Tuesday 27 February 2018

Writing for Pleasure 6 - Invention


By this I mean 'creative', 'innovative', 'new', 'original' and applies in this case to all kinds of writing, not just stories, poems and plays, and also applies to many other spheres of life and work: all the arts, applies arts, engineering, anything involving planning, figuring out a way forward mentally, visualising what to do in, say, sport or housing, politics and so on. My own view is that the fate of us on this planet depends on this, so anything that encourages, fosters and nurtures it in schools is to be welcomed. However, I think that it needs attention and loving care to ensure that pupils don't feel stressed or under-represented in the process. Invention, inventiveness, creativity and the like need time and space to breathe (it can't easily be jammed into short units overshadowed by the demands of learning outcomes and objectives) and they require 100% respect for everyone in an atmosphere of mutual nurture and co-operation.

Here is 'manifesto' for how we teach 'the arts' that I wrote some time ago:

We need to make sure that how we do the art is as important as the fact that we're doing it. After all, it's quite possible to do arts in education in ways which, say, undermine children. For instance, it's quite possible to be authoritarian and dictatorial while doing the arts – and more often than not this will teach children that they should just obey orders or that the arts are about being bossy or snooty.

Children and young people involved in the arts should:

1) have a sense of ownership and control in the process;

2) have a sense of possibility, transformation and change – that the process is not closed with pre-planned outcomes;

3) feel safe in the process, and know that no matter what they do, they will not be exposed to ridicule, relentless testing, or the fear of being wrong;

4) feel the process can be individual, co-operative or both;

5) feel there is a flow between the arts, that they are not boxed off from each other;

6) feel they are working in an environment that welcomes their home cultures, backgrounds, heritages and languages;

7) feel that what they are making or doing matters – that the activity has status within the school and beyond;

8) be encouraged and enabled to find audiences for their work;

9) be exposed to the best practice and the best practitioners possible;

10) be encouraged to think of the arts as including or involving investigation, invention, discovery, play and co-operation and to think that these happen within the actual doing, but also in the talk, commentary and critical dialogue that goes on around the activity itself.

As young people work, they will find their minds, bodies and materials changing. As agents of that change, they will inevitably change themselves. They will find out things about themselves as individuals – where they come from, how they co-exist with people and places around them – and they will pick up (or create) clues about where they are heading. They will also find new ways to talk about the arts. Demystifying them, if you like.

I believe that if we set out the stall for the arts in this way, we won't find ourselves trying to advocate a particular art form – say, painting – for what are deemed to be its intrinsic civilising qualities. Instead, we will be calling for a set of humane and democratic educational practices for which the arts provide an amenable home.


When it comes to writing in particular, I think it's best to see it as part of the continuum that I've been describing in the previous blogs: collecting, investigating, imitating - and part of the continuum that I'll go on to describe. Isolating 'creativity' or 'invention' from these other activities and processes can lead to things drying up, or putting heavy demands on pupils to be 'imaginative' or 'original' without there being enough to be original with. 

That said, here are two basic principles about invention in the sphere of writing - excuse the jargon - invention at the level of 'paradigm' or at the level of 'syntax' - or both.

Let me explain. Here's a sentence we all know: 'The cat sat on the mat'. It won't take you long to change any of those words into another, simply by taking out the word that's there, and replacing it with another, whilst sticking to that category of word. 

You could change 'cat' to 'dog' or 'child' or 'dragon'. 
You could change 'sat' to 'talked' or 'ran about'.
You could change 'on' to 'with'.
You could change 'mat' to 'table' or 'playground'.

These could all be 'paradigmatic' changes or, as some call it 'vertical' changes or as I sometimes call it, 'taking out one bit of lego out of a lego construction and putting another colour in'. 

Now you could also change the structure, grammar or syntax of the sentence whilst keeping the cat, mat and the act of sitting the same. 

You could change singulars to plurals, you could change the verb 'sat'  in many different ways ('was sitting', 'is going to sit', 'might have sat' etc). 

