Tales from the Tutor

photo by Natalia Osiatynska

by Carolyn Thomas

As a tutor of Creative Writing for the Open University, I can’t shake off a slightly nagging guilt about being paid for immersing myself in a subject I’m passionate about. Call me old-fashioned, but work is usually done in order to pay the bills, not to enjoy. (Don’t tell the OU bosses this though – the money comes in handy to buy books and fuel my writing habit.)

I’m particularly passionate about the short story and lucky enough to live close to the former home of Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf and all things Bloomsbury at the delightful Charleston Farmhouse.  Even more delightfully, Charleston is the setting for the annual ‘Small Wonder’ festival – celebrating the unique charms of the short story. (I can highly recommend this festival and am usually there – you’ll bump into me near the bookstall where quite a bit of the afore-mentioned pay goes.  I’m the one being dragged away screaming…)  As I tell my students, I don’t feel right unless I’ve made my annual visit there.

And what else do I tell my students? Hopefully, one or two things about writing a good short story…

A fun piece of advice I like to pass on (I’m not sure who the clever person is who thought of it) is as follows:

Put a man up a tree

Throw stones at him

Get him down again

I’ve found this invaluable when looking at structure and it can apply to writing a novel too. However, I have utilised it, to good effect, as an exercise with students starting out on short story writing.

Not only does it give us a clear and simple lesson about the essence of story, it allows the imagination to reign, without getting bound up in the mechanics of structure itself. But it also results in a wonderful demonstration of the fact that every writer brings their own uniqueness to a story. Given the same brief, we end up with entirely different pieces, each with their own ‘writer’s voice’ and usually offering something the next person would not have thought of.

As a tutor, it also gives me an insight into how my students write.  For instance, some may choose to follow the brief quite literally whilst others interpret it more loosely and without a tree in sight. Within each of these, there are examples of writers who are prepared to take risks, those who prefer not to and those who pose intriguing questions for the reader.

Do feel free to try this exercise yourself – you may be pleasantly surprised or inspired. You never know, it may end up on the bookstall at Charleston, with a suitably impressed OU tutor handing over her pay…

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