Process with Phil Cummings
Writing process is such a personal thing. No surprise there. On the weekend, I was fortunate to attend a literary breakfast and workshop with Phil Cummings, a prolific Australian children's author and wonderful storyteller. His writing includes poetry, novels, picture books and now music. The insight that he offered into his process got me thinking (again) about my own process, and of course the process we share with the students in our classrooms.
Phil spoke about developing a sense of place. He does this by starting with a word, adding more words and description. He spoke of "creating a window into a world" as a writer, using words as a starting point. In the workshop, we started finding words and description before we even got to the place, collecting words for the things we would take and then adding description, including simile and metaphor, to these words. We then unpacked the journey in the same way, then arrival at the place and so on, until we arrived home again. By the time we had done this, I had two pages of ideas and rich description that I could put into a story. Not perfectly crafted sentences, but precise words and rich detail. I can see this working so well in a classroom. Words matter mightily when telling a story.
I'm going to try this process myself. I've always looked for words as I write, in the drafting of a piece, often getting stuck in a place as I search for the just-right words. I'm an architect writer - I draft slowly and carefully. But I advocate for kids to be blasters - to get their ideas out in one hit, then come back to revise. Perhaps this way of working with words as a part of planning will support this fast and furious drafting? I dare say it will also support those kids who need more words. What excites me most about this idea is that it will also offer insight into the brains of other writers in the room; we will all be looking at a place through the same window but seeing very different things, and finding a diverse set of words and description within it.
I was recently working with some writing teachers about the process in the world of kindergarten and year 1 students. The process I bring to students goes from THINKING to TALKING, PLANNING, DRAFTING, REVISING, EDITING and through to PUBLISHING. Although the process can be more rigid in the early years, students become autonomous and find their own process as they develop as writers through primary school. I like how Phil's process shows a blurring of these lines. He called for us to always ask questions of everything we write - another way of bringing talk into the process with young children - and another way to blur those lines between planning and drafting and revising.
This idea of developing a sense of place is something Nadia Wheatley also spoke about when I attended a workshop with her a while back. Her writing is often grounded in place, and she shared her process of detailing place as essential to telling a story. This provides great opportunity for students to write about places that are in their lives and matter to them, sharing those places as writers. Phil also spoke of telling stories of the everyday - we don't need to have grand adventures or misfortunes in our lives to write about. We can only tell our own stories, and it is so powerful for our students to do so. As the saying goes, it isn't what we write about that matters, it's how we write it.
These ideas presented me with a great opportunity to rethink my practice and reflect on my own process. What a gift.
Shout out to ALEA ACT for organising this event.