Creative Writing at Kettle’s Yard

Well, that was quite a long time ago. February 28th, Friday. It was a workshop late at night, but awkwardly also dinner time for me. I had an early dinner with Terry at Prezzo by the river and headed to Kettle’s Yard for the workshop on creative writing. I was there quite early, well, around 7-8 minutes before 6 p.m., and there was already another participant waiting outside the gate.

It was a rainy day and surprisingly, I saw Rosie (who I know) who came and opened the door to us. Soon after I paid the 5 pounds workshop fee, Sophie, the workshop leader came and introduced herself to each one of us. The gallery space was now much different from last time, with the new exhibition ‘Art and Life’ being on show. And the exhibition would be the stimulus for our writing.

Well, I know I need to grasp every chance to practise my creative writing skills, and when I saw the workshop I immediately decided to participate. And it is in Kettle’s Yard, the contemporary gallery!

We each could have one drink from the so-called ‘mini-bar’ in the education room (which was in fact some drinks on a small table) and there were two to three volunteers who helped to facilitate the workshop. The assistant learning officer Lucy was also there. The first activity was much fun.

We were asked to walk around the exhibition on our own and to look at a particular painting (or pot) for five minutes and then start writing for around 10 minutes without stopping. One painting exhibited on its own just outside the education room caught my eye. And after I toured around the whole exhibition, I decided to go back to the painting.

This is the draft I created:

A mirror dumped, left alone by a lady.

Two supportive feet, can they be real feet?

It was the place that she used to making up, in front of the mirror, absorbed in her own world–a peaceful world, a world filled with elements from Nature: grass, garden, a little vase of violets. Though the mirror looks quite dumb, yes dumb, heavy wooden frames, a big size comparing to other delicate small accessories: her white bracelet, her accessories.

Now, it’s so quiet. She’s grown up. She has another well-furnished room, much bigger, with a big making-up desk. This little corner has been dumped. The mirror has been dumped. It is sad. The fake left from several weeks ago started to go bad, emitting a strange unpleasant flavour, but overlooking the garden, the mirror gets a good view. The lady seldom takes a stroll in the hard now. Before, she holds the mirror as a treasure, now she doesn’t even care to wipe of the dust away. In fact, she seldom comes back.


When I was writing, I did what Sophie asked. Just let the words flow, without too much thinking about structure and grammar. She read my little vignette and made a few comments. She said she liked the repetitive tone, and pointed out how the sound of some words really corresponded to the whole flow: the delicacy of “vase of violets” and heaviness of the word “dumb” itself. And the contrast between the past and the present.


It was after we created this little vignette that Lucy gave as a tour around the exhibition and highlighted the theme behind the exhibition. I was amazed that the two parallel pictures were painted by different artists who were looking at the same scenery. And how different they were! Especially the way Winifred Nicholson mastered the colours. I thought we were then going to work on the basis of what we had just wrote.

But we in fact did something else. We started to talk about creative ways of describing colours and Sophie asked us to think about a piece of childhood’s memory and to capture moments of particular emotional engagement. We then delved into writing for about 15-20 minutes and shared our writing.

This is what I wrote:

I remember.

I remember the rain drops clustering on the window panes. But they soon distorted as a group of naughty kids of “Wind” shouted hilariously. ‘Bump!’ I remember the bump. Then before I knew which dream I was chasing, my legs danced their way next to my head.

Strangely, it felt so quiet. We all crept out through the right side door, then onto the edge of the road by the mountain. Maybe it was then that I saw blood, mixed with glittering pieces of glasses. the blood was streaming down, slowly, elegantly, stylishly, on the limbs of my grand auntie and grand uncle. Everything got wetter, and brighter under the rain. I felt I was looking at an aquarium. The blood was streaming down, like watermelon-skinned goldfish, swimming in water. It was still raining. And I was so cold. My head still hurt. Did the window pane get stuck on my head? And I felt cold. I felt cold in my little shot purple dress. I looked down at my legs. They slowly turned purple as well. There I was, standing at the side of the water ditch by the mountain. I was like a little fig, lying on a vast piece of wet earth, covered only with half of the skin.


As I was writing, the image streamed in my head like a movie. It was the only car accident I had in my life when I was very young, but I could still remember it. And I volunteered to read the piece I wrote. I was the first to volunteer. Others captured beautiful moments of their past as well.

For the last proper writing task, we were asked to drop down a few words to summarise the whole impression of the memory and turned it into a succinct piece. I didn’t do well on that one. I wrote down “wet” and “helpless”. And the little piece:

‘Bumps’ window panes struck by my head inside

and rain drops outside

Looking at the blood streaming down

as watermelon goldfish in an aquarium

Little I in little purple dress

with little purple legs

A helpless half-skinned fig, lying at the foot of a mountain.

