Ten tips on teaching creative writing

‘I’m a raging extrovert,’ said Cathy Rentzenbrink at last year’s Durham Book Festival, speaking of missing the buzz of office life having gone full-time as a writer. I identify. One of the reasons I love teaching is because it gets you out and engaged with other people. I have given creative writing workshops in care homes, libraries, prisons, schools, a Buddhist centre, Brussels(!) and Durham Cathedral among others. Here is some of the best advice I have been given about teaching.

  1. Do it. And learn by doing.
  1. Think whether you have something of value to give. Then give generously.
  1. People will listen to you and come up with their own writing. They will not down pens and ask for details of your CV (no matter how much that might feel like a possibility the night before).
  1. Don’t make up new exercises for children/beginners/experienced writers/whatever. Tweak. All your writing prompts should work across any group.
  1. Use lots of props.

For a workshop at the York Blind and Partially Sighted Society I borrowed props from the lovely Zoe at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

  1. Don’t worry about your students liking you. Concentrate on liking them instead.
  1. If you can write while your students are writing, that’s great. You don’t have to though.
  1. Be positive with your feedback. But be honest.
  1. Don’t have all the answers.
  1. Finally, celebrate other people’s writing. See for instance this tender love poem. Tess is not one of my students but I discovered her poetry during my residency looking at ageing at York University’s CoMotion Centre.

‘With My Hand in His Pocket’ by Tess Jolly

I will thread his shirt-button onto the lace

of a running shoe, that his heart

might find its rhythm on the moors,

that he might clothe himself in the fabric

of daylight, fasten a blessing of rain to his skin.


I will press each brightly boiled sweet

onto a leather tongue, that the wind

might blow across the tarn of his mind

and his stories whisper through seeds

of the cotton-grass, echo from cairn to cairn.


I will lodge his loose change in the sole

of a Wellington boot. Kneeling on the earth

as if rooting for head or hoof he’ll whistle

the old songs of copper and gold

to draw out the wildflowers, the difficult bones.


I will tie his house-key to a skater’s silver blade

that his limbs might remember

shapes they once formed to hold their balance,

that the winter shores might strengthen

and lock to bear his footsteps’ passing.


Though he is broken by what he has tried to break

and cannot break, though he sits

in the same armchair – fingers trembling

like the feathers of flightless birds

stranded in his lap pecking empty air –


though he has asked me to draw the curtains

and turn off the lamp, close the bedroom door,

I will remember his hand enfolding

my hand in his pocket as we walked

home from Scafell Pike, Striding Edge, Skiddaw.