You could take things out: 'The cat sat.'

You could start adding things that describe the cat ('tabby'), tell us something about the verb: 'idly'. You could use phrases and clauses which add things to each part of the sentence: 'in the morning', 'when I walked into the room', 'that belonged to Kaya'.

You could also turn the statement into a question, or a command, or an exclamation; you could make it a 'negative'.

You could switch the sentence round so the 'mat' became the subject: 'The mat was sat on by the cat' and/or change the sequence in some way, (difficult to do when there is only one event, as with this sentence!). 

All these are alterations at the 'syntagmatic' level. 

I give this example, not so that you push children through an exercise as a virtue in itself, as is done by the requirements of the GPS test and the 'expected levels' of writing. 

I give it in order to illustrate two main ways of change that we have available to us at every level of writing, not just at the sentence level.

In other words, all pieces of writing have paradigms and syntax across the whole piece of writing. It's just that they're much easier to spot (and there is an agreed system) when it comes to sentences.

What do I mean?

Consider any genre of TV or film that you like. Let's say it's the talent show. What might we say are the paradigms? Perhaps we could say these are: contestants, competing, judges, judges comments, contestants' comments, contestants'  family's comments, training sessions, live audiences, anchor-person/presenter, guest spot - and the setting: in the early rounds, some kind of rehearsal room, the final rounds a huge venue, and within that all the elements of lighting, sound, chairs, place at which the judges sit and so on. 

What is the syntax?

At the singular-plural level - multiple contestants/judges/members of audiences/sometimes one or two presenters. 

At the 'verb' level - the core 'verb' is 'they are competing', though there are 'clauses' where we have flashbacks to 'they were training' or 'they are visiting their home town and home itself' and of course, crucially, 'this is what has happened to me in my life' and 'this is what I hope for'. 

At the sequence level, there is a sequence to  -  'knock-out rounds one after the other', 'judges comments','contestants' comments' 'contestants' family's comments' , 'training sessions' etc. 

Now, put yourself into the shoes of someone devising a new talent show. You can change the paradigms, the syntax of both.

Clearly, the easiest thing to change are the kinds of contestants. This is why someone like me muddles 'X-Factor' with 'Britain's Got Talent'. But consider another kind of talent show - the reality TV celebrity knock-out shows 'Big Brother' and 'Jungle'. Essentially, the big change there to start off with was at the paradigm level: they changed the setting.

Sticking with talent shows, go back to the list of paradigms and put yourself in the shoes of someone 'giving the show a shake-up' and you could change any of those in some way. The most major change would be to change the verb 'they are competing' to 'they are helping each other' ! 

Then again, you could change the syntax by, let's say, having only one judge;  absurdly - reversing the sequence by starting with the crowning of the winner and working backwards! (Not so absurd when you think of the kinds of detective novels which begin by telling us whodunnit and the whole novel is about how the cops found out). You could create a sequence in the middle of the series in which the contestants judged the judges. (This is where the 'object' would swap places with the 'subject'.)  

You can cut paradigms or add extra elements like, say: where all the contestants have to play a form of Masterchef at the half-way stage in the competition. 

I won't go on.

You can apply this way of thinking to any form of writing: we can change the paradigms, the syntax or both. There's no need to be rigid about it, or get too hung up on which of the two is changing. In other words, we can do it intuitively, once we give ourselves the freedom to treat writing that already exists in this kind of a way - which is that it's our raw material on which to base new writing. And remember, this also includes the idea of 'importing' elements from one sphere into another (which is what I did with my 'Masterchef' proposal (!). This is the what is meant when writers or critics talk about 'using the motif of...' or 'using the rhetorical devise of...' 

What does all this mean for a writing activity (embedded within collecting, investigating, imitating - and later on we shall see in distribution/publication)? 