All wet.


Apart from these three exercises, I really liked the one of playing around with words to make up “found phrases”. The words were cut out from the letters that artists sent to Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard. I did a few and really enjoyed the event:

blueberries get lonely in the mist

a light secret glittering in dark water

writing fresh letter in the morning


It was an two-hour session. Two hours of reflecting and writing and experimenting. Sophie was very friendly, and humble person as well. I asked her what she does, and she told me she teaches creative writing in secondary schools with kids and she also runs a creative writing course at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. Oh, how I wished I knew that earlier. But hopefully it will restart later this year.


I shall write. Keep writing. And then I shall never be afraid of writing.


Three seminars that have something to do with museums

So, over the past few weeks, I attended three seminars. They all share something in common as they are all in some way related to museums.

The one that most impresses me was at my faculty (Faculty of Education) by a famous British illustrator: James Mayhew. I have not been brought up in this country, so I should be forgiven for having not heard him before. But his old work Katie’s Picture Show seems to be very famous. It is about the adventures of a little girl in red in art galleries where she interacts with the characters and landscapes in the paintings. Many of James’ later works also embody his central philosophy of making art: to make classic work more accessible to young audience. Well, maybe all audience. His presentation was straightforward and he seems to be a very genuine person. The highlight of the seminar was his demonstration of his recent projects: in situ painting in response to classic music. He first narrated the story behind the Finnish piece of music: a folklore story about a young Finnish guy in a village. The scene he depicted within less than 10 minutes proved to be the darkest place as described in the story where the hero was confronted by a swan in a lake. If he fails to shoot the swan before hearing the swan’s voice, he would die miserably. Magically, James used watercolour to create the horrible dark place on a piece of black paper. He simply used the colour of blue and white.

If this seminar is centred around the question: how to make classic work (be it fine art work, music, famous literary piece) more accessible in the form of illustration, then the second seminar organised by the Digital Humanities at Cambridge seeks to address the concern: what are the challenges and promises of the application of digital tools in evaluating visitor experience at arts and cultural events? The big philosophical assumption is: we have best access to our subjective feelings. But how can research approach visitors’ experience? The researcher from the Warwick university claims that traditional computer programmes fail dramatically in marking twitter comments. But beyond their failure of ‘correctly’ coding the comments, I wonder to what extent the portion of negative/positive/neutral can tell us about visitor experience? As the researcher mentioned, when people make comments on twitter, they usually have their own readers in mind. They could be talking to their friends and close families and use a lot of slang words. Therefore, many comments could have little to do with their actual feeling about the event. And though we are now better equipped with digital tools, can they really help us? When people smile within the visual fields of the machine that captures automated smiles, does it really mean that they are ‘happy’ with the event? Maybe the picture is that technology does help to ‘obtain’ massive data with relatively little effort, it is after all ‘fragments’ and even ‘false impressions’. Digital tools can only be ‘add-ons’ and it is almost impossible to replace human-involved research with computers, Apps and other smart technologies.

The third seminar is the one I attended this afternoon at the English Faculty by the Cambridge Performance Network. Usually, the seminars they organise are about dramas and theatre. But this time, it was by an independent curator who worked at the Natural History Museum, London. Well, honestly, I didn’t like the seminar. The drama studio is not a proper place for such seminars. The chairs are quite uncomfortable and the seminar is basically a lecture, and a very long one. I would agree that the presenter might be a very good curator, but she is certainly not a good presenter. The powerpoint slides are full of words and she just talks in such a monotonous tone and it was really hard to get myself focused for over one hour. And though they arrived 15 mintues before the seminar (I was even earlier), they still hadn’t done enought preparation. She didn’t test the CD-Rom and she didn’t even connected the power. So, we had to wait for quite a long time twice in the middle of the presentation. Fortunately, there were drinks to direct people’s attention. But not my drinks… The talk was filled with professional terms and was not organised in an engaging manner. She promised to talk about her ‘curating’ as a process, but the major focus seems to be on the introduction of how the artists worked on the project. She didn’t talk too much about her efforts during the process, which I was most interested in. So, it was rather disappointing and I left once the Q & A session kicked off.

Anyway, all these seminars are helpful and it is good and pleasant to know that many interdisciplinary works are being done in connection with museums. And I come to realise that being a good presenter is extremely crucial. Otherwise, it is difficult to communicate one’s thoughts and works. Well, I have to work on that. And I have signed myself up for two occasions already. More preparations and more practices ahead!