As students at George Stephenson High School and Berwick Academy read the words of A.A. Gill, Marina O’Loughlin, and Jay Rayner, they began to analyse how such writers manage to turn seemingly simple journalistic commissions into works of literary art.
From Gill’s scathing review of Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine, back in the late 90s in which the critic described Ramsay as, “A failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old,” to Rayner’s love letter to Riley’s Fish Shack in Tynemouth, “Call off the search. Close down the web browser and put away the guidebooks. I have found the eating experience of the year.”
The exercise was designed to explore each student’s natural tone of voice as they were welcomed into their very own in-school cafés and asked to start taking tasting notes. With a delectable selection of popadoms, mango chutney, lime pickle and slices of fresh limes and lemons, there were scrunched faces, peals of laughter, and declarations that the lime pickle wasn’t hot – until, suddenly it really was.
Then we moved onto an exercise in poetry, taking a list that was published by Grammarly late last year of the ten most beautiful words in the English language. We watched Hollie McNish reading her poem, Famous for What? and SugarJ Poet reading his piece, Face to Face, for inspiration. Then, armed with a printed sheet of the ten words – which included petrichor, supine and serendipity – the students set to work to create a piece of writing that included at least three of the listed words.
This exercise explored the students’ use of structure, stimulated their imaginations and resulted in stanzas that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sheet of lyrics by Nick Drake, Alanis Morrisette or Morrissey.
Then it was time for the teachers in the room to step back in time with a showing of the trailer for the 1969 film of Barry Hines novel, Kes, and its downtrodden hero, Billy Casper. The final voiceover, “You might think it’s funny. You might think he gets what’s coming to him. You might be wrong.” gave us all much food for thought, creating as it did, feelings of both potential injustice and intrigue. To lift the mood we then entered the teenaged world of Georgia Nicholson and watched the trailer for Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Then it was the students’ turn as they were asked to write the promotional blurb for their favourite films. This copywriting exercise explored their abilities to persuade, to write succinctly and – on a basic level – to sell. All key skills when writing for a marketing or communications role in any industry.
Then, as the afternoon sessions started, we explored character development. Each student was given a cutout figure and asked to describe their imagined character’s physical characteristics, from their hair colour to any tattoos, piercings or birthmarks they might have. This quick-fire exercise purposefully didn’t give the students much time to think and, as we moved on to their character’s personality traits, they started to build some interesting and quirky heroes and anti-heroes. Questions like, “What’s on your character’s bedside table?” and “What’s your character most ashamed of?” worked to create complex, and sometimes pathologically disturbed, figures.
To end the day, we took our characters and inserted them into a ghost story. Each student was given a step-by-step sheet to create a tale of spooky incidents, creepy surroundings and frightening events – all accompanied by a soundtrack that echoed around their ears as they wrote with a dull heartbeat, swooshing winds and eerie bangings.
As a taster session, the students did themselves proud and learned along the way about the university courses, creative writing courses and opportunities that exist for keen writers. We learned how Amazon’s Kindle is changing the publishing world, how scriptwriters don’t just work for radio and television and why it’s just as important to edit your words as it is to write a first draft.
Now for the next stage. It’s time to Explore.