Joel Rickard, our Assistant Principal, interviews Abi Docherty, our Creative Writing tutor
Abi, you teach creative writing to our AS students. Tell us a little bit more about what you are up to with the students at the moment!
This term I am looking at some basic forms of story-telling with my students. We will be reading screen plays, theatre plays, poetry, and we will be investigating how to write our own TEDx talks. A lot of our work centres around getting the students to think about their own lives and who they are. The students are very bright and have produced some very imaginative work already.
Can you give me an example of some imaginative work that has impressed you in the class?
There is an enormous range of work that has impressed me at MPW. Last term, Rebecca Liu produced poetry and prose of a very particular depth, using language that was both sophisticated and highly imaginative. This month, we have been working on autobiography, and I have been really excited by the detail and the emotional honesty that students have brought to their work. This is a really good grounding for starting to write compellingly in poetry, screenplay and for stage. I am learning a lot from my students, and the intellectual exchange in the classroom is both warm and delightfully challenging.
That sounds interesting. It is obvious that you really value the creative process. How did you make the transition from this being an interest into something you have forged a career from?
Well, I started to write very early, the desire really arising out of my complete fascination with story-telling; perhaps because there were lots of story-tellers in my family. I was lucky enough to have a grandmother who read to me constantly, and I think I must have begun to associate narrative, theatre, and self-expression with something very important about the joy of communicating with people.
I had my first radio play produced at 15, and I think this was a very important thing for me; it showed me that my ideas had currency in the outside world. I still think of this when I am teaching, and I really believe that creative writing is an important confidence boost for any young person. I suppose my interest in writing is really a deep interest in communication, and how people work. As a profession, it is such a wonderful way to engage with people: it’s also a good training for almost every job you can think of. In my class, most students speak several different languages to a very high standard. I feel like my job is to really engage with these wonderful differences so that the students not only produce writing of a high quality, but also feel at home, understood, and that their cultural heritage is respected. I am also researching into the processes of creativity, and hope to begin a doctorate soon. I am particularly interested in the work of Jerome Bruner, an educational psychologist who believed that narrative and storytelling is at the heart of our identity- making at a very young age. I think creativity is at the heart of our humanity, and if we can understand it better and encourage everyone to access their own resources, both in the classroom and in the workplace, then this is beneficial not only to us culturally, but also, ultimately, for a thriving economy. I’m also interested in using visual storytelling methodologies to encourage students with dyslexia to feel freely creative, and to be able to participate in story making without any barriers.
No doubt you are an avid follower of film and theatre. What’s on at the moment that you would really recommend to young people?
At the moment, I would recommend seeing 'Paddington 2' at the cinema, and 'Dunkirk' on DVD. Although classified as a children’s film, Paddington 2 is a fantastic example of the very best in script-writing. Each scene is perfectly paced and has a perfect narrative arc of its own. You will also laugh like you’ve never laughed before. Dunkirk is one of the most astonishing films I’ve ever seen. The empathy one feels for the young soldier trying to get home across the sea is heightened by Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary visual landscapes. It’s both epic and intensely personal.
My current favourite play is Caryl Churchill’s 'Light Shining in Buckinghamshire', which is about the political revolution following the Civil War in England. It’s fantastically original, even after 40 years. She plays with the idea of social hierarchy, and gender hierarchy, in an ever-relevant way. Her language blows me away: the dialect of the play moves between the taut rhythms of dialogue, and sheer lyric.
But also, of course, King Lear, Hamlet, and King John, by William Shakespeare, are a constant source of inspiration and instruction. It doesn’t matter how many times you read them, whether you are at school, or later in your adult life, they are always resolutely beautiful, and constantly meaningful in different ways, as your life changes around them.
Abi, thank you for taking the time to talk to me – enjoy the rest of the academic year!