Creative writing through a MoMA inspired art activity

Here’s my final project from the Museum of Modern Art’s Art & Activity MOOC. Unfortunately, I got a fairly mediocre score for it in the peer assessment with strange remarks such as activities that require imagination should be done only with children and teenagers. But then MOOC peer feedback is oh so competent and credible. In any case, I’m quite happy with this activity. Chitra Ganesh spent a month in a gallery in South Bombay creating an installation that combines Bombay inspired motifs with science fiction – that’s when I first heard of her. She’s quite a remarkable artist. I chose an older work of her’s from a MoMA gallery in New York. 

  • Subject: Creative writing
  • Target grade level range: Adult learners
  • Theme: Narratives in art
  • Artwork selection: 


6FED-620 35_The_silhouette_returns_detail in18-her-silhouette-returns-detail

  • Artwork title: Her Silhouette Returns
  • Artist: Chitra Ganesh
  • Date: October 1, 2009 – April 5, 2010
  • Materials: Cut paper, colour washes, sequins, glitter and found objects.
  • Activity Description:  What will the students do? What are the goals for the activity and how does the activity connect to the work of art? Students explore feminist iconography in a visual narrative that transgresses conventions in a scaffolded sequence of activities that leads to the creation of a piece of creative writing which is similarly unbounded by norms. Students will be encouraged to analyze and reflect on the artwork through close looking and then imagine and create their own visual narrative by focusing on a less obvious detail/part of the work. Finally, students will transform their visual narrative into writing.  
  • Reflection: What will your students (or participants) create in response to the activity? For example, will they share photographs, drawings, texts, or other documentation? Students will produce a short piece of prose fiction by developing deeper connections with the narratives representing artwork and creating meaning by producing a written narrative.

Briefly describe how your artwork and project theme connects to the overall grade curriculum.  

Art can be a powerful way of overcoming creative blocks in writing, inspiring spontaneity in ideas and originality of expression that transgress conventional styles and themes. Chitra Ganesh’s Her Silhouette Returns is an unconventional, surrealist installation that simultaneously tells multiple stories and stories within stories, and does so in a way that grabs the attention of viewers and engages them in a powerful sensory experience. These are skills that creative writers aspire to in their own work. The artwork is complex and contains a number of pop references (glam rock and kitsch of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and feminist motifs which adult learners will enjoy exploring. Her Silhouette Returns is particularly apt for the context of a creative writing workshop because the artist was originally inspired by literature – The Silhouette in Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ 1980s graphic novel Watchmen. In this work The Silhouette is a superhero who is discriminated against and murdered for coming out as a lesbian. Ganesh herself is interested in “buried narratives which are excluded from the official canon” and the work suggests “links between myth, ritual, and high and low culture as well as connections between countries and continents.” These elements combine to create a rich source of inspiration for creative writers who are learning how to break staid approaches, styles and plots in their writing.

NB: The factual information and quotes in this paragraph are sourced from an Exhibition Press Release by PS1.MoMA; accessed on July 30, 2014.

Describe two activity goals of your assignment and explain how they connect to the work of art.

To analyze less obvious details in the artwork and reflect on how they create narratives within narratives that collectively compose a surreal and complex work.

The artwork contains many strong and startling elements. There is a risk that these will overwhelm students to the detriment of smaller, intriguing details. Since the artist herself is interested in subaltern narratives, the activity’s goal is to encourage close looking at a variety of narratives including those based on smaller, less obvious details in the art work such as the distinctive pattern of eyes or the portal in the wall which reveals what is perhaps an unrelated work on a distant wall.

To imagine the progression of these narratives and create a visual storyboard that can then be transformed into a piece of prose writing.

The artist set out to narrate a number of stories through the artwork with a focus on ‘buried narratives’. The activity aims to help students uncover these buried narratives by visualizing the artist’s process in establishing multiple stories and how they came to be. The process of uncovering buried narratives which is a key element in coming to terms with this artwork, mirrors the process of discovery and development of ideas by writers.

Write clear instructions for how another teacher should lead your activity.

