By Professor Craig Batty and Dr Claire Corbett
How might creative writing help a group of counter terrorism officers go about their job? This might sound provocative, but it was a real outcome of a recent workshop that we ran for the 2020 Sydney Festival. Whether we are alarmed by climate change, concerned about biosecurity or worried about the potential threats of big data collection, ‘Scripting the Future’ drew on our collective experiences in screenwriting, speculative fiction and story world building to help participants imagine a personal, political, social and/or environmental future – using fiction to better understand the complexities and implications of this imagined future.
The workshop was intended to bridge creative writing with ‘real-world issues’ – an experiment to test ways that creative writing might provide useful methods for professionals outside this field and find a broader home in the ARC’s ‘engagement and impact’ debate. While areas such as design (‘design thinking’) and filmmaking (as a tool for dissemination) have more obvious potential for non-academic engagement and impact, creative writing can often be left on the shelf. But we know from our own experiences that there is perhaps no better way to get to the heart of a social issue than fiction – and specifically here, speculative fiction TV series.
In devising the workshop, we wanted to allow participants the chance to explore future selves, lives, technologies, objects and human interactions through imaginative story development and writing. We posited that this would give them an insight into a possible future – indeed, through fictional characters, a potential ‘lived experience’ of what is not yet known. This certainly came out of the workshop, with characters, plotlines and themes that spoke to the anxieties, fears, hopes and dreams of our current lives. It was a real experience in truth being stranger than fiction.
The two-hour workshop comprised two parts – theory and practice. In the first hour, we introduced ideas of speculative fiction and its use in contexts such as the military, and the centrality of story world building in TV series. Next we put participants into small groups and asked them to choose an issue (e.g., climate change, big data), and guided them through a series of tasks – creating a story world, devising dramatic questions, developing central characters their series arcs/journeys.
From the post-workshop survey, we know that participants were aged between 17 and 70; some were students, and some were retired, but many worked in managerial roles, namely in the public service, media communications, teaching and journalism. Feedback described the workshop as ‘stimulating’, ‘innovative’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘intriguing’ and ‘inspiring’. There were also calls for a longer workshop – we think an all-day or two-day event could be a real possibility, with groups developing a more fully-fledged series idea that really gets into the depths of character, theme and plotting.
One of the most interesting developments to come out of the workshop was a follow-up request from the NSW Department of Communities and Justice’s Office of Community Safety and Cohesion. Members of the Countering Violent Extremism team had attended the workshop to see how they might use fiction and other creative interventions to plan possible approaches to understanding and managing terrorism threats. They invited Claire Corbett, an accomplished speculative fiction writer, to attend an upcoming planning day to discuss how sci-fi writing might tell us something about potential violent extremist and terrorist acts of the future. While an unexpected specific outcome, this did provide real evidence for what we already knew – the power of fiction to offer us complex, nuanced and emotionally truthful understandings of our world.
We asked the team if they would be willing to share their reflections on our approach, for this NiTRO article, so that we could give readers a sense of how indeed creative writing might work within engagement and impact frameworks. They were very happy to help, and so here we present a response from the staff member chosen to represent the team’s experience:
‘The workshop seminar blew my mind, not only because it challenged my thinking but if I’m being honest, it scared me, and it made me uncomfortable. I realised though this is a good thing. As public servants we should be in a constant state of discomfort. Although some dystopian literature can suck the hope out of you (my first impressions of it), it made me realise we are way too comfortable where we are as public servants. We’re too used to doing things the same old way, thinking of the same solutions to ever changing problems.
As Yigrette in Game of Thrones put it, ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ – and it’s true, we really know nothing, but we can thanks to dystopian creative writing. How? Because just as we are witnessing currently with the COVID-19 crisis unfolding, dystopian literature and creative writing reminds us that the environment we are working in is constantly changing, ever unpredictable. To be in a state of comfort is to assume we have planned and prepared the best we can – we haven’t.
Dystopian storytelling is speculative, but it can be beneficial for the public sector because it encourages revolutionary, creative and strategic thinking that not only aims to solve problems differently, but also frames the problems differently. Our future is unpredictable, but having access to and reviewing dystopian stories will help us prepare for the unpredictable and perhaps help create a clearer picture for our political and social futures.’
With COVID-19 set to change the way we live our lives for a very long time to come, this approach to imagining and dealing with the future (or future-now) is perhaps even more important. It would be interesting to run the workshop again to see what ideas emerged. Which story worlds are important to us now? Which characters could explore our anxieties, fears, hopes and dreams? How might we plot our way out of this?
This workshop offers just one small of example of how creative writing can be used in new settings to engage with non-academic audiences, and we think it has the potential to be scaled up, documented and written about for research purposes. Ideally, of course, some of the TV series ideas could also be pitched to industry and commissioned. We certainly need these stories right now.
Professor Craig Batty is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. He is the author, co-author and editor of 15 books, including Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2nd ed.) (2019), The Doctoral Experience: Student Stories from the Creative Arts and Humanities (2019) and Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (2018). He has also published over 70 book chapters and journal articles on the topics of screenwriting practice, screenwriting theory, creative practice research and doctoral supervision.
Dr Claire Corbett is a writer, author of the novels When We Have Wings (shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award and the Ned Kelly prize) and Watch Over Me (both published by Allen & Unwin) and a number of short stories. Her story Aftertaste was shortlisted for the 2019 Margaret River Press Short Story Award. She also writes essays and creative non-fiction, with The Last Space Waltz shortlisted for the 2012 ABR/CAL essay prize. Claire teaches Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney, is on the board of Varuna (the National Writers’ House) and is the fiction editor of Overland literary journal.