We went to hear novelist Pat Barker speak on Thursday. She was in fine conversation with Sharon Monteith at Nottingham Playhouse in a benefit for Nottingham Unesco City of Literature funds to support literature/literacy initiatives across the city. She read from new work in progress, inspired by Homer’s Iliad, that brought alive the previously silent voices of two young women. In a wide ranging discussion afterwards, with some excellent questions from the audience, she talked about her writing processes. She urged the writers in the audience to go into the writing ‘wanting to surprise yourself’ because if you can’t do that then no-one else will be surprised by what you write. I love the element of risk implied in this approach: you are going out into the unknown in your writing, exploring, as Captain Kirk would say,’strange new worlds… new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no (one) has gone before’ and that’s exciting. Children learning to write continually need to experience that thrill, that continuing mission and sense of discovery when they write. How often do they experience it in the classroom?
Barker’s comments of drafting were of especial interest to me. She quickly gets in to what she calls ‘the flow state’ when writing a copious number of words each day and then cuts swathes of them later. In the first draft she is ‘writing fast and outrunning the censor’. This is a great way of describing untrammelled writing. It made me think about how children learn to write and whether they are ever given that kind of freedom in the classroom. She views each draft as being ‘a different emotional experience’. I like this idea and will certainly be using it when I work with young writers in the future. She read to us from work in progress and described that the text was ‘being rewritten as I was reading’. This listening to the text and active approach to redrafting has always been an essential part of the process for me and one I’ve written about in Drafting and Assessing Poetry. It was great to hear such a fine writer talk about writing in this way. Thanks to Midlands3Cities and Nottingham Playhouse for making it possible.