Ask Art #1 – Creative Writing

Ask Art #1 – Creative Writing

Over the years, I have had the privilege to sit on “question and answer” panels at Charlotte Mason retreats and events. Many of the questions I’ve received were thought-provoking, impactful, and sometimes even moving. It is clear that many parents want a deeper understanding of Mason’s ideas, and want to see more clearly how these ideas could be better applied in their families. But not everyone is able to attend a Charlotte Mason retreat. So last summer, we invited our readers and listeners to send us their toughest Charlotte Mason questions. We promised that we would speak to these questions in an upcoming “Ask Art” episode. Now, several months later, we are providing our first question and answer.

I have seen how CM teaches writing… using narration/written narration and that developing in later years into forms like the essay or research paper, but I have not yet found much info on how she may have taught creative writing. Do you have any info on how that was approached (other than reading good living books)? Or where in her volumes that is addressed?

This is a great question! It is a tough question because the phrase “creative writing” is never used in Charlotte Mason’s writings. In fact, the term does not even appear in The Parents’ Review until many years after Mason’s death. The phrase does not seem to have become a common term until the 1960’s. For example, the British Plowden Report of 1967 stated the following:

In a growing number of junior schools, there is free, fluent and copious writing on a great variety of subject matter… Sometimes it is called “creative writing.”[1]

So if the phrase wasn’t used by Charlotte Mason, what about the discipline itself? How did Charlotte Mason intend for children to become “creative writers”?

First, it is important to note that Mason had a lot to say about how not to teach writing. Or perhaps it is better to say that she said not to teach writing:

‘Composition’ comes by Nature.—In fact, lessons on ‘composition’ should follow the model of that famous essay on “Snakes in Ireland”—“There are none.”[2]

One of Mason’s harshest criticisms is of a writing program which she said was an “offence against society.”[3] This program asked children to write an essay about an umbrella by answering such questions as:

  1. What are you?
  2. How did you get your name?
  3. Who uses you?[4]

Never one to mince words, Mason called “Such Teaching a Public Danger.”[5]

But if children were not to pretend to be umbrellas, did they have any outlet for creative writing? Or was written narration the only activity? A clue may be found in a sample of student work referenced in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

A girl of seventeen (Form V) answered the question: Write an essay or a poem on the Bread of Life, by the following lines…[6]

Mason then proceeded to share the poem written by the seventeen-year-old, which concluded with these lines:

“May He grant now that we may hear the Word
And harden not our hearts against the Truth
That Jesus came to teach: so that in vain
He may not cry to hearts that will not hear,
‘I am the Bread of Life, for all that come,
I have this gift, an everlasting life,
And room within my Heavenly Father’s House.’”[7]

I am sure than any home educator today would be delighted to have a child writing such creative and original poetry!

The fact is that the PNEU expected all children to write poetry.  One example is from the Examination for Programme 106 (September-December, 1926). Form III students were given the following exam question:

Write in verse (which must scan) upon one of the following—“Boabdil,” “The Grand Trunk Road” (Kim), “Constance” (King John), “Fallen Leaves,” “Of the Nile” (De Joinville).

Where were children to find the creative spark to write poetry on such topics?

Two years after the Plowden Report, a writer for the PNEU Journal took on this question. The year was 1969, almost exactly at the midpoint between Mason’s death and the present year. This teacher in the PNEU tradition explored the question of where a child might find the springs of creativity. I am pleased to share this article by Margaret Ronan today. It is found in volume four of the PNEU Journal, which was the new name given to The Parents’ Review in 1966.

I don’t believe this article is authoritative for Charlotte Mason educators today. As I explain in my article “Towards an Authentic Interpretation,” the heart of the Charlotte Mason method is found in her twenty principles, her own writings, and the teachings of those in her inner circle. Even so, a teacher in the PNEU tradition understood something in 1969 that we would do well to remind ourselves of today: the springs of creativity are to be found in the science of relations. When children develop relationships with nature, with living books, and with living ideas, their hearts overflow with written words. And those words will be creative. It will be creative writing.

Creative Writing
By Margaret Ronan
The PNEU Journal, 1969, pp. 156-158

‘Perhaps the most dramatic of all the revolutions in English teaching’, the Plowden Committee remarks, ‘is in the amount and quality of children’s writing. In a growing number of junior schools there is free, fluent and copious writing on a great variety of subject matter. Sometimes it is called ‘creative writing’. Its essence is that much of it is personal and that the writers are communicating something that has really engaged their minds and their imaginations. To this kind of writing we give an unqualified welcome.’

