The Power of Something Polished! Creative Writing

As I started reading Sonia Thompson’s Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence in Action, this quotation really reasonated:

It reminded me about how important it is to provide opportunities for crafting, drafting and redrafting in the classroom and reminded me how important it was to give learners the time and space to create something that they’re truly proud of.

You’ll see other posts on this blog describing a few approaches I’ve taken to teaching creative writing and this year I’ve adapted some of those approaches further. Through clear modelling (and high quality models), we have unpicked and unpacked how some of the best narratives can focus on not only some of the more subtle aspects of human experiences, but also the universality of our experiences, too.

From this, I’ve been really keen to allow the pupils a chance to gather inspiration from a range of prompts and sources. This book has been a brilliant resource in giving prompts and short exercises to allow pupils to move beyond obvious or clichéd narratives.

The San Francisco Writer’s Grotto have collated 642 brilliant writing prompts- some of them are funny, poignant, and out-there but the students love the possibilities it opens

We have spent a lot of time looking into a range of narrative perspectives and various structures for narratives, often using the same story but altering narrative viewpoint or structure to explore the various effects.

As a result of these lessons, students had a whole range of smaller pieces where they had exercised a particular skill. They were then offered time to reflect and refine and offered a 121 writing coaching session in class. I was really keen for the pupils to think deliberately about the choices they were making as a writer, so the responsibility for the direction of these meetings was placed on the students.

What followed was the production of our ‘ Polished Pieces’, which were shared across the class in this morning’s lesson. I am so impressed with the work that the pupils have produced and they are thinking so consciously and deliberately about the language, structure and form in their writing.

This piece was shared by one of the students, Dharma Martin. They had mentioned that they were really keen to utilise descriptions of setting for maximum impact, and I think you’ll agree that it’s certainly evident here- I think this is such a powerful piece:

Beams of moonlight cascaded through the stained glass window, scattering across the tiled floor and painting the dull beige with vibrant hues. Every gust of wind outside rattled the church, causing the ancient wood to groan and creak. 

Sat opposite the altar, Renn didn’t dare look up. Instead he scratched at his fingernails, peeling off layers of dead skin, hunched over like an old man depsite being no more than twenty. An iterative clacking sound reverberated around the lonely hall as he tapped and tapped his left foot against the tile. He was waiting.

Surely they’d arrive soon, he kept reassuring himself. After all, the message left in his bag this morning was clear: ‘Dear Renold Williamson, I have bad news. I implore you to meet me at Weatherbury’s Abbey at midnight. Yours sincerely, a friend.’

Renn knew it was vague – perhaps not to be trusted. But the frantic nature of the handwriting, the use of his full name, and most significantly, the mention of Weatherbury’s Abbey, intrigued him. Who was this stranger, he wondered. And how did they know so much about him? What was the ‘bad news’ they claimed about his future? And why did he have a sinking feeling that whatever omen he’d hear tonight would be worse than he could ever imagine? It was these racing questions that compelled him to go to the very place he had always prayed to forget about. The last place he ever saw his mother.

Flyers were plastered carelessly on every lamp post in town for that whole week in early July. Only seven years old, Renn’s sky blue eyes would widen every time he saw one. Mesmerised by the tantalising photos of candy floss and ice cream, he would stand there in awe, skipping past the audacious bold font reading ‘Annual Charity Summer Fair’. His mother, who always had a firm grip on her son’s hand when they were out and about, had to drag him away. On the last day of the fair, she gave in, and drove Renn and herself to Weatherbury’s Abbey. 

Ecstatic, Renn scrambled to find the bubblegum blue candy he’d been desparate for all week. Warm breeze rippled through the open windows, and his mother sat down at the side, blurring into the crowd of grinning families. The day waned gently, sunlight dimming through early evening, as the mass of people dispersed. Oblivious to the emptiness of the Abbey, Renn kept running around and playing with childish glee. He had assumed his mother was still there – she always was – until a grownup he’d never met asked him where his parents were. The tears set in, and his lips wobbled. 

In the present, a sharp voice snapped Renn back to reality.

“Renold Williamson?”