The most obvious paradigms in fiction, poetry and plays are the answers to questions about where? when? who? how? or 'setting', 'time frame', 'characters/protagonists' 'what they are doing'. Those who thing 'structurally' about this kind of writing would also put elements like 'engendering empathy for the protagonists' 'engendering dislike of a protagonist',  'reveal-conceal', 'jeopardy/peril' 'the helping hand', the 'obstacle to fulfilment of the objective', the 'downbeat moment when things aren't going too well' etc would make this sort of thing a necessary paradigm in say 'all feature films'. 

In non-fiction, it's more diverse to be able to tie it down like this, but we might say, for example, with some kinds of non-fiction it's, 'the location of the piece of writing', 'the intended audience', 'the writer's personal opinion', 'references to other people's opinions', 'the use of examples/illustrations' but clearly, a recipe or a set of instructions on how to assemble  a table would have a different set of paradigms. 

Syntax for fiction, poetry and plays is a huge and fascinating subject and involve questions around plotting, managing of the audiences emotions (if that is possible!) through such processes of how writers create a sense of 'care' or 'empathy' in audience's minds for protagonists, problems for protagonists, peril and jeopardy. 

They also involve crucial questions of sequencing, and on occasions turning singulars into plurals. 

Consider for example, how the classic Western is usually singular but road movies are usually plural. Both could be changed if you so chose to. 

And, as mentioned before, you can 'import' anything you want. It's often been noted that what J.K.Rowling did in the Harry Potter books was 'import' the 'school novel' into the 'fantasy novel' (or was it vice versa?!) Either way, she created what had formerly been seen as two distinct genres and made them into one. This created a huge syntactic melting point in which 'clauses' from one were latched on to 'clauses' in the other. Fantastic creatures were in school; big issues of world-threatening destiny were in school. And so on. 

Now, to have described all this in the way that I've just done can make writing sound rather mechanical: just a matter of changing elements and processes, cutting things out, switching things round, adding stuff and so on...well, yes, kind of. 

The job for anyone leading some writing is to keep the fun going. The core to this is to make it all an act of discovery: if we change x, what happens? (That is, what happens to the characters, what happens to the plot, what happens to - most important - the audience's expectations, feelings, predictions and sense of fulfilment (or not) at the end.)

We don't have to fake this, in that treating writing as an experiment, really does mean that we won't know what the effect is until we've done it. 

So, all we have to do is start from a piece of writing, any piece of writing: fiction, plays, poems - non-fiction of any kind and say, 'What if we change this? What if we change that?' and then sit back and see what happens. The world of writing is out there to plunder, borrow from, scavenge from for us to change, mix and match, cut, add to, provide sequels and prequels for, dive into and pull out characters and ask them - what do you think? what do you want to do? where would you like to be? In non-fiction we can 'find out more about what x thinks', we can put x in contrast to y, and see what z says too. We can weigh up whether the examples do illustrate the argument - or not. Whether we need more or fewer. We can look at paragraphs and check whether they really do add to the overall argument or not. If not, why are they there? (There may be a good or bad reason.) If it's an account of an event or trip, what kind of detail attracts the most interest and which kind the least? Why is that? Does it have to be in chronological sequence or are there other sequences that might be better?

We can model any of these changes. We can demonstrate working some changes on a piece of writing. We can invite the invention by whoever is in the writing class and then by sharing our different inventions these become models too.

This 'apprenticeship' approach to writing doesn't suit all kinds of writing, nor should it be seen as the sole way to work. There are other occasions when we might want to make things more spontaneous, more free-flowing, more on impulse. We can, as I've shown elsewhere, sometimes start from another point: daydreaming, looking at a picture, doing a dance, doing an improv, watching a film, taking a walk, making something, having a discussion.

I would say that the two ways of kicking things off will inform each other: doing the collecting, imitating, inventing processes will inform the daydreaming-impulse writing; and the daydreaming-impulse writing will inform the imitating-inventing. 

There is no need to be rigid about this. There is no need to think that one is superior to the other. There is great virtue in keeping things different, varied, changing and new. There is no virtue in keeping things the same every time. What works once or twice may not work the third time because it feels too 'used'.