The Writers' Greenhouse offers practical, creative writing courses for adults in Oxford, UK. It's run by Megan Kerr, a published writer and experienced teacher.
The courses launched in 2010, but started their life years before that. When I wanted to learn more about story building in a way that wasn't inhibiting or rule-bound, I started creating games and activities for my own writers' group to play, so we could try out new approaches. These grew into the original twelve-week Story Elements course. From there, I developed an on-going course (the follow-on course) for students who wanted to continue getting input and feedback while they worked on longer-term writing projects, and gradually built up a growing selection of summer workshops, as well.
I’ve ghostwritten seven novels and pseudonymously published a novel, novellas, and short stories. Under my own name, I've published fiction in the BFS Journal, New Writing, and Open, and poetry in the BFS Journal and Haiku Quarterly. My magical-realist short story, "Rope of Words", won the 2012 BFS Short Story Competition. I've also contributed non-fiction and academic articles to Postmodern Culture, La Négation, and Filament. I'm currently working on a literary slipstream novel, The Artist and the Mathematician, for which I have received a Society of Authors grant.
Before starting the writing courses, I taught English as a Foreign Language for five years, specialising in advanced and proficiency levels for Cambridge Exams and in materials creation. My courses & workshops draw on this grounding in teaching methodology and practice. I have a Masters in English Literature from the University of Oxford, UK (where I now live) and a First in English Literature from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, where I studied, among other things, poetry with Stephen Watson and fiction-writing with JM Coetzee.
The teaching style for all the courses and workshops is based around discussion, activities, and games. These are designed to introduce the various ideas and principles, and allow you to try everything out. For example, I might give you a discussion card with a few questions to talk through in small groups, a handout to lead you through a process of developing an idea, or a group-game with cards as prompts. (Most lessons involve a combination of all of these.) They also often use other hands-on activities, such as quick collages, drawing with felt-tips, coloured post-its for arranging events, and so on.
This style of teaching is often called "process learning" and has valuable benefits. First, it engages your understanding in a richer, more nuanced way. For example, I could just tell you the principle that we generally want a sympathetic main character. In any class, a few sensible people would object and come up with counter-examples - rightly so, because it's only a principle, not a rule. Slightly better, but still not great, I could just tell you the pros and cons of having a sympathetic character. That way I'm giving you more nuanced information, but that's all it is: informtion. It's much more productive if you explore the effects of a sympathetic or unsympathetic main character and come to your own more nuanced understanding. Because you're actively enaged in figuring it out yourself, it's much more memorable - plus we avoid any easy overgeneralisations. What's more, you've already processed the ideas in class: they're not academic notions, sitting outside your writing; they're already tools within your writing process.
This approach is also inherently multilevel. In any class, even if every student had the same amount of writing experience, everyone would have different strengths and gaps. For some, a sense of place is instinctive, while others struggle to write description. It's impossible for a teacher to tell information at the right level for everyone simultaneously. Some will be hearing what they already know, and switch off or feel irritated; others will be missing out on essential basics and feel lost or frustrated. Activity-led teaching means you can use and explore simultaneously: use what you already know, to deepen your understanding with more subtlety, and explore and discover what's new. All the materials are very carefully designed with this in mind, to lead you through a process of discovery while staying open-ended enough different students can use them at different levels.
As well as these classroom benefits, this also means the process is much more natural: it's much more like what you'd actually do in your own writing. Everyone has different creative processes and we often need to change those up from time to time and from project to project. By emulating actual creative processes in class, we can explore and try out a wide range of different techniques. I keep the creative techniques as various as possible, so that you have a lovely wide repertoire to draw on in future.
