Lisa Shipman’s Writing Adventure
Lisa Shipman is one of my fellow students, who has graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Creative and Professional Writing. During her final year Lisa announced she was going to do something very interesting for her project and I made her promise to give me an interview when she had finished, to tell me all about it. I find Lisa’s approach to literacy and writing both fascinating and innovative.
The result of the combined efforts of Lisa and the pupils of Bulwell St Mary’s School, Nottingham, is now available as an e-book.
You started university later than most people. So why did you have to wait to go to university, and why a BA in Creative and Professional writing?
I have always written creatively, from a very early age. I started writing, particularly poetry from the age of eight. I always wanted to go to university but coming from a typical working class family I felt it wasn’t the right thing for ‘the likes of me’ despite enjoying English Literature at secondary school. It is fair to say that my life was mapped out for me from a very early age. I came from an era when success for a woman meant becoming a secretary in some big-wig firm. And that’s what I did. I enrolled at secretarial college at 16 and qualified as a PA at 18. I was still writing during this time, but it was a secret thing. I certainly didn’t share my creativity with anyone.
I started working in administration work as soon as I left college. I floundered along at this until the birth of my first child, Daniel, in 1999. My second child, Jessica arrived in 2002 and I continued being a housewife. I still continued to write short stories and poetry.
In 2007 I returned to work as a Receptionist for Bilborough Children’s Centre. That’s where things started to change. I was working with children and running a few activities, as well as doing press releases, and organising newsletters. The creativity started coming through that. At that point I thought, ‘I’m really enjoying this.’ At the time I thought it was because of the change of environment. Looking back, I now realise it was because of the creativity that was involved in working with the children and doing activities that were different to my previous administration job.
I had a career change in 2008, due to family commitments and started working for Nottingham City Council as a Benefits Advisor. Though the benefits of less hours and more pay was fantastic, the creativity I had experienced was curtailed. I was stuck in an office job, dealing with benefits claims and the misery attached to that. I felt absolutely bereft.
I became ill and had a great deal of time off work. Because of this my contract was terminated – that’s the polite term for being ‘sacked’. But honestly, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. And so I thank Nottingham City Council from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to pursue the BA in Creative and Professional Writing.
I found out I had gallstones, about a month after losing my job. I had an operation and was recovering at home when I thought about what I was going to do with my life. I had a choice; go back to admin work or try something new.
I was reading a news article at the time, about a rise in violence in Nottingham being linked to video games. It really irked me, and so I emailed a letter to the newspaper voicing my opinion. To my surprise the article featured in the newspaper, complete with a half page photograph featuring an 18 rated video game – real eye-catching stuff. This motivated me to consider going to university. Such a small thing, I know, but the fact that a newspaper had printed my letter and made a feature of it, confirmed that I had some talent. I just needed the confidence to go for it.
I did some research, although I didn’t initially research university courses. Because I’ve been out of education so long I thought I might have problems doing a Degree. This is when I found an Access to Higher Education Course in Nottingham at the Adams Building, and started in September 2009. That was really difficult because there was only my husband’s wage coming in, so financially it was a complete nightmare. But my husband and my children were just amazing and told me to ‘go for it’.
I really enjoyed my time on the course. I studied psychology, sociology and English literature. We couldn’t really choose what we want to do, because it was a set program of getting you qualified to go to university. I got distinctions in all three. This was the motivation I needed to apply for a university place. During the time on the Access course I researched where I want to go. I was limited with my choice of universities because I have to study close to home. I found the BA in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Nottingham. I like the idea of this, because I’m a realistic person and I thought, ‘It’s all well and good saying I’m going to be a writer, but it is notoriously difficult to be successful at it.’ I needed something to complement the career as well, so the professional strand of the degree really appealed to me. That’s why I ended up doing that particular degree.
I found out afterwards that it didn’t actually have to go and do the Access to Higher Education Course and that they would have taken me on because of the standard of my writing and the fact I was mature student. But I feel that I gained so much confidence by undertaking the Access course.
What sort of writing where you are asked to submit before your interview at the University?
