A Recipe for Porcupine Pie – How We Assess Creative Writing in Schools

In his days at the Brill Building songwriting factory in the early ‘60s, Neil Diamond became accustomed to writing songs against the clock, but even he had his limits. Those limits even have a name: Porcupine Pie. I heard an interview once – so long ago it doesn’t exist in the searchable world – in which Neil Diamond explained the song’s origins. As a challenge to their finely-honed Brill skills, he and a few other songwriters decided to see if they could push extreme songwriting to the max and, in a period that might have been ten minutes, come up with a technically complete and playable song of at least two minutes’ duration.

Neil came up with Porcupine Pie. Everyone else papered their bottom drawers with theirs. To be honest, I don’t mind Porcupine Pie. The Wiggles’ cover of it is one of their finer moments. But I’ve yet to find a list of Neil Diamond’s best songs that includes it, it appears on quite a few ‘Worst Songs Ever’ lists, and his rendition of it on Hot August Night suggests that, even when it was new, Neil Diamond felt less than proud of it.

From what I recall of the interview, he started the song-in-ten-minutes challenge with a melodic hook in mind, but no lyrics, so where did it end up lyrically? It goes like this: the title three times, vanilla soup, some indecision, fruity blue cheese (rhymes with ‘please’), the title three times, concern about getting it on your jeans, the cautious approach required to eat it, the title three times, its infiltration of your dreams, advice to leave room for chicken ripple ice cream (rhymes with ‘dreams’).

It’s a bucketful of awful, a stoner riff on rhyming words, a clever way to ridicule the ten-minute songwriting game as the game it was. But look at it. It might be a great bad song, but it’s still a bad song.

I’ve had my own Porcupine Pie moments. In 2015, at Sydney Writers’ Festival, over the course of an hour, I wrote a story almost live on air on ABC radio. The studio and listening audience offered words or topics they wanted me to include and, every fifteen minutes, twenty of those were placed on a huge chook wheel and spun, and I had to work the three that were chosen into my next chunk of story.

How did it go? Porcupine Pie, but less melodic. I took narrative ideas from TV shows and stories in the news and made sure the borrowing was visible, I ripped off my own past novels and I relied far too heavily on a running gag involving Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers. It was as awful as it sounds, and as awful as it was expected to be, because that was the game we were playing. The audience loved it, mostly because they loved the desperate badness of it, and that an author had been prepared to put their dignity on the line to play the game.

But no one would ever assess someone’s writing based on a process like that, would they? No one would say, ‘Let’s assess creative writing by trapping you in one spot for an hour, throwing some stimulus material at you and expecting you to deliver a non-awful completed story by the end of it?’ No one would do that, because that kind of process is the antithesis of how creative writing works. It’s the enemy of creativity. Creativity requires contemplation. Creativity requires exploration. Creativity requires some room for trial and error. Creativity is not one of those realms where you can reasonably argue that greater pressure will consistently produce diamonds.

Putting serious time pressure on creative writing turns it into a crapshoot. Unreasonable time pressure sees us all resort to familiar tropes and types and templates – and the uncreative writing that comes from that – because, in the absence of luck, we’ve got nothing. And there are no marks for a blank page.

I recently posted on Facebook that ‘Assessing creative writing “under exam conditions” makes about as much sense to me as assessing tap dancing thigh-deep in a vat of baked beans.’ Think about it. Put all your student tap dancers, one after another, into the beans, and tell them to give it their best shot. The tap dancing will all be pretty awful, but some of the talented dancers will stay upright and show some moves that suggest that, in a normal environment, they might have promise, while others will flounder, face plant and require saving. That is, the process will give you something to grade (phew), and it doesn’t have zero correlation with the skills you’re trying to test, but it’s not tap dancing, and there will be casualties.

Most of the responses to that Facebook post (overt and covert) came from teachers, mostly Queensland English teachers cheering and expressing dissatisfaction with how they assess creative writing. That’s a problem, surely.