This activity has three phases: 

Phase 1: Close-looking through a memory activity

  • Ask students to look at The Silhouette Returns for 1 minute.
  • Put students in groups of three and ask them to turn around so they have their backs to the artwork.
  • Ask students to share what they remember from the artwork without looking at it.
  • After three minutes, have them look back at the painting and ask the following questions: 
  • – Which elements did everyone in your group remember?
    – Which elements did only one of you remember?
    – Which elements did none of you remember?
    – Why do you think you missed these details?
    – Do you notice more details now? What do you see?

Phase 2: Imagining through a visual narrative

  • Ask students to individually choose a single element or part of the artwork for example, the grass at the bottom, one of the butterflies or the face to the far left. As an optional step, distribute viewfinders if available to enable them to do this.
  • However, the detail they choose should not be something that they remember during the preceding activity. It should be something that they noticed when they looked at the artwork for the second time.
  • Ask students to focus on this one element for 30 seconds.
  • Distribute visual storyboards.


  • Ask students to start with the box on the far right. Without looking at the artwork, try to recreate the detail they were looking at.
  • Now have them to look back at the artwork and ask the following questions:
  • – Do you think your drawing is similar to or different than the original?
    – How does that make you feel?
  • Ask students to focus on their drawing and imagine what happened before this.
  • Get each student to fill in the three frames in the storyboard describing what happened before. 
  • When students have completed their storyboard, have them compare it in pairs.
  • Ask the following questions:

– Were there elements in your partner’s work which strongly reflected the themes and styles of the artwork?
– Were there elements that were dissimilar?  Did you find this unexpected or surprising? Why?

Phase 3: Transforming into a written narrative

  • Ask students to consider each of the frames as milestones in a mini-narrative arc: exposition, rising action, climax and resolution.
  • Give students time to write a paragraph on each of the frames in the storyboard narrating the story. Depending on the profile of the students, you may want to stage this activity with prescribed time limits for each frame/paragraph. Let the students know that the word ‘paragraph’ here is not meant to limit creativity but merely provide some guidance and students should interpret it as they see fit in the context of the story they are creating.
  • When students have finished writing, give them a couple of minutes to go over their work.
  • Now ask students to stick their writing on a blank wall in a manner that replicates the position of the detail in The Silhouette Returns which they used as a prompt.
  • Ask students to read at least three of the stories of their peers.
  • Wrap-up by asking the following questions:

– How close were the stories to your original impressions of the artwork and the narratives you thought it represented?
– Was it constricting or liberating to use a detail from the artwork as a writing prompt? Why?
– How has your perception of The Silhouette Returns changed after reading these stories?


Facilitators can evaluate student work from this activity in two ways:

  • Ask each student to answer this question – How has the installation piece – The Silhouette Returns – influenced your writing in this story?
  • Collect all stories and provide delayed feedback using creative writing rubrics.

A 10 minute play | A staged script writing activity


Here is a series of writing exercises inspired by a recent workshop I attended. The activities are staged and ramp up to writing a ten minute play.

Exercise 1: Imagining the setting

Atmosphere is extremely important in theatre and setting the right atmosphere lets the writer breathe life into his/her work and world. In this activity, ask Ss to choose one of the following items and spend 2 to 3 minutes closing their eyes and imagining the space.  They should explore the space fully in their mind in three dimensions. Then ask them to write about 50 words describing the setting:

  • Abandoned lift
  • Attic
  • Seashore
  • Derelict building
  • Psychiatric ward
  • Deserted street

Exercise 2: Creating a character profile.

Now, it’s time to populate this world with people. To get Ss to start thinking about robust character development, ask them to think of a character that might belong in this setting. They should fill the gaps in the following statements to sketch out this character’s profile:

  • I was born _______
  • My first memories ______
  • I remember my mother ________
  • I have been to ________
  • Since 7 ‘o clock this morning _______
  • I love _______
  • What interests me now is _______
  • I cannot understand why _______
  • I have been reading _______
  • I wish _______

Exercise 3: Dialogue with strangers

Ask Ss to work with a partner. They should choose one setting from the two they have between them and create a dialogue in this setting between their two characters. However, pairs should write a single script in a turn-wise manner. For example, A writes a line for his character and passes the notebook to B who then writes a line for her character and passes it back to A.  This interchange continues until the dialogue reaches a natural conclusion.