I was asked to submit something which reflects my writing style. I enjoy writing short prose pieces and so I chose a piece about a trip to Cornwall. I wrote about how excited I was going on holiday with my husband and children. It was the first time my husband had been on holiday as far away as Cornwall. We had our first car and felt ‘grown up’! Daniel was five and Jess was two. I described my feelings about driving down to Cornwall and stopping off at Bristol at the service station, seeing all of the people on various strands of their own journeys. It was about me saying to my husband, ‘Before we go to the caravan park, I want us to drive to Mullion Cove.’ The piece was about describing the scene I knew my husband and two children would see when they reached the point where you can see the harbour, and how beautiful it is. So far removed from life in the city.
What did you have to do in the interview?
I had to sell myself, which does not come easy to me. I was absolutely terrified, but they said they enjoyed the piece of prose fiction. They asked me if I’d ever been published before. I felt like saying: ‘who would want to publish me?’ I didn’t though, I just shook my head. I was asked why. I said, ‘Because I’m frightened.’ Then I was asked why I wanted to be on the course.
That was a real eye-opener for me. I had finally submitted a piece that somebody had finally read (apart from things at work, like press releases, and the article written by me but under a pseudonym but these weren’t so personal) and had liked. That was when I realised that I had to get used to the idea that I was going to be showing my work to lots of different people, from then on.
What has the course done for you as a writer?
There are quite a lot of things I got out of it. Confidence in myself has rocketed. I wouldn’t have been sitting here three years ago doing an interview with you, as the old me. I can’t believe that I’ve designed as well as run creative writing classes. I’ve gained a lot of self-discipline and self-motivation, as well as being able to effectively organise my workload and being really focused on what I want to do. I can now do research into creative writing practices and education. It’s really made me very dedicated to furthering my craft. I can’t imagine choosing any other degree that would have given me the same things as the BA in Creative and Professional Writing has.
It’s not all been about being a better writer. I know with time I will be published even if I do self publish. Someone will eventually see what I write and hopefully like it. So the degree was never just about becoming a better writer. There is a general misconception about creative writing courses – at the start you don’t know how to write a beginning and when you finish the degree, you’re a Man Booker prize winning novelist. It’s not like that at all.
Of course you do get feedback on your work from the classes and you learn about plot and dialogue more than you would do if you did it on your own. It’s about the contacts you make from the course and the fact that you become friends with fellow writers. For example I’m having this conversation with you now and I know that in the future we meet again and have further conversations as writers. So those contacts are invaluable.
I think it is about gaining self belief in being a writer. A friend of mine, artist Sue Bulmer, once said that for years she struggled with being known as ‘an artist’. And I get that. It takes time to grow into the title of ‘writer’. But I am getting there!
The big thing in third year is the project. You really went above and beyond what was required by the BA. Would you like to describe what you did?
I got the idea for my project in the first place by listening to a presentation by Deborah Stephenson, in June 2012. She came in to talk about her project. I remember the day really well because we were given a sheet of paper by our course leader Niki Valentine and told to write down what our project was going to be. I just froze at that point, because I had no idea what my project was going to be. I looked around the room and saw everyone was furiously scribbling down all their ideas and outlines. I had come to the conclusion (at that point) that I’d never be a novelist. I’m far better at poetry and short stories.
So initially I was thinking about a collection of short stories, or poetry. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting there for however long it takes to do the project, just writing and editing. The idea of doing that project was far too isolated for me. I thrive on being around other creative people.
Then I heard Deborah talk about what she had done with Mouthy Poets, which is a spoken word poetry group she had established. So when I heard her talk, I got a huge buzz of energy. That’s when I knew I wanted to do a community-based project. At that point I wasn’t sure what it was going to entail, but it is definitely what I wanted to do. So I said to Niki, ‘I’ve not filled this in. I’ve got no idea what I want to do. I’ll get back to you.’ I went home and had lots of coffee, which helped me to think more clearly about what I wanted to achieve.
I thought about my daughter’s school which I have good links with, and I wondered if I could do an anthology. The BA has a very successful anthology, which I’d had experience of because I’ve been on the submissions board and the editing side of it. Things snowballed from there.
So I’ve been working at Bulwell St Mary’s Primary School since 2012 as a writer in residence. In total I have worked with around 200 children, all of whom have either created a piece of writing or some artwork. I’ve designed the teaching programme, delivered the lessons and work with groups of 6 to 8 children at a time. I worked with them to create an anthology of short stories, poetry, illustrations and free writing (which isn’t given enough credit as a method of encouraging creative writing).
