Creative writing in Cardiff Museum
Creative writing students visited Cardiff Museum to use items in the collection as the basis for their work.
Background / Context
As a part of the three modules of Creative Writing that I teach in the autumn semester at Cardiff University, I take individual groups out to Cardiff Museum and Art Gallery. Prior to this, I may send them outside briefly, to improve their powers of observation: of landscape, setting and character – but this outing is our first major trip beyond the classroom. I generally visit the galleries in advance and plan a worksheet based on the venue’s temporary exhibitions, regular displays and featured paintings (Cardiff often themes contemporary painters with older works).
I take the students on the visit about halfway though their course, so they have already gained some confidence and the small group workshop has encouraged independent working. Earlier in the Creative Writing module we have explored the ways in which published writers find their voice and subject matter, looking at texts and the inter-connectivity between form and content. We also discuss how some student writers draw heavily on their own experience, while others respond better to the mysterious or to pictures and objects. The museum is a catalyst and liberator for all: for those who enjoy exploring the unknown, for those who find it difficult to escape memoir, for those who find the classroom constricting or stuffy, for those who feel the presence of everyone else a negative or competitive force. In class we consider many fine literature extracts, but sometimes the layered complexities and sophistication can be daunting to the new practitioner. Our visit to the museum encourages greater creative freedom and touches upon different, and complementary, explorations and cultural adventures.
Activities / Practice
The students meet in the museum lobby and the group is given a worksheet and museum map, then sent away to observe, reflect and write. Students generally have 15 minutes or so to explore and 40 minutes to make rough notes before we meet in the foyer café for a coffee and cake (one of the high-lights!) and then go to a workshopping room where students edit, feedback in pairs, polish work and end by reading something out loud. The worksheet makes clear that everyone will have to read, even if it is just a sentence. I have discovered that some form of light pressure is necessary, otherwise the students are likely to wander for so long they never get down to fruitful composition. Paintings and sculpture seem to produce the more startling and unusual work (often encouraging diverse narrative voices or new points of view) and therefore I direct them to these areas. However, I do not preclude students from following strong interests that lie elsewhere (the natural world, archaeology, the basking shark, porcelain etc).
In my handout, I make sufficient directed and open suggestions to nudge even the most recalcitrant student toward some form of imaginative or observational response: considering potential dialogues between characters in paintings, describing (in detail) situation or landscape, conjuring monologues, imagining the before or after of paintings, imagining the museum as a setting for invented characters who have a chance, or clandestine meeting. Because students are encouraged to use a stream of consciousness method and to write without constraint, the combination of the vividness of the paintings, the solidity or lightness of sculptures (Rodin, Degas, Hepworth) and the inspiring and liberating geographic space (airiness, good light, solitude) diminish inhibition and self-censorship, and nurture engagement. Many of the students, in the questionnaires mention the calm and peace of the place.
Some of my students have never been to Cardiff’s beautiful Victorian museum (with particularly fine displays of paintings) that sits just a hundred yards from the University. Introducing students to history, art and archaeology is educational in the most general sense and the visit helps to broaden understanding and encourage connectivity. Our visit is fun, informal and allows me to sit and talk to students who, on university territory, can be shy and withdrawn; in the coffee break, they also engage more enthusiastically with one another. The visit feels like it isn’t work; we’re being subversive, escaping to secret corners, communing with disparate worlds, entering a dialogue with the past and also with a more keenly felt present. Each of us makes a choice about which art or object we will privilege with our attention. In turn, each of us is worked upon – often in surprising ways – by a complex and unpredictable paradigm of image, association, colour and atmosphere. Stimulated by the richness or enigma of scenes, characters and objects, our imaginations and understanding are pushed in new directions. One student stated, ‘It broadened my perspective concerning art and how artists’ styles can be formed into words’, another that it was an ‘inspiration’, a ‘chance to explore ideas that would not have come to my head in the classroom’. One of my students writes that, ‘unusual situations are depicted’ that they ‘wouldn’t have thought of otherwise’; another that ‘I was able to imagine things I otherwise would not have.’ and one that there were ‘loads of ideas for plots and characters’. One students states that the museum gives a sense of ‘a larger world’ and another says, ‘The close interaction with stimuli is so much more thought-provoking than looking at an image in a book or on the web.’ Yet another says of the visit, ‘I think paintings can be very inspiring, and the concepts behind them are helpful for story ideas. The relationship between image and text is fascinating.’
When I come to mark the students’ portfolios, some of the most successful, poised, mature, original and fluent work has come from our sessions in the museum and Art Gallery. I have included a piece from one of our third year’s (Hals_story) who is now undertaking an MA in Creative Writing. It would be a stretch to suggest that the museum trip opened up the possibility of such post-graduate study, but it certainly developed the student’s confidence, and posited a different and more liberating approach to text and self, a powerful sense that the potential for stories lies all around. What is noticeable in all my students’ work during the visit (and for some, this continues after) is a greater attention to detail and nuance, as if the layering of paint and intricacies of scene, combined with the quiet and space have slowed and intensified perception. They open their eyes; they really start to see what is and what might be. Later, in our museum workshop, students also, in their verbal delineation of what they choose to respond to, begin to ‘own’ culture and in the process take their personal choices and writing emphases more seriously.
Having a worksheet is in itself a solution to an earlier problem. The students trail in over a period of thirty minutes (despite my injunction to be on time). Standing in the foyer with a sheaf of papers allows the earliest to set off immediately and the stragglers to catch up. Another problem I needed to resolve was that the first year I ran the course, I put the session on Week 10. It was an enjoyable final social, but students complained they weren’t able to make use of peer workshopping and properly polish the writing they’d so enjoyed starting. Now, the visit takes place just before reading week (Week 5 0f 10). In many of the questionnaires, the students state the remaining problem is lack of time (‘the hour flew by’ says one) but some students have lectures before or after, limiting timetable adjustments. Interestingly, individual students or small groups often return in their own time and continue to engage with this unique space. Our small peer workshopping groups in Cardiff encourage autonomy, self-motivation and independent learning; the trip to the museum builds on this and perhaps it is inevitable, that once offered the place as a cultural possibility, they will make use of it again.
In the spring semester I use the Museum a second time – also the covered market in the centre of town. I am planning to undertake a trip to the central library.