Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Read First, Then Write

Bullet in the Brain is a weirdly funny piece of writing by Tobias Wolff. In an attempt to get our students to write more prose, Kate asked us to read it before this session, and I was entranced by the detail and beauty of such a dark piece of writing. It is about a pretentious book critic who, when confronted with a gun, regresses into sarcasm rather than submitting in silence. The result is a bullet in the brain, and Wolff details the final moments of Anders' life, recounting the memories that come to the fore of his mind.

As a group, I think we struggle to write prose, feeling more comfortable with poetry. To loosen us up, Kate started us with writing about memories (it was up to us whether they were from our own experience or imaginary), prompting us with starter sentences like, "I remember the grass..." or "I remember the sea...". In Wolff's piece, he lists all the things that Anders does not remember before detailing one seemingly insignificant memory, which is the last thing he thinks about before he dies. So Kate advised us to use a similar style, pinpointing a unique, unusual moment for our characters to be thinking about.

A lot of the pieces were rather dark, probably due to using Wolff as inspiration. Many recounted suicides or deaths, from jumping off a bridge to waking from an overdose, though we also had some more optimistic writing in the group. But all the memories, fictional or otherwise, were magical, written to make the tiniest detail become powerful and emotive.

Even Miss Woolley managed to write something serious!

Kate has challenged the young writers to expand on this writing, turning it into a short story. Since we only have an hour or so each week, it is impossible for the young writers to create anything particularly long in that time: today's pieces were about 500 words. Plus, some of our students have a habit of leaving a piece to fester and not adding to it - either because they think it is complete or because they are embarrassed to read over their own work - but we are trying to encourage them to look at the writing of prose as they do poetry, as an ongoing process of revision and improvement. So hopefully, we will have some marvelous pieces of prose to read soon. It is brilliant to see the students so quickly inspired by a piece of prose!

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