What is free writing?
It’s terrifying for writers. I think it’s more terrifying for adults than children. You get a blank sheet of paper and told to write. I’ve done a bit of research on this and I think the influence of a classroom for adults really shapes the type of creative writing produced in free writing.
You know that your tutor is probably a well-established writer, you know that your peers are good writers and so therefore when you have a piece of blank paper in front of you, there is a sense of pressure to come up with something Shakespearean or something similar. Because if you just write down, ‘Oh, I’ve had a really bad day’ and you start going on about socks and laundry, it’s not seen as being very good writing. So you’re influenced as adults about the type of thing you write. It’s never really something that comes from your own thoughts.
Whereas for children, it’s a completely different thing. Children have no fear of a blank page. They just begin writing. For example, I went into a class just before bonfire night and they started writing about fireworks and this went on to where do all socks go? Then they start to talk about melted chocolate. This was just fascinating. I know that some people might frown upon that approach, because they think it’s not very creative writing, but to me that’s amazing writing. The leaps of logic they’re capable of meant that, given 20 minutes, they would come up with a short story. So I included the free writing exercises in the anthology, because I think they’re the seeds of creative writing and everyone should do it.
How did you formulate your teaching strategy?
Research. I bought a very good book called Our Thoughts are These by Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland. It’s quite an interesting book because it’s from a writer’s point of view going into school and it’s also the school’s point of view of how to get the most out of a writer. So there was some sort of structure and lesson plans in there. It was about timing for certain age groups, for example if you’re working with five-year-olds you need small groups and you need to do consider their short attention span.
There was lots of advice in that book that really helped me, regarding structure, class sizes and an ‘if in case of emergency break glass’ lesson plan. So always have a backup plan! This is really important because you don’t know how the dynamics are going to be when you walk into a classroom. The children could be really fed up, tired and don’t want to know about doing any work. If you have a certain plan in mind of what you want to deliver and they’re not motivated by that, then you really have to think on your feet and fast.
So I made sure that whilst the lessons were structured well, there was always a little wriggle-room if things went wrong. I found a website called primary resources which has lesson plans for teaching English. It is very rigid – has to be because it is geared towards National Curriculum – but it gave me an idea about what the age groups are able to process. I then tailored my creative writing lessons to be age-appropriate. It’s something which has worked well. It is important to remember that Creative Writing Practitioners are not teachers. They facilitate learning but should not be expected to understand how to teach primary school children.
How did you explain to them what it was you wanted them to do in your class?
It was really difficult to explain something like Greek mythology, especially if it’s yet to be taught in school. So what I did was provide them with pictures. They knew Hercules because he’s a Disney character. The new Pegasus from the Hercules film was also something they knew. I had to rely on popular culture, because they don’t necessarily read children’s stories based on Greek mythology. So I went to the local library and brought books in for their age group. That is very key to teaching anything that theme related. I brought in an example; Theseus and the Minotaur.
We talked about the hero, to establish who the hero was and who the villain was. Ultimately they thought the villain was not the Minotaur, it was the Minotaur’s dad King Minos, because he shouldn’t have locked in the labyrinth. They actually felt quite sorry for him.
We discussed the beginning, middle and the end. Which was really quite difficult because there were different versions. Films were beginning to creep into the discussion, so I let them go with that. I didn’t rein them in and tell them it was wrong. There is no right and wrong this sort of case. So we have a rough guide on the beginning middle and end of this story. Then something I’ve worked on with Niki Valentine before in workshops was tweets. So we condensed the story into a tweet. I explained what a tweet is: 140 characters, sometimes I have to explain what characters are. Creating a story this way really condenses it and helps children to be focused on the structure of the story and the importance of key scenes. Then I shown an example of a tweet, using Hercules, as I did not want to influence them by using Perseus: Hercules made mortal, finds out Zeus is dad, 12 tasks makes them the God, tricked by Hades, chooses Xerxes as home.
Did you do all these activities in one session?
This was one two-hour session, with a break in between, but I had no problem keeping their attention because they loved it.
What other things do you do?