Opposite him was a towering woman with stern, furrowed brows and slices of grey cutting through her long, brunette hair. Renn could have sworn he’d never seen this woman in this life, yet something about her was offputting and familiar.

“Uh, yes that’s me, but most people call me Renn,” he said, words stumbling in response.

At once, the stress evaporated from the woman’s face, and she gently sat down beside him. Drops of tears formed in her blue eyes that glittered like pearls in the moonlight. 

“Renold,” she whispered through sniffles. “It’s me, your mother,”

Frozen, Renn could not bring himself to speak.

“You’ve grown so much,” she said softly, through a sorrowful smile. “And I’m so, so sorry I had to leave you.”

Emotions erupted throughout Renn’s mind, and he could feel the strain on his eyelids from staring too intently. Part of him hoped, or maybe feared, that this was all some weird dream. But the deafening silence was almost tangible.

“Why?” he mustered.

“I was sick sweetheart. Really sick. And I didn’t want to tell you because you were too young, so I left, and it was the worst decision I have ever made, and I understand if you hate me, but I just- I just-” she broke out into heavy sobs.

Never having been the comforting type, Renn observed silently as tears streamed down his mother’s face. After what felt like years, she recollected herself.

“You deserve a better explanation, I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath. 

“Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s one of the most deadly types of cancer. And, as you can imagine, I was distraught. I mean, I had so much to lose- I had you. So I tried my best to keep it together, act like it was all fine, but I knew no matter what, I would have to leave you. That was when you had Karla, the babysitter, remember? Because I would constantly have appointments at the hospital. It was all futile. Even now it’s like I can hear the apologetic tone in the doctor’s voice. But she told me there was another option.”

An nauseous pit formed in Renn’s stomach as he began to realise where this was going.

“She said that a company in the Netherlands was holding medical trials researching pancreatic cancer, to test a possible cure. And that I was eligible as a participant. And I didn’t know what to do – I never wanted to leave you Renold – but I also wanted to live past thirty six.”

She was cut off by her own uncontrollable sobs, and as her cries echoed throughout the Abbey, Renn was engulfed by the noise. Heart racing, he yearned to reassure her, but words failed him. Afterall, he never had a chance to learn how.

“I’m sorry,” he mustered.

Agasp, his mother took his hand.

“No, no, no Renold, this isn’t your fault. I’m the one who should be sorry. Because the trials? They failed. After eight years, they gave up, and now all I feel is regret. I just thought I should meet you, before I-”

“Die.” Renn interrupted. 

Not a sound dared disturb the truth that now lingered in the Abbey. Grief loomed in Renn’s stomach as he began to mourn a woman he’d never had the chance to properly get to know. How could she show up now, ten years later, after abandoning him? Why not just let him pretend she disappeared? He couldn’t lose her twice, he realised, mortified at how unbearable this ‘bad news’ was. Unable to bottle it all up any longer, he cried.

“I know,” his mother whispered softly as she wrapped her shaking son into a caring embrace. “But I promise that from now on I’ll always be there for you.”

A slither of sunlight peeked over the edge of the horizon outside, saturating the light from the stained glass with warmth and love. No longer eerie, the Abbey buzzed with opportunities.

“That would be nice.” Renn smiled. 

This second piece really works hard at dealing with some complex and difficult issues. The student here wanted to experiment with 2nd person narrative and the exploration of thoughts, feelings and emotions of somebody who had overcome trauma and difficulty.

February 7th 2012: I agreed to the terms. “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”. Believe me, I tried my best to keep those vows, to keep to that legally binding promise I made to you 10 years ago. Every night as I went to bed, I told myself that you loved me. I told myself that your intention was never to hurt me. I told myself that tomorrow would be different. Only telling myself that multiple nights each week proved that nothing ever changed; that every day was the same. 

March 13th 2015: The first time it happened. We always spoke about wanting kids. We both shared the dream of having a gorgeous little girl; you wanted a daddy’s little princess and I wanted more than anything to give that to you. With such a perfect few months of pregnancy, I never imagined that things would take the turn that they did. The miscarry came out of nowhere; it hit us at a time where everything was so seemingly perfect. It made the world, which seemed to be speeding in every direction, stop. Thinking about how to break the news to you was the worst feeling. There was no good way to tell you: I knew you were going to be heartbroken, and that made me heartbroken.  