Exercise 4: Building out a dialogue

Ask Ss if they know what the word ‘conflict’ means. Elicit meaning beyond fighting and point out the role of conflict in a story. Ask Ss to work individually to describe a setting in one line; two characters A & B – who are they? Age? What do they do?  Then write a short dialogue between A & B in this setting that involves conflict.

After you get some Ss to read out their dialogues, elicit how conflict makes stories richer and more interesting to listeners and readers.

Exercise 5: 10 minute play

Stage 1: Hand out chits of paper and ask Ss to write a full name on it as well as the person’s professions, likes & dislikes and  hobbies. For example Neha Rodrigues, swimming instructor, likes movies & shopping, hates fast food & strong perfumes, loves solving jigsaw puzzles.  They should write three character prompts each.

Collect all the chits into a pile. Now repeat this procedure with these prompts:

  • Setting – should be quite specific – not just “room” but what kind of room and where it’s located.
  • Prop – this is an inanimate object which is positioned on stage during the play.
  • Object – this is an item which is referred to in the dialogue and may not be physically present on stage.
  • Dialogue – A single line of dialogue.

Ask Ss to now pick one prompt from each of the piles except the character pile from which they should pick three chits. They should have some wacky ideas for creating a short original play.  You may want to share a structure to help them write the 10 minute play.

Structure for 10 minute play:

  • Word count: Around 15oo words
  • Jump straight into the action – don’t spend time setting context.  Think about who your characters are and what they want.
  • Page 1 – 2: Set-up the world of the main character(s)
  • Page 2 – 3: Something happens to throw their world out of balance
  • Page 4 – 7: Your character struggles to restore order to her world
  • Page 8: Just when your character is about to restore order, something happens to complicate matters.
  • Page 9-10: Character either succeeds or fails in her attempt to restore order.

Maybe as a follow-on activity, Ss could get into small groups and select one of their plays to perform for the rest of the class. It could be a staged reading instead of an actual performance.

This Exquisite Forest | A writing prompt

The exquisite corpse was invented by French surrealists as a creative exercise where people contribute words to a sentence based on a pre-assigned structure or by reading the end of the what was written by the last contributor.  However, the writer is not supposed to read anything else from what has already been written. This Exquisite Forest extends this concept by allowing users to build an ever-expanding forest of narrative but through trees of animated online drawings. The forest also exists as an installation at the Tate Modern.

Each tree is seeded with an animation and then you can add your own to the original frames to create an animated sequence. Some of them are quite surreal and beautiful like Blink. Others like A Bad Day and The River are loaded with images but are perhaps a little more conventional. I thought it would interesting to transform it from a collaborative visual activity back into a collaborative writing activity.


Level: A2+

Materials: Ss will need access to laptops, tablets or computers with Internet connectivity.

Duration: 45 min


  • Divide Ss into pairs and as homework, have them to sign up for This Exquisite Forest, explore the site and select a tree they like. They can then extend the animation by contributing additional frames.
  • You don’t need to sign up to explore the forest, only if you want to contribute to the animations or start your own tree.


  • Ask pairs to share their selection with another pair. They should talk about why they chose this tree.
  • Ss now work with their partners to orally construct a story using the elements in the animation. For each significant frame in the animation, ask them to consider the who, what, why, how and what next to build the characters and action.
  • Ss team up with another pair and narrate their story. Encourage Ss to give feedback on things they liked and things they think are missing, for example if the character fell down, then why did he fall down, how did he feel and what happened next.
  • Give pairs a few minutes to discuss changes they might want to make to their story.
  • Now have Ss work individually to write up story on the class blog.
  • Ask Ss to read their partner’s story and compare it with their own. How similar or different is it?  Lead a discussion around perspective, voice, and tone and how these can change the “feel” of a story.


  • Some trees are more minimalist and may require a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to facilitate storytelling. However, they could be good prompts for poetry.  Give Ss a skeleton structure of a poem (there are loads in Jane Spiro’s Creative Poetry Writing from OUP) and then ask Ss to use their reactions to the images in This Exquisite Forest to fill out the poem.     

