Having fun in Higher Education

On Saturday London Lit Lab taught the new Screenwriting MA students at Bath Spa University. We were invited to do an ideas-generating session. Zoe and I took the role of Idea Hunters. We are Idea Hunters, we said (not exactly out loud). How – we asked – do we find ideas? Where are they? Are they there? Are they everywhere?

This morning on the bus an elderly lady attempted to get on, just as two boys pushed past and almost knocked her over. You noticed it, but did you take the time to hold out your arm to guide her to her seat? Did you ask if she was all right? She might have told you about her journey to the bus stop and how the shoes she wears pinch her feet, and this bag she carries feels heavy today. You might have imagined what this journey is like for her: slow, painful, treacherous.

Did you pick up a newspaper this morning, and what did you read? A teenager is arrested after crashing into a crowd of people in Kent. What was his motivation? What came directly before this event, and what came after? What about the next ten years of his life?

We encouraged our students to open their eyes and train their minds, to notice happenings in their day, and let their imagination turn them into character or a story. To engage with empathy, and see the joy in simplicity. To let the world in. We gave them silly games to play, so they could stretch themselves by seeing the potential in the accidental and the oddly mismatched. We had them write to music, give a magic power to an everyday object, build a character from a magazine clipping of a huge beetle on hind legs or a man in tight swimming trunks.

The students were new to the MA and gearing up to spend the next year or two battling with a script, maybe even making a film. A lot of them will have brought ideas to the group already, long percolated and just about ready to boil, but we offered something fresh and different.

So often we stick with what we know we can do, and we do it comfortably, again and again. We don’t stretch ourselves. These kinds of exercises help you step out of the box, and experiment with the ridiculous. Both Zoe and I approach writing from different angles: she creates new worlds, inspired from folklore and fairy tales, whereas I tend to be more rooted in the real, often inspired by personal experience. It’s interesting working together because we tend to compliment each other and bring this variety to our teaching. We both learn a great deal from each other in the process, which is amazing.

Once our students had a handful of wild and wacky ideas, we asked them to sketch out a possible treatment. There were some good ideas generated, just from our morning session, and one student approached me afterwards and said he was thinking of developing his idea into a script.

We’ll leave you with the genius idea hunter that is author and short story writer, Jon McGregor, who has written a book of short stories inspired by writing prompts. This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. Here is his shortest:

Fleeing Complexity

Irby in the Marsh

The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.

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