Every moment leading up to the conversation was panic. How would you react? What would you say? Would you think it was my fault?. The last question especially played upon my mind. I thought about every one of my actions since the last appointment, thoroughly analysing them, looking for any reason to explain how this has happened. Despite all this, I really did think that you would be my shoulder to lean on whilst we both worked through this dreadful situation, as one unit. Together. However, your hardened, cool tone and increasingly bulging eyes took me by surprise. I watched as you walked across the room to our dressing table, took your fist and hit it across the mirror, leaving a small crack visible in the top right hand corner. Just like that, for the first time, I was scared of you.

I tried to forget about what happened that night. It was a side of you I never wanted to see again. But as the days went by, I started to realise how stupid I was for thinking it was a one time thing. I noticed the way you could no longer hold eye contact with me, and how the love that was once in your eyes for me was no longer present. You blamed me for what had happened: it was obvious. Every single conversation ended the same: me as the villain, you as the victim, and that poor mirror broken just that little bit more. 

Although there was nothing physical about your abuse, it was emotionally scarring nonetheless. I was the mirror, broken down little by little with each degrading, malicious and selfish action of yours until I was completely shattered. But piece by piece, I glued the mirror back together, adding my own little decorations to cover up the particularly broken parts. Yes it may not be perfect, and there may be a few little bits missing here and there, but that’s not what matters to me.

What matters to me is that when I look into the mirror, the remnants of glue among the many cracks no longer remind me of the damage that you did, but instead remind me that if I can overcome this, then I can overcome anything. 

This next student took inspiration from the book above and the story of how musicians on the Titanic continued playing as the ship was sinking. Another powerful use of setting and imagery. This piece is by Saba Jawad.

The sky is not visible from below the deck. Water is lapping at their feet, cold tongue licking their ankles, dampening trousers and skirts. Chaos encompasses them, people’s panic-stricken faces whizzing past in a blur. They scramble over stairs and long silks, clamber over loose baggage and each other. Nothing but screams fill the air. 

A little boy stumbles over, trampled by the stampede. He clutches desperately at a violinist’s skirt, gazing up at her with red eyes and a snot-covered face. His shirt is crumpled and pink, darker around the hem where the water reached, with white stripes along its back. Slowly, she puts a hand on his head, long fingers running briefly through short, damp strands. The boy relaxes for a moment, tiny fists clenching tighter. It’s like he wants to be held, but is too afraid to ask. 

The violinist knows he’s too young to feel this sort of terror, but there are only twenty lifeboats.

What can she do?

She raises her instrument to her shoulder and positions the bow on the strings. A sweet, soft lullaby plays through the lower deck, its low, almost sorrowful melody barely discernible over rushing water and screaming passengers. But it was there, streaming past heads and filling the air like the waves crashing and filling every nook of the ship.

The boy hears it too. He watches as each stroke of string on string sings note after note for him. As a child, he doesn’t quite understand it: the soothing pitch, the weight of each careful bar. Even so, he feels each poignant note course through his veins, through to his core, and he buries his heavy head into the violinist’s skirt. Tears and mucus smear on black fabric as he rubs his face with it. In a different situation, maybe she would push him away. But the water has reached her knees now and engulfed the boy’s shoulders.

What’s a little extra dampness going to do? A little snot? The thought barely crosses her mind.

Eventually, the orchestra takes her lead. A viola joins in, then a cello, the new instruments’ deeper voices harmonizing with the violin’s. At this point, most people have fled upstairs. The few that remain sit festering in morbid silence, leaving nothing but the mellow, mournful music of the orchestra. The sea is up to her waist now, coldness seeping into her bones, nipping at her skin. The grip on her skirt has long since disappeared. Though there is a floating body at the edge of the ship, small and pale, its face in the water. It dons a pink shirt, and from the corner of her eyes, she can see vague white stripes lining its back. She refrains from looking at that corner. 

When the water reaches her chest, the ends of her hair begin to float. With each slide of bow and string, her arm dips below the water, shivers in its cold embrace, then re-emerges, sleeve heavy and wet. The violin, too, becomes leaden on her shoulder. Sea water seeps into its holes, and its voice comes out muted and dull. There are footsteps thumping on the deck above, accompanied by muffled shouts and sobs. The despairing sounds of the upper deck overpower the stifled music, despite the endless gliding and plucking of strings. 