This exquisite forest

Kramasha: an audiovisual writing prompt


A couple of years ago, I watched a short film called Kramasha at a film festival. It’s an unusual work whose intriguing visuals and score have stayed with me ever since. Here’s the official description for this 22 minute film:

A small Indian village, a house, early morning; a family is sleeping. The boy is sleeping next to the window. He is asleep, yet awake. A mysterious man with a black coat comes every morning when everyone else is sleeping. The boy has seen him only in his dreams. In this state of conscious and unconscious, the boy hallucinates about the history of his mysterious sleepy village, childhood and nostalgia.

And here’s a scholarly analysis on why it’s really good. Unfortunately, the film is not available online save a 1 minute preview. The good news is  that the preview is interesting enough to run a potentially engaging activity.


1. Play the preview without the visual. Ask Ss to close their eyes and listen to the sounds and imagine what kind of scenes might accompany these sounds.

2. Tell the Ss that this is from the beginning of a short film. Ask them to work with a partner to verbally create a scene to accompany these sounds i.e., describe the setting of the movie. Ss may restrict themselves to only what they heard.  Encourage them to imagine what wasn’t recorded. If you hear a cat, a peacock, and monsoon clouds, what else might you hear?

3. Ss share their descriptions of the film’s setting.

4. Play the preview again this time allowing Ss to see the visual. Ask them to compare their description to the actual setting.

5. Explain that although there’s a setting, there’s  something missing. Elicit that it needs characters. Get Ss to individually create a character to place in this setting; for lower level learners, provide prompts for character building (species, gender, height, hair, personality, etc.)

6. Ask Ss to share their characters with their partners. Do the two characters seem compatible? Why or why not? Would the story be more exciting if you had two mismatched characters?

7. Play the preview again. This time, ask the Ss to imagine their two characters in this scene. What happens next?

8. Have Ss put the three parts together as a short written story (setting, characters, and action).

9. As an after-class task, have all the pairs post their stories on a class blog or Facebook so everyone can read them. Alternatively, use the story they wrote in class to create a mobile video of the next minute of this film


The rest of the film, if it were available, could be a useful creative writing prompt for aspiring writers  because it’s based on a non-linear folktale inspired narrative with magical realism and other unusual elements.

CuePrompter: activities across skills

During the ISTEK ELT conference last weekend, a delegate tweeted about a session that had activities with CuePrompter. Apparently, the activity involved a read & do version of Simon says.

From ISTEK ELT 2013
From ISTEK ELT 2013

It’s an interesting tool that allows you to paste any text you’d like(it doesn’t seem to do so well with non-Latin scripts, I tried with Chinese) and select speed, font size, and colour (white on black, black on white). While the prompter is running, you can pause, reverse, fast-forward as well as increase and decrease speed. Many thanks to Okan Önalan for tweeting about the site.


CuePrompter seems too versatile a tool to be limited to just a variation of Simon says. I brainstormed some other applications for it which would extend its use across other skills.


  • Ask Ss skim a text to answer a linear sequence of questions. Since the text disappears after a couple of seconds, Ss will be compelled (hopefully) to skim. This could also be a good exercise to help Ss get over regression – where Ss repeatedly read the same sentences or paragraph when it’s not required. 
  • Give Ss a set of statements and ask them to skim the text displayed by CuePrompter to decide whether they are true or false. Alternatively (this could be useful for EAP & ESP contexts), decide whether the information is available or referred to in the text.


  • Create a text that has synonyms of the target vocabulary. Give Ss a table or a bingo chart with the target vocabulary. Let the prompter roll and ask them to read quickly and write down synonyms from the text next to the words they have in their worksheet. Repeat until they get most of the words. 


  • Distribute a list of words to Ss and ask them to look up how they’re pronounced after class. To make it more interesting, you could run it as a jigsaw task and give out several lists. In the next session, ask students to teach each other words that might have appeared in their lists but not in those of others. Then, set the stage for a breaking news broadcast activity.  Pick up recent news items from the net and plant words from the lists you have distributed. Divide Ss into groups and name them after rival news channels.  Tell them they are competing for viewer ratings which they can secure by pronouncing all the words correctly.  Paste the text into CuePrompter and have a student from the first group read out the text as if it were a live news broadcast. Explain to the Ss that news broadcasters don’t get any prep time when it comes to breaking news – they have to read from the prompter without making any mistakes because there’s no second take. 


