemused) students out to the square outside the Universidad menedez pelayo; why I wanted to show them an old, run down building just beside it which has often intrigued me. I imagine it was once a palace, but a palace that has seen much better days. It has since been divided into flats, with a rather miserable looking bar on the ground floor.

On our return to the classroom, I divide the building into twelve flats, one for each of my students. They can each choose a flat: their task is to populate their space with the creatures of their imagination, and begin to create what might be a television series about them.

And so we set to work. My students bring to class what they have written, we look at it together, and we reflect together, on how it might be better.

I know no other way to teach. I can't tell them how to write; I can't give them diagrams that show them how to write; I can't give them rules to instruct them how to write. They have to learn through writing.

It would be the same if I was training them to run a marathon. We'd accomplish very little studying the physiognomy of the human body. If they wanted to learn how to run, they would have to run. In that way they would learn their limits and how to overcome them, and they would develop the muscles they needed to get them to the end of the race.

It is the same with writing. You need to develop muscles not the muscles in your fingers that enable you to type, or the muscles in your spine that enable you to sit upright.... but muscles of the mind, sinews of the heart and the imagination. And these we can only develop through creating.

What is fundamentally important is not to try to develop tips and techniques: but to develop and sustain habits of mind and spirit. I think of three in particular: observation, empathy, and reflection.

We need to observe the world around us with constant sympathy and attention. If we walk through life with our eyes closed (as most people do) we will be incapable of creating anything of value and worth. At the same time we have to be able to empathise with those we see around us. Good dramatic stories comes from characters, comedy comes from characters, and the only way to create successful characters is to be able to empathise with them. To be able to put ourselves in their shoes, imagine how they feel, listen with our inner ear to how they talk. And then write down the results.

What is then necessary is to reflect on what we have written, to check whether it seems to be appropriate and effective in the light of what we know about dramatic writing in general and the demands of the particular form.

It is this process, above all, that we can accomplish in class. I try hard to help create an atmosphere that is both supportive and ruthless. Supportive in the sense that it is based on absolute respect for all the participants and for their creative process. Ruthless in the sense that it involves all of us in the ceaseless effort to improve what we have written, to eliminate or change everything that is superfluous or ineffective.

And that, in itself, involves everyone concerned in the practice of another crucial skill of the writer: the ability to present your work with pride, to understand criticism, accept it where necessary and defend yourself against it when you need to.

There are no rules here: it all has to do with tempering creativity, refining dramatic instincts, developing habits of spirit and mind.

We laugh a lot in the process. We get involved in the fiercest of arguments. Hopefully, the participants learn to be open with each other, to trust each other, and form artistic relationships that will useful to them once the workshop is over.

And our house slowly fills with its imaginary inhabitants. With the woman who reads fortunes in teacups, the woman who is called Fina but is actually rather fat, the lawyer whose respectable exterior conceal a wild sexuality, the old man who can't cope with the new street lamp they've just put up outside his window, the tattoo artist, the man who left his washing out in the rain.

Perhaps some of these characters will find their way onto television screens. I hope so, I know they deserve to, but I can make no promises. What I can offer is the chance to develop their own creativity in a supportive atmosphere: the chance, perhaps, to swim in the ocean of stories that always surrounds us. And emerge creatively strengthened and refreshed by the process.

What I also think is excellent about this year's course is that the students have the chance to listen to Daniel Ecija, the producer/director of Periodistas and Jposep Maria Benet I Jornet, who can remind of the industrial realities of the world they want to particpate in.

Their particpation puts my emphasis on creativity and intuition into a rather bleak context. But I can't help thinking that television, if it is going to contiue to attract audiences needs the input of artists like myself, and (hopefully) my students. In the end it is no use trying to run television like a production line: the product will fail to maintain the interest of its consumers.

We need art, even on television, because we all of us, in the end, more than consumers, more than industrial beings. We are human beings.

- Valencia, 26 October 1999.



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