The violin now is too heavy to carry. It slips off her shoulder and floats away, escaping her shaky grip. Water forces itself into her mouth, imposing its salty taste onto her tongue. Her vision blurs in and out until she can’t tell if the wetness on her face are the waves or her tears.

Her body becomes light. The trembling stops. 

The water is black, but an open door somewhere illuminates its dark waves. Even as her nose dips under, she watches the glow light up the sea like a star. She looks up for a glimpse of the real stars, but her eyes are met with wood.

Ah, she remembers, as the water fills her lungs. 

The sky is not visible from below the deck. 

This next example really is stunning. The student, Isabella Montano-Freeman wanted to explore thoughts about transferring between different worlds. What impressed me most about this piece was the precison in the language used and the way that she described settings and characters so effectively.

As a child, my mother would tell me stories about otherworldly beings that would send their children to be raised on earth, in the hopes that the two worlds could forge a closer connection. To most, these were just myths, but to the small village I grew up in they couldn’t have been more real. The air was vibrant and swirling with magic that came from pure, unfaltering belief, weaving hope and ambition into otherwise ordinary conversations. I kept these stories locked in a corner of my heart so that they might be preserved for when I needed them most. Though I did not know why or how, I knew that those stories would play an important role in my life.

My favourite part of the day used to be sunsets. Cool, pale blue melting into a decadent array of colours, setting the sky alight with a hypnotic fire, and the steady retreat of the flames into a dark, silky cloak threaded with diamonds. As I watched the ethereal display, I would feel a tug in my heart as if it were yearning for a long lost life beyond the horizon. All this changed when I moved to the city. The unwavering hope I had left my village with drained away, and my quiet, breathtaking sunsets became polluted with office buildings and city noise and work until the solace I once sought in them was impossible to find, no matter how hard I looked. All the stories I’d been told, every feeling of being destined for something that couldn’t be achieved on earth began to collect dust in the depths of my memories as I settled into an ordinary, boring life.

Thursdays had never been my favourite. Too far from the weekend yet at the end of an ever-repeating cycle of work, they were a reminder of the monotonous routine seven year old me would have detested. As I did everyday, I threw my keys down, but something was off. There were flowers on the counter. Dark purple and velvety, petals falling away at the touch, they didn’t look like any flowers I’d ever seen before, but a story I hadn’t visited in years stirred in my mind – a legend about shadowy flowers leading you to where you truly belonged. Tucked into one of the blooms was a note that simply read ‘follow the flowers’ in silver cursive. To most this would’ve been absolutely ridiculous, but it only solidified my previous thoughts and I picked the flowers up – it was said that bad things could happen to those who ignored their invitation. In an uncomfortably alive fashion, the flowers rustled and bent at the stems, beckoning me to walk in the direction they were pointing.

I don’t know how long I walked for, but the blossoms had directed me to a deserted clearing far outside the city. The sunlight I started my journey with had retreated, leaving me shrouded in a layer of smoky lavender dusk and delicate, ghostly moonlight. I hadn’t even considered the sky in years, but a feeling of comfort creeped back. I welcomed it like a childhood friend, but my nostalgia was shattered as petals fell to the ground in a sudden flurry. Where they hit, small flames began to dance. It started as a playful line, but it quickly built into a raging doorway that I knew deep in my bones would lead to hell, but i wasn’t afraid. It felt right. Natural, even. All the stories I’d been told, the other worlds, the magic I once believed in so fervently was real, and I was staring straight at it, the culmination of what my village had known all along. It was not logic or reason that drew me toward the door, but rather an intrinsic, unshakeable instinct that had been embedded in my mind from the day I was born.

I expected it to burn. I expected myself to scream in pain or try and turn back, but the fiery inferno wasn’t painful or blistering. It was cosy, like the fire in a living room chimney, almost comforting. Flames licked at my skin like eager puppies, and feelings reminiscent of being wrapped in a blanket staring at a sea of stars washed over me. I never wanted to leave the protective, affectionate embrace of fire, the joy and familiarity of reconnecting with a long lost friend. Every sunset I’d watched, every story I’d locked in my heart, all the years I’d spent mourning a mystical life I didn’t even know I’d lost had led up to this moment. I was home.

This next example shows such skilful imagery of the wedding cake and tables- we had discussed the power of zooming in and out for maximum effect and Aronea Havall does this in a really assured and skilful way. I really enjoyed hearing this one!

The air above the rooftop was fresh and free, each breath as pure as the last and each cloud as white as the next. The waking wind cornered me as I gradually lifted my legs up, resting my head comfortably on the very tip of my knees. A bubble of safety caged me in as he lifted his arm across my shoulder and pulled me into his chest; I heard his heart beat rhythmically like a song I thought I’d never grow out of. Perhaps that was true but those beats now appear unknown. The feeling of relief and comfort coarsed around my body when I latched tightly onto his shirt, I had learnt to savour these moments. Husband material he said it was. Atleast now I know he lied. 

Gazing hopelessly into his deep blue eyes, almost as if I were lost and he had found me. Now I know all I saw behind the doors to his mind. Nothing. A perfectly positioned collection of light brown hairs sat comfortably on his head, dropping ever so slightly as each gust of wind fell through the air. I sat mesmerized by the sheer grace of his looks. ‘For you I’d never cut my hair’ he said with a promising tone.

I suppose he lied about that too.

Peering purposefully into the stained glass of the hall, I spot several catering stations. Sweet sensations bursting with flavour; shortcakes, cupcakes, some form of italian ice cream that I could never quite pronounce. A rippling, riveting and rapidly flowing chocolate fountain. Neverending, no beginning and no finish, everlasting sweetness complimentary to whichever partner it was suited to. Flawless strawberries, red grapes and marshmallows swirling into the vortex of dark hazelnut chocolate. Pristine fine china and silver cutlery paired with such elegance and intricate designs, something that only a prestigious man could afford. Tempting champagne bottles with a volcano of bubbles anticipating their eruption. And there it was, the grand finale. Five tiers. White icing. Sharp layers. Crimson roses. Drips of milk chocolate. The most gorgeous wedding cake carved exquisitely with the most luscious decorations condensed into each tier.

Stopped in my tracks, my eyes glanced further into the room. My thoughts came to a sudden halt. Written rather boldly in gold italics with a strong sense of audacity were the words ‘Liam and Leila, happily married’. My heart dropped further and further into the ground as I re-read each letter. My blood boiled; regret and jealousy pumped around my body as I stupidly glanced further into the glass barrier that seemed to be pulling us apart. Clenching my jaw, grinding my teeth and attempting to pull myself out of this coma of denial. An injection of envy with the highest dose of regret and confliction, stabbed into my spine in the same way I felt he had done to me. A shot of adrenaline pulsated from each muscle as I recklessly leapt up onto my feet, pacing up and down. Forwards. Backwards. Side to side. Desperately collecting my thoughts. Just like that I had spun into a spiralling mental state. This had proved to be the very bane of my existence. I could not escape. 

Minutes of heavy confliction passed when I returned to my original spot, staring into the glass that had weakened ever so slightly since I had left. But it was not long until I’d revert back into chaos.

He walked in. 

This next example really captures ideas about memory and the warmth of a parent-child relationship and it is written by Gemma De La Rey. I think the modification of certain descriptions here is really powerful.

I can still remember the first time he played it for me. Grass stains on my blue jeans; my fathers perfect smile that lit up every room. We danced around our tiny kitchen, giggling as I stepped on his toes. Swinging me round in circles in his big arms until I fell asleep, covering me with all his love.

I can remember one of his birthdays so clearly. I had saved up all of my pocket money, emptying out my piggy bank at the record shop, trading my pennies for a cassette tape. I skipped home, the sun smiling down on me. With my extensive crafting kit on hand, I decorated it with stickers; with my favourite pink sharpie, I labelled it as ‘Our Song’. That day, he drove me around in his little blue car, we played it over and over, singing at the top of our lungs, then watching the smiling sun set on the best day. I can still hear his perfect voice serenading me, surrounding me with all of his love.