The most immediately obvious benefit is obvious - and easy to underestimate: it's fun. Most of us have enough of a Protestant-work-ethic hangover that we're suspicious of fun, or at least think it can't be as good or useful as Hard Work. But fun is harder-working than we think, in several ways. First, imagine a group of people who love football and meet every weekend for a game. At the end of 90 minutes, they're all exhausted, sweaty, and grinning. They've also done a lot of exercise. Now, take the fun out. Analyse all the different exercises they did, the running, jumping, squatting, whatever. Instead of a game, just do 90 minutes of those exercises. With someone yelling and frowning at them. I can guarantee that they won't do as much, as fast - and they're much less likely to turn up next week. Fun doesn't mean the activity isn't worthwhile; it simply means we're enjoying it. Fun is a massive source of motivation, which is what gets you doing it again, which is how you get good at something. Second, having fun helps us learn better. Our brains prioritise things with "high emotional valence" - things that are emotionally intense. Fun is emotionally intense. So are pain, fear, and distress, of course, which is why we can bolt awake at 2am with the crystal-clear memory of that embarrassing thing we did 18 years ago, but not as good for learning, because your brain mostly says, very sensibly, "Nope, not going there again! Let's pretend that never happened." Fun also has other neurological benefits - it protects your brain from the effects of stress and it helps you build more connections. Thirdly, fun helps us try new things. All animals (and we're animals) are naturally neophobic, ie scared of new stuff, whether that's a new noise in the jungle or a new face at the window. Freaking out at something new is a survival mechanism. But if we want to learn new things, we have to become neophilic - ie love new stuff. That's where fun comes in. Because it's "just a game", because we're "just having a laugh", New Thing goes from scary to exciting. I've known about the teaching benefits of fun for years, but only recently, working with play expert and primatologist Isabel Behncke Izqueirdo, have I come to understand why it works so well.
So that's why, in the courses and workshops, I don't sit at the head of the table and tell you stuff. We have discussions, try out activities, play games, burst out laughing, scribble with felt-tips, play with post-its, and have fun. It works better that way. And it's more fun.
I've been obsessed with writing since I learnt to hold a pen. The sheer joy of writing has always been part of my life, but for years, whether or not my stories "turned out" was just luck of the draw. I looked at my family, all artists: they got to learn their basics, the colour wheel, principles of composition, how to create perspective… Why should writers have to work out everything from scratch? I didn't struggle with crafting prose, but I needed to learn how to build stories, so that's what I started working on.
I published my first novel under a pseudonym, as a trial run, and followed it up with novellas, short stories, and ghostwriting fiction, each one building my knowledge. By the time I was working as a ghostwriter, I'd learnt a huge amount and discovered some invaluable rules of thumb.
I also read widely about writing. Formulaic approaches irritated me - I wanted to learn, not write the equivalent of dot-to-dot. In others, the information was useful, but so inhibiting. How can you trust any of your creative instincts with a head full of analytical theory? I needed to process it before I could use it, but practising on a whole novel was such a risk. As well as ghostwriting, I taught English as a Foreign Language, and I longed to learn writing the way I taught my students: with process-learning, practising and trying things out; through discovery, not Being Told; playing games; having fun.
I started creating writing games and activities to play with my own writers' group. That let us develop our story-building skills, explore new ideas and principles, and try things out on play-stories, rather than using our novels as perpetual guinea-pigs for every idea. From there, I started creating workshops. I left my EFL job when my endometriosis meant I didn't have the physical strength to teach daily anymore, even for just two hours, and had to start freelancing full time. I knew I'd miss people too much if I was just working from home on my own, though, and I'd miss teaching too. So in 2010, over a remarkably sunny family holiday in Scotland, I lay on the patio in a cloud of midges, recovering my health and drawing up the syllabus for the Story Elements course, building on the games, activities, and workshops I'd designed. As well as creating the syllabus, I developed my guiding principles: writers get to learn their stuff too; no formulae; principles not rules; everything through process; have fun; writing is wonderful. The first Story Elements course started six months later, in January 2011, and my students' enthusiasm blew me away. The follow-on course grew out of that, at my students' demand, to offer a continued source of feedback, motivation, and input. This runs continuously, with "rolling enrollment" (you can join any term and come as long as you like) which any teacher will realise is a rod for my own back! But it works for the students. That means I'm continually developing new lessons and materials, in response to their needs and requests. After three years, I launched the Summer of Writing workshops, thinking I could draw on that wealth of materials. I do - but of course I also end up creating lots of new materials, which keeps everything fresh and me very busy!
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