But how do we begin to teach it—if we can teach it at all? In the days when poets and story-tellers were trained in their art the teaching was done by practising experts. Must we wait for creative writers to teach the children now or can we do something about it ourselves?

One thing we must do is to attempt creative writing ourselves; describing an incident, a place or an emotion not in the half-true words that laziness would prefer but as vividly and accurately as we are able. A genuine attempt at this will rid us forever of the idea that creative writing must be a soft option because children enjoy doing it. It is a source of intense pleasure and satisfaction but, at the same time, it is difficult and can be exhausting. We will not reach the ‘height of feeling intellect’ Wordsworth wrote of in a few easy stages.

That it is worth reaching is becoming more and more obvious. Children who are closer than we are to ‘the freshness deep down things’ should be encouraged in every way to use that insight and keep the sense of wonder. ‘The crime against life, the worst of all crimes’, says the American poet Archibald MacLeish, ‘is not to feel. And there was never, perhaps, a civilisation in which that crime, the crime of torpor, of lethargy, of apathy, the snake-like sin of coldness-at-the-heart, was commoner than in our technological civilisation in which the emotionless emotions of adolescent boys are mass produced on television screens to do our feeling for us, and a woman’s longing for her life is twisted, by singing commercials, into a longing for a new detergent, family size, which will keep her hands as innocent as though she had never lived. It is the modern painless death, this commercialised atrophy of the heart. None of us is safe from it.’

Easy access to the printed book has helped to form our way of life but it has helped to deform it too. It has made it all too easy to do our living at second hand. Other times produced the poet, the philosopher and the craftsman; our own age has produced ‘the intellectual’ commonly known as ‘the egg-head’ and dismissed by Einstein as one who ‘has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest synthetic form—the printed page’.

Sense experiences, as many and as varied as possible, must precede any growth of the power of imagination. A child needs contact at first hand with the sharp smell and stick touch of resin in a snapped-off pine branch; the feel of dry sand trickling through the fingers and the firmness of wet sand under bare feet; running against the wind or in the rain; the rush of a cycle going fast downhill. There must be the chance to experience awe and wonder; light split by a prism into its rainbow colours; a city at night; jets coming in and taking off; a view from a height or through a good telescope or binoculars; contact with animals.

The list is endless. Some environments are far richer than others but none are so barren that we cannot reach to reality through them. Good pictures or photographs can be used to enrich experience. Music, story, films and poetry can all play a part in building up imaginative power. It is not that the printed page is to be despised; nobody but a fool would think that Einstein despised it when he made his scathing judgment on the so-called intellectual. It has a very great place in training the imagination and intellect but not the first place of all.

One thing to be wary of is attempting to force a response from a child. It is not only in our fingerprints that we are all different. What seems to an adult a trivial experience may be of fundamental importance to a child who lets other, apparently more significant, sensations slip away unheeded. We tend to forget that we very rarely know the origin of those images that have most influence on our own imaginative life. They may have been produced by something that would have seemed slight at the time to any onlooker.

‘Close your eyes and remember—or imagine’ can be a useful method of concentrating after the stimulus has been provided and enjoyed. Fears, fantasies and longings may be mixed up with the sense experiences; all these can be talked about but not for too long or there will be no drive towards written expression; it will have spent itself in talk.

Once writing has begun it can go on as long as it is absorbing. This will usually mean about fifteen minutes for a young child but it can last for much longer and if so should be allowed to do so. Older children need time before they begin to write in order to think and to relate things up to one another. They should not be rushed into writing and when they do begin they will want to go on much longer than a younger child.

A loose-leaf book is better than an exercise book for this sort of work. Something the child considers less than satisfactory can be easily taken out without injury to the rest. A fair copy can be made and inserted of some piece that is specially liked. Pictures can be included and the cover painted or decorated if the child wants to do this. Creative expression creates its own order—though this is not always apparent especially in the early stages—because if it matters to the one who is making it it has to be as good as it possibly can be.

Pencil is preferable even for an older child unless there is no difficulty in writing quickly with a pen. Usually a pen cannot keep pace with the flow of ideas and causes frustration. A good ball-point would not be out of place here; it is one of the places where it really justifies its existence.

Correcting should be done as far as possible by the young writer. If adult criticism is asked for and given it must never be negative. An adult writer would give short shrift to anybody offering such criticism; a child does not yet know how to do this and is more inclined to give up or to close in on himself. If a piece of writing is unusually clumsy its author may be trying out something new and adventurous which negative criticism could destroy.

