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Friday, 10 December 2021

Thoughts on a Year of Creative Writing

Lyndon Riggall, fresh from assessing Creative Writing papers, celebrates the up and coming young writers who are inspired and able to contribute to the wealth of Tasmanian storytelling that we all celebrate and continues to make a mark on the Australian publishing scene. 


In 2019, a review of VCE English recommended a significant overhaul of its program when it was discovered that the essential skill of creative writing was not being taught with enough depth. In Tasmania, we are lucky that we have the dedicated TASC course of English Writing to fill this need, which is double-blind marked at the end of the year through an external folio of work. Students who choose the subject are typically passionate storytellers who wish to develop how they express their ideas—an ambition evidently fulfilled by data that indicates a high level of university success for those who have graduated from the subject, and arguably a demonstration of the power of developing the specific skills of editing and expression that the course provides.


Having taught the subject again this year and marked folios over the last few weeks, I thought it might be valuable to offer some general reflections on the progress of our up-and-coming writers. Certainly—as in years past—our top wordsmiths continue to demand to be noticed, and marking for the subject often leads to an assessor wishing that they knew the identity of the student simply so that they could track their ongoing success and career. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that Tasmanian Year 11 and 12 students push their writing into areas that offer depth, relevance and originality, with many pieces featuring diverse protagonists, updating traditional narratives so that their meanings are more relevant in a modern sense, or crafting visions of dystopian futures that highlight the challenges of the way that we live now. Another particularly exciting development is that young writers appear to be increasingly experimental in their use of form. Several stories that I read this year featured a kind of multi-modal design, using text messages presented throughout as characters conversed, or including in their pieces found documents to build a world in a similar manner to writers like Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff in The Illuminae Files.


When students were asked at the beginning of their folio to nominate works that had inspired them, there were some excellent examples, including iconic Tasmanian writers such as Robbie Arnott, Richard Flanagan and Danielle Wood, all of whom capture a sense of voice from this island in a way that students clearly strive to emulate. That said, many of the cohort found that they struggled to name any literary influences at all, or offer anything deeper in terms of inspiration than a list of what they had recently watched on Netflix. I have always maintained that a writer who does not read is like a chef who refuses to eat: they will succeed, occasionally, but it will be more as a result of good luck than good management. The struggle of encouraging our young people to engage with the written word recreationally continues to be an English teacher’s toughest challenge, but the best student work this year clearly demonstrated that amongst all of the competing demands for our time (and theirs) there is still, always, a place for literature. 


Over the next couple of years, English Writing is being reinvented. This is an exciting opportunity, but it also comes with a level of danger. I have listened to the young writers of this island and heard their stories, and many of them express that it was in this subject that they found the self-assurance to tell the tales that have been bubbling away inside them. Perhaps a teacher shouldn’t admit to having a favourite class to teach, but the truth is that mine is this one: for the diversity and originality of the work produced by its students, for the confidence they build in their ideas and their own sense of self, and for its simple shared love of story. Having reflected on the power of the pieces that I have had the fortune to read this year, I sincerely hope that fundamental to any new course is one simple philosophical underpinning: that this classroom is a place where students feel safe to find their own authentic voice.


Lyndon Riggall is a writer and teacher from Launceston. He can be found on his personal blog at http://www.lyndonriggall.com and on Twitter @lyndonriggall.


Editor's note: I have just finished listening to an interview with Robbie Arnott, winner of the Sydney Morning Herald Book of the Year Award, where the quality of Tasmanian writing is acknowledged. From Lyndon's observations, this looks set to continue.

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