I also used cut out words from magazines. Some of the children I work with are mixed ability and to ask them to sit and write something put them under too much pressure. So by using cut out words they produce some really good writing. I’ve had children who’ve really struggled to write a sentence but because they have had control over the process – by choosing their words – they can make their own story. And be inspired by it.
The anthology is a real mix of creative writing and art. I am very proud of the work involved.
Did you apply any particular teaching theories to your work?
No. I steered away from didactic. I was purely a facilitator. As long as you have a firm scaffolding in place in the form of lesson plans, then that is enough. Children by the very nature of them being in school are bombarded with being taught. So if it’s a creative writing lesson it needed to be a million miles away from what they normally did.
This is why I made it as free as possible. Luckily the school have been okay with that and knew it wasn’t going to be academic, it was all about creativity and applying what I know about creative writing to structure their work and to facilitate their learning.
Another thing that’s really important is the fact that I made sure the setting was completely different to a classroom. So we worked in the library away from the classroom. We could sit on the floor on beanbags, with nice lighting. I made that decision because I wanted to get rid of a classroom structure setting, to allow them to be a bit more creative.
The school I was working at had received some money for a reading space, so I was asked what I thought could be done with the reading space. I decided it would be really good to turn it into a place where they could read. It’s like an outdoor area, but it also incorporates beanbags, writing space, and an MP3 player docking station for sound. So you could change that space into a Victorian workhouse, or an underwater setting. They would be able to change these things around really easily and make reading and writing a really fun place and away from the classroom setting.
When I first started working with the children. I was told we needed to include ENPs in our work. I didn’t know what ENPs were. Now I know there are expressive noun phrases. I said, ‘No it’s not about grammar, punctuation and spelling. That will come later.’ I picked up a book and said, ‘You don’t know this about many writers, but they make mistakes, but they don’t call them mistakes, they call them first drafts. They have an editor that comes along and tweaks the work.’
So yes it’s good to have good grammar and punctuation spelling, but that can’t get in the way initially of the creative drive. That’s why there was no real firm emphasis on academic teaching. They can learn that in the classroom my lessons are completely different. I’m not there to be the grammar police or the punctuation police. I believe in good spelling, grammar and punctuation and it is necessary but sometimes that gets in the way when teaching children because they can only focus either being creative or being right.
What do you bring to the school that they find so useful, if you’re not following national curriculum?
First of all, you need to have good concentration levels if you going to write. When I first started teaching creative writing in classes, I noticed concentration levels of the children were weak. They found it hard to focus and to able to sit down and write. But once I was able to instil a love of writing, they get beyond the ‘this is boring’ stage, ‘because it’s what I do in class’. They’re writing because they enjoy it. And because they want to write, their concentration levels automatically improve. Then springboard onto that they begin to realise what they’ve written. I would then introduce someone who had written something similar, for example, ‘Look, Roald Dahl does silly rhymes. Read something by Roald Dahl.’ That then springs on the reading. It’s about complimenting National Curriculum.
Why did you decide to publish the children’s work as an e-book?
I didn’t get the grant I was after to the produce a print book, which I thought at first was a disaster. However, once I realised that I could create an e-book of the children’s work this opened up more possibilities, for example, being able to put the children’s illustrations in, because putting the pictures in a print book would have really pushed the cost up. I’ve had a lot of help from Pippa Hennessy in formatting the book, and learning how to resize images.
It’s also turned out to be really useful for the school because they can incorporate some of it into their IT development. The children will also be able to share the work, because the e-books can be emailed to friends and relatives.
You’re also doing another project in September.
I’m working with David Kershaw in September on a community project, linked with Nottingham library. I’m doing the creative writing strand, so I’ll be working with a Roald Dahl book, which I’ll turn into a script. Then David is coming in to do the stage management, because he has a background in stage. We have also been asked to provide support with stage design, which is a real scream! I cannot wait to see David with a paint-pot and glue stick!
What you going to be doing after this?
At the moment I’m in talks with a couple of primary schools, for a writer in residence position. The idea is to take the anthology work I’ve already done and tailor it to different years and different schools. The project will also be fine tuned so that the children learn how to edit their own work. I am also working with Sue Bulmer on a few creative writing/art workshops. We aim to roll these out across schools in Nottingham. It looks set to be a full year!
Lisa can be followed on Twitter @LisaShipman2