I always regret my teenage years. I hid my heart from him: slamming the door on our once perfect relationship. He had always tried his best for me. I would hear our song, muffled by the walls I had built. Every time I shut him out, he would look at me with his perfect brown eyes, yearning for me to let him in and love him back.

I can remember sitting in the small hospital room, holding his big, warm hands, looking into his aged, brown eyes. trying to get him to remember every moment we shared. The nurse looked up at me. Tears flooded my eyes. She told me what I didn’t want to hear. ‘His memory will continue to fade.’

When I drove him home, that day, in my own little blue car. Playing our song for him. I was hoping for him to remember. Something. Anything. He looked up at me with his perfect smile, he didn’t have to say a word. I knew that I was forgiven, I knew that I was loved.

This final piece is by Pavitra Pradeep Kumar who really captures moments of panic, retelling a traumatic moment. I think you’ll really enjoy this one!

Safe

Red. That’s all Owen could see. The harsh red glare of the traffic light ahead of him. His quivering hands clutched the steering wheel and he averted his gaze, hoping to look back and be greeted with a warm amber glow. Red. Mum, he thought. He had to get to Mum. Owen’s eyes frantically shifted back to the light, only to be faced with the colour he had never wanted to see again. Red. His brain screamed at him, telling him to go, to slam his foot on the accelerator and never look back. And yet, Owen didn’t do anything. He couldn’t. The thought of his mother, his sweet mother, laying limp in a hospital bed had paralysed his body. A sudden siren had momentarily distracted him. An ambulance. Just like that something new, something horrific had come to mind; that could’ve been her. 

That’s all it took, his hands which were once merely trembling were now quaking at full force and the scarce amount of colour that had remained on his face had been drained. Tears emerged from his eyes and, in a weak attempt to prevent them, he pressed his eyelids shut. Through his slightly blurred vision, a cool green haze had caught his attention. After pausing for a moment to realise what that meant, the worn sole of his shoe hit the accelerator as his fingers hastily turned the wheel. 2 minutes. He was almost at the hospital. Even after all of that, the events of that dreaded phone call remained stubbornly at the centre of his mind. 

 Mum had a heart attack. No. Even now, as the battered silver car drew closer to the hospital, to his mother, Owen wouldn’t believe it. There was a chance that he would never hear her voice again, never get to hear the constant suggestion to fix his hair, to not slouch, to clean up after himself. The entrance to Parkland Hospital was drawing nearer and yet he found himself afraid. Afraid that if he were to go inside, that he would be faced with something much worse than a hypothetical. Afraid of what would happen afterwards, he couldn’t quite envision a life without her. It nauseated him even further to try. His heart knocked against his ribcage as the car surpassed the tall gates of the entrance as wet hot tears began to pour down, beginning to stain his wrinkled shirt. 

A new desperation had knocked out any tinge of doubt and now he was pulling into the closest parking spot, unbothered to check whether he had parked within the lines or not. Owen wrenched open the car door and climbed out, only for a strong sensation of unsteadiness to overpower him. Knees buckling, Owen’s fingers fumbled for support and found their way against the car window. As soon as his legs had paused in their consistent shaking for long enough, they made their way over to the pristine glass doors that had a burgundy sign with the word “Entrance” printed upon it. Without pausing, Owen pushed against them, making his way into the reception.

Immediately, he was engulfed by a crowd of people, all attempting to go in a different direction. Owen felt suffocated. They were all obstructions, prolonging him from reaching the reception. All he wanted was to know that she was ok, that she was safe. He couldn’t afford to waste any more time. As he lifted his head up, his focus fixated on the desk around ten metres away and his legs immediately started towards it. Mum had to be ok, he told himself that he wouldn’t accept anything else. 

“I’m here for Melinda Caddel. She was recently admitted because of a –  a heart attack. Um, I’m her son.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth, he wished he could take them back, wished that they weren’t true. The nurse paused, looked at him and began to reply. Owen held his breath, teetering on the edge of a shutdown. What if she wasn’t alright, he thought. What if he had missed his chance to say goodbye- he froze. Among the sentences of what the nurse was explaining to him, he had picked up on one. One that had made him stop thinking about anything else. Safe. She was safe. 

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