  • Most creative writing activities allow Ss a lot of time to think and write. But, what if you wanted to encourage the capture of spontaneous thoughts?  Create a series of prompts in a narrative (You enter a large room, what do you see? Suddenly, you hear a loud noise, describe it.)  Paste the prompts into CuePrompter and puts lots of ******** between each prompt. Ss read the cue quickly and start writing using the first thought that pops into their heads.  They have to write really fast because the next cue will come up soon.  When the prompter runs out of text, get Ss to proof-read what they’ve written and then teach them some discourse markers to connect their sentences and transition smoothly between events and actions. Let Ss rewrite their stories as a cohesive narrative before sharing it with the rest of the class.


  • A replica of the writing activity except Ss are in small groups and each time CuePrompter displays a prompt, Ss discuss it and collaboratively construct a story.  

I’d love to hear your feedback on these ideas especially if you get the opportunity to try them out with your learners.

Switching (unlikely) places: a writing prompt

img_0208The podium lawn at Essar House, Mahalakshmi has the springiest and prickliest grass I’ve ever rolled around on. I was doing all sorts of weird things on this grass (including rolling around) because a couple of weeks ago I attended Avid Learning’s workshop on Writing through Movement facilitated by Yuki Ellias.  There were lots of interesting exercises although not all of them transitioned well from doing crazy kinaesthetic things to the actual objective which was writing.  However, there was one activity which was a real winner. Here’s how it went.


Stage 1: T mimes

T: Are you familiar with mime? I am going to teach you how to mime something. How many of you wash your own clothes? Let me jog your memory.

T modeled actions which Ss repeated. (Wash a shirt Indian Dhobi style –  rinse an imaginary shirt repeatedly in a bucket. Spread on slab. Beat with stick. Scrub with soap and brush. Flip. Repeat procedure. Squeeze like you’re constipated. Shake out the water. Hang out to dry. Step back and admire)

Stage 2: Ss mime

T gets three volunteers to mime the whole sequence in front of the group. I think the objective of this step is to point out that Ss don’t need to faithfully replicate the original mime which is only meant to be a framework for exploring different actions.

Ask all Ss to work through the entire sequence once without anyone leading them.

Stage 4: Switch

Now, ask for three more volunteers but this time have them mime the scene as if they were the shirt!  Then, ask everyone to spread out (this is where the springy grass comes in) and now act out the entire sequence as shirts.

Stage 5: Write 

Ask Ss to write about the process of being laundered in the voice of the shirt.

Stage 6: Action replay 

T: Replay the entire mime in your head. Which part did enjoy the most or stood out for you for some reason? Reenact that moment. Do it over and over again until you’ve observed the moment completely. Notice how you move, how your body is positioned, how does the wind hit you, how does water feel when it splashes on you or when you’re dunked in the bucket or scrubbed on the slab.

Stage 7: Write again 

Ask Ss to write about that moment. Encourage them to reenact if required to get more inspiration.

Stage 8: Rewrite 

Have Ss cut the description of the moment down to a single sentence.

Stage 9: Share

Stick strips of masking tape on the floor of the room. Get Ss to write their sentences on the tape.  Ask everyone to go around and read each other’s writing.


I’ve done exercises where you mentally switch places with another person and try to write from their perspective. But, this was my first time switching places with an inanimate object.  It was novel, zany and enjoyable. So I thought about other activities that could be loaded into this frame.

1. Go through the process of making tea and then switch places with the tea.

2. Check-in a piece of luggage and mime how it gets manhandled & passed along until it reaches the flight. Then, become the bag or suitcase.

3. Mime brushing your teeth and then switch places with the brush.

4. Act out the journey of a pizza from the outlet to someone’s home and then transform into the pizza.

I know it sounds inane but it’s actually a lot of fun. More importantly, it challenges the participant to extend his or her language in really interesting ways.  So, it might be more appropriate for a B2 or a C1 learner. I also think concluding with conventional error correction might defeat the objective which is creativity and fluency in writing.  Instead, you could end with Ss discussing what they liked in each other’s work and how perspectives of the same event might be different.