Over the past week, I was Writer in Residence at MLC, a girls’ school in Kew. It sounded like such a glamorous prospect: being given an office in an imposing building, where I would work on my next prize-winning novel (!) whilst students came by to observe an artist at work, speaking in hushed tones about their own literary ambitions…
It was nothing like this.
First, I had to keep school hours, which meant 6 am starts to allow for travel. I was late for class one day and it felt just like being back at school; I was always late for class then, too. Over five days, I took 11 English classes of 75 minutes each, teaching between 30 and 60 girls at a time, both Years 11 and 12. When I wasn’t teaching, the Year 12 students could schedule a 15 minutes one-one-one appointment with me to talk about their folio pieces. I did these consultations from an office known as ‘the broom cupboard’, in blocks of 5-10 at a time–30 appointments in all for the week.
I only got to work on my own writing on the train and occasionally during classes when the students were absorbed in the exercise I set them, ‘Writing about place’. The activity explored how to set a scene and/or bring a place to life by engaging the reader’s imagination and emotion. The girls were given the choice of writing in the context of fiction, travelogue or journalism. The vast majority chose fiction, which surprised me as I believe it’s the toughest of the options (or maybe I flatter myself).
Some of the most effective pieces described family homes–in Australia and overseas–and the beloved (or bemusing) family members who lived in them. School trips to parts of Africa and remote Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land also inspired some vivid work. There was a memorable story about kids sneaking out at night to play on a wet trampoline, and a jaunty little piece about the food in Macau. A few girls also made good use of their experiences as international exchange students.
The least inspiring were travelogues set in the snowfields (no more ‘Winter Wonderlands’, puh-lease), with the exception of a short piece describing the smell and look of ski suits hung out to dry.
I won’t dwell on the folio work that stood out for fear of forgetting someone, but I read some terrific pieces –especially when girls chose to write about their formative experiences. Probably the biggest challenge for them is to ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s a skill I’m still honing myself, though I suspect it will help my own writing to have worked on this with the students. Of course, they all need to use fewer adjectives and adverbs, too (preferably none of the latter, if my editor had her way), but as I kept telling them, that’s what the editing process is for.
Though hard work, being Writer in Residence was a great experience. I valued the chance to work with highly skilled classroom teachers, and what I learned from them throughout the week improved my capacity to engage the girls in the activity. The teachers work damn hard–even during their morning tea and lunch breaks, they discuss ideas for classes–and I have great respect for their work. I also met some fine young women, though I suspect many have no idea how lucky they are.
In the spirit of not taking things for granted, I’d like to thank the Head of the English Department, Brian Pryke (incidentally my HSC English and Literature teacher), for inviting me to be the Writer in Residence. I’d also like to thank my beloved partner Andrew Nette for supporting me to do the residency by taking care of our daughter in the mornings so I could get away, and cooking more than his fair share of evening meals when I was too tired to function. Thanks Roo.