Practical help can be given by explaining about proof reading and advising when work is being re-read. A piece of writing should be put away for a while before this is done. It is then re-read with an eye to spelling and punctuation, the child asking advice when in doubt and using dictionary and rubber to produce a more accurate and finished product.

There are books on the market that give ideas on teaching creative writing but they really say no more than is summed up in the remark of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, who said as long ago as 1894: ‘Teach them to think and read and talk with self-expression and they will write because they cannot help it.’

And if we succeed in training children to find expression in writing what have we achieved? They will have learned the importance of trying for sincerity and accuracy and boredom will be something they hardly understood. Boredom is the result of that lack of feeling castigated by MacLeish and is always dangerous. The bored child pulling the wings off a fly and the bored adult indulging in casual violence because he is ‘looking for kicks’ are destructive because of their own inner emptiness. ‘All our wonderful education’, D. H. Lawrence said bitterly, ‘is producing a grand sum-total of boredom. Modern people are inwardly thoroughly bored. They are bored because they experience nothing, and they experience nothing because the wonder has gone out of them. And when the wonder has gone out of a man he is dead.’

Children have a great capacity for wonder. To leave them in peace and not try to darken that vision is at least something. To respect and encourage it is better still. We may even begin to learn sincerity ourselves.

Miss G. Pringle, M.A., H. Dip. Ed., and Miss M. Ronan, Teaching Dip., are members of the tutorial staff.

Editor’s Note: The formatting of the above article was optimized for online viewing. To access a version which is formatted more similarly to the original, and which includes the original page numbers, please click here.


[1] See The Teaching of English in Schools: 1900-1970by David Shayer (1972), p. 158.

[2] Home Education, p. 247.

[3] Ibid., p. 246.

[4] Ibid., p. 245.

[5] Ibid., p. 246.

[6] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 168.

[7] Ibid., pp. 168-169.

3 Replies to “Ask Art #1 – Creative Writing”

  1. Oh my!!!!! Thank you for taking on this question and I look forward to whatever questions are upcoming! So many great, confirming nuggets here! I enjoyed the reminders to trust the method and to stay positive…to continue to expose children to good pictures, books, stories, poetry, music, nature and “sense” experiences to build up their imaginitve powers and sense of wonder and giving them things from and about which to write. Poetry is a beautiful writing expression which I know was promoted. I have wondered how or if Charlotte ever gave students avenues for imaginative story writing (not necessarily based from true life experiences of the author). I have had my students regularly write in a particular journal and for a set time, some aspect of an experience or time they shared over the previous week or weekend. I let them describe thoughts, fears, sights, sounds, people, events or whatever of their choosing without my correction. I sometimes ask them to include a particular poetic technique (onomatopoeia, metaphor, personification, or the like), which seems in line with what is shared here. I do also spend some time most years having them practice writing an imaginative short story and discuss things like plot, conflict, climax, and other ideas that make for a good story. I try to discuss these things and notice and appreciate good writing as we read, and especially as my children choose their copywork passages from their readings (“wow, wasn’t that beautifully said”, or “what a great metaphor” etc. I never really feel confident I am in line with CM in this area of writing however, so I really appreciate you taking the time to address this. I still have some questions, but found this article (as always), VERY helpful. My favorite quote, “When children develop relationships with nature, with living books, and with living ideas, their hearts overflow with written words. And those words will be creative. It will be creative writing.” Beautifully said! THANK YOU!!

  2. I enjoyed this blog post very much. I’m so glad you found it and uncovered it. Margaret Ronan’s importance of “sense experience” as a component to creative writing is a good point. It reminds me of the advice given to Louisa May Alcott to “write what you know” – advice we readers are happy she respectfully obeyed. Miss Alcott’s fairy tales are not remembered with as much fondness as her realistic fiction. Her novels are beloved by a great many. I also like Margaret Ronan’s next point in guiding a child to actually close his eyes to remember and imagine his experience. But what stood out to me as a novelty (but seems akin to Charlotte Mason) is her warning of too much discussion of a chosen topic so that it will not “have spent itself in talk.” I can see how a certain freshness is preserved when what is in one’s imagination goes directly to the page (almost in secret) with less preliminary talk. Writing in a quiet attic (as Jo did in Little Women) with a supply of apples handy, seems convenient for this. (I’m smiling.)

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