I go into schools regularly. I know at least something about what teachers do when they teach creative writing. I have a nine-year-old, so I’m now into my fifth year of having primary school in my life again. I know he learned about Sizzling Starts in Year One. I know teachers do a lot of clever things to develop the writing skills of their students, and I’m greatly encouraged by some of the developments, since I was a student myself, in the way creative writing is taught, and the thought that goes into the writing opportunities created for students.

I’ve been in perhaps ten schools this year with the thing I’m now calling my Narrative Toolkit, and I’m aware that I’m usually there to build on years of solid foundations that teachers have put in place. Much of what I say is what they’ve all been saying, but I say it in a practitioner’s way, making each piece of advice into a tool for each student writer to keep in their kit and use, consciously and deliberately. Sometimes I can see lightbulbs go on, and exciting things end up on the page (as well as things that show a good grasp of the tools).

My tools are even designed to work in situations of adversity – writer’s block, time challenges – but, still, all the best tap dancing is done on dry land, and not in the beans.

Which takes us beyond how teachers teach creative writing to how schools assess it. Some teachers who contacted me said they didn’t think narrative writing should be assessed at all, and I get that. But the Sunday Mail is never going to let us get away with including something in the curriculum and not assessing it, so we’re probably stuck with the incongruity of asking people to create art that we will then put a grade on. I can’t say I love that, but I prefer it to not including narrative writing in the curriculum. Because writing is thinking. It’s problem-solving, it’s imagination, it’s linguistic dexterity, it’s an exploration of the ways humans work, and all of these are important. They help make great citizens, not just future novelists.

But how to assess it? I claim no expertise there. I have concerns about some things I have learned, but they are the concerns of a practitioner – someone who has written twenty-seven books and a creative writing PhD, who has experience of being assessed by readers, reviewers and award judges, and who has had cause to think long and hard about writing over several decades. I’m speaking up here and now because my comment provoked a response that suggests there are teachers unhappy with the way they’re expected to assess creative writing, and that makes the conversation worth having, wherever it leads.

I hear about students in some years of high school being given a task and stimulus material, a week or so to write a draft, editorial feedback and more time to write a final draft. More advance notice would be preferable – a couple of months might say we place a value on contemplation, before getting seriously down to business – but this approach, as it stands, also has its pluses. It shows a healthy awareness of some aspects of how creativity works, it embodies some of the essential elements of the creative process, and it does that in a positive way. The benchmarks of its structured marking can be transparent, even-handed and stand up to moderation. They are often reasonable and always well-intentioned, though perhaps more inclined to reward writing that ticks the technical boxes than writing that knocks us back in our seats. That’s a shame, as the real world of reading is more about the latter than the former, but technique is important, and particularly so among writers at the early stages of learning their craft.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? What about Year Seven and Nine NAPLAN and its five minutes of prep, thirty minutes of writing and five minutes of editing? What about senior students writing in exam conditions, in the classroom, against the clock? A totally appropriate choice, if you’re shooting a mid-twentieth-century period drama set in a school. But as a way to fairly and reasonably assess creative writing now? Beans, a vatful of beans. Me, and Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers, meeting the ABC’s benchmark of a few cheap laughs, while we all pretended the story wasn’t dire.

Writing under tight time constraints is not so unreasonable if it reflects practice – if you’re writing five-hundred words of news journalism or a blog post on an issue of the day. But crafting fiction that way? Assessment under exam conditions is convenient. That’s its biggest attribute. It limits the scope for parental help (and parental writing). It can be standardised. It gives you something markable on a national scale. And it can be modified, somewhat, by being scheduled as multiple hours under exam conditions spread across a couple of weeks. But that’s still far from a conducive environment for imaginative writing.

It’s the Brill Building, but with a greater sense of duress, since the stakes are higher, and that’s not a model fit for purpose. It’s great if you’re churning out songs on the understanding that the money made by one hit more than compensates for hundreds of duds, but the objective of assessing student writing isn’t to come up with an album’s worth of hits across the country, with every other piece failing to make the cut.

It’s tempting to say it’s an assessment approach designed by people who know a lot more about examining things than they do about creativity, but that would be glib, unfair and surely inaccurate. It’s more likely a horrible compromise that can no longer even see the distant line it crossed.

What’s worse is that, to combat the fundamental mismatch of the examination environment with the craft, many diligent teachers prepare their students by allocating much of the curriculum’s finite creative-writing time in Years Seven and Nine to NAPLAN writing drills, and in Years Eleven and Twelve to story-under-duress scenarios. In four of the six years of secondary school, messages about what good writing is and how it works are set aside and even skewed by drilling students in NAPLAN and exam survival skills. Only in Years Eight and Ten do students have the freedom to write without an eye to exam prep.

It’s such a disappointing approach to have settle for, and it lets students and and their teachers down. Both are worth more than a default to convenience. It’s a great way to turn out a lot of Porcupine Pie, but surely that’s not what any of us wants. Our students, their creativity and our teachers all deserve better.

(An earlier version of this post was published in August 2019 in Words’Worth, the journal of the English Teachers Association of Queensland.)

UPDATE: I’m now getting the chance to turn this rant into some action. No, I haven’t been invited to overhaul the curriculum, but at least I’ve been offered the chance to developed a targeted way for Qld students to deal with it as effectively as possible. Edvantage Qld brings significant expertise in curriculum and assessment, and the tools for students to create work that will tick examiners boxes. We’re merging that with my narrative toolkit to create a new 90-minute session for years 10-12 called Creative Writing for Academic Success that aims to maximise students’ chances of turning out quality writing that will also achieve great academic outcomes.

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8 Responses to A Recipe for Porcupine Pie – How We Assess Creative Writing in Schools

  1. As a marker of NAPLAN writing, I’m interested in your comments about the bad points of creative writing under time stress, but don’t know how else the system can assess it. Most of the NAPLAN scripts that we mark come across as having been written without inspiration to a set structure, but I do think that if students instead learn from the start that writing is a satisfying means of self-expression, just like telling a good story orally, they can create interesting stories under the time constraints of NAPLAN. Some of them do – often country kids with their closer connection to “real” settings and exciting happenings. The NAPLAN way of assessing writing is about as good as we’re likely to get; and far better than the utterly hopeless alternative that some people who’ve no clue about creativity, subtlety of language or self-expression suggest: the marking of writing by computer algorithm.

    • nickearls says:

      I’m with you in thinking a computer algorithm would not be a step in the right direction.

      If no better way can be found than the present system, I’d rather see narrative/imaginative writing out of NAPLAN. I think it’d be more reasonable to assess some other forms of writing under the time constraints, as I’ve mentioned, so writing could still be assessed. I’ve already outlined most of my concerns when it comes to assessing narrative or works of imagination this way. You mention some students create interesting stories, and I don’t doubt that, but it is structurally inherent in the process for this to be hit and miss. However great a child’s imagination and however well they cope with pressure, a great idea might come in the time allocated or it might not, because that’s how creativity is. Clearly, it’s a neurologically different process from, say, solving maths problems. And what concerns me about that is the way NAPLAN is used (or perhaps misused) in the real world. It might be supposed to be about the big picture, but high schools with any chance to be selective in their intakes require parents to send in students’ NAPLAN results, and it becomes part of the selection process.

      That’s one reason I’m concerned the present system can actually disadvantage some students.

      That, and my belief that teaching for NAPLAN in some ways actually undermines good creative writing technique, are probably the main reasons I think we’d be better with it not included, if the way it’s presently done is the best it can be.

      • Hmmm… Just assess such things as vocab, spelling, grammar – the technical side – and leave the creative dimension out of it? That’s what most people seem to care about anyway – that’s how many adults judge and criticise children’s writing, in my experience as a teacher. Maybe assess it in-school the way they assess art and other creative pursuits.
        I love marking NAPLAN writing, but I agree it has been warped by system/ school/teacher/parent expectations, and the fact that people who don’t read, i.e. most of the population, don’t understand what creativity in writing even is.

      • nickearls says:

        I think it could still involve a writing task, just not one that relies so heavily on imagination, or inventing a story against the clock. Perhaps writing a short news article, given resources such as a police report and a couple of interview transcripts (all short, of course)? And, yes, assess imaginative writing the way we assess visual arts, with a portfolