Reflections of a practitioner

Teacher, examiner, novelist - by Rebecca Mascull

We believe that the A-level Creative Writing workshop process is further enhanced if teachers of the course are writers themselves, taking part in many of the same processes as their students. Teacher, examiner and novelist, Rebecca Mascull, reflects upon her own experiences and influences.

My first novel The Visitors was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2014. It's been a long journey to get here. I was a teacher first, for nearly a decade, and I've been an examiner for AQA for almost fifteen years now. So how did my other jobs help me on my way? A very great deal is the answer.

In my first year of teaching back in 1996, I remember teaching Arthur Miller's The Crucible to a Year 10 class. We read the whole thing out in class – I usually ended up being John Proctor, as nobody wanted to read all his lines – and my word, we had the most wonderful time with it. It was a super class (I'm still in touch with one of the pupils, who is now a dear friend of mine) and we had the most marvellous discussions about the play, McCarthyism, witch-hunts in modern culture and the incredibly moving language used by Miller, especially in Proctor's 'it is my name' speech (which still makes me cry). We also did the brilliant Anthology poem Study No. X by Pierre Coupey – English teachers who have been around the block will remember that one. It was a curious poem and widely open to interpretation. Thus, it was great fun to discuss, as almost anything goes when looking for meaning in that poem. We talked about the poem looking like a DNA spiral, and one quiet lad told us about people near the Hiroshima blast being reduced to little piles of salt. Also in that class we studied the 'Caught in Conflict' groups of Anthology poems, of which my favourite was Twa Corbies – that image of the winds blowing evermore over the knight's bare bones has stayed with me ever since.

I loved teaching literature, media and creative writing during my teaching years. I loved interacting with the students and learning from them. Those classroom experiences – of reading a text, trying to distil it into themes and narrative structures, attempting to convey that to students – all of that process made me consider deeply how texts really work and why they elicit certain responses from us. All of this is crucial to the writer. When I came to write The Visitors, some of these early lessons found their way in there. You'll find my character Caleb playing a folk tune called Twa Corbies and the melancholy image of the abandoned knight in the ditch becomes a pre-echo of his later experiences in the Boer War.

Being an examiner for all these years has taught me so much too. Once upon a time, I was Chief Examiner for the now-defunct AVCE Media: Communication and Production; ah, those were the days. I used to write exam papers on such things as analysing media texts and investigating film. Both taught me a huge amount about genre in particular, and how audiences respond to them and understand them. I remember in particular reading a whole centre that had explored the westerns of John Ford and how he had used Monument Valley as his backdrop and palette – a lesson there on the huge importance of the setting as character, something I considered in trying to render Kent and South Africa in The Visitors. I once wrote a paper on Science Fiction Films and remember exploring gender roles in my research and reading some super responses on the topic from the candidates. My current novel deals with some of the issues – albeit back in the eighteenth century – but those lessons I learnt, about how males and females are represented in texts and how we respond to them – are still with me now as I write. Along with AQA colleagues, I co-wrote a text book on Teaching Television Crime Drama – not only did this offer me my first foray into publishing, yet also the topic itself afforded me ample opportunity to explore ideas of stock characters and narrative devices such as conflict and opposition. These themes have marinated in my mind and I know they surface from time to time in my novel planning and characterisation, particularly the idea of the enigma at the heart of crime drama, which found its way into The Visitors with the murder mystery and also the truth behind the Visitors themselves.

In 2013 I was very kindly asked to help choose a shortlist for the AQA Creative Writing competition. The entries I read were astonishingly good. I was amazed at how well structured the stories were and what brave topics the students had chosen. For example, there was one student who had written in an honest and unflinching way about a girl in the Holocaust and another about a WWI soldier. Also, the creative imagination of some of these entries was wonderful, from time travel to imagining oneself as an apple on a tree! Reading all this work reminded me of two things: firstly, thank heavens there is now a qualification devoted to the nurturing of such talent, namely, the AQA A-level in Creative Writing. And secondly, the future of British fiction is in safe hands if these talented students are anything to go by.

I continue to work as an examiner for AQA, as a Team Leader for GCSE Media Studies moderation, and every year I learn something new – about how texts are organised, how audiences respond to them and why they are successful, or not. All of this stuff is gold to a novelist. It has taught me about the crucial importance of plot, of setting and character, of how to manipulate audiences and ultimately do your best to satisfy them. Teaching and examining film has taught me about why some movies cause you to leave the cinema in a glow; when writing novels I have tried to approximate that feeling at the end of my narratives. Whether or not I've achieved it is up to my readers to decide. I do know, however, that being a teacher and an examiner have taught me what it is to love narratives, and I'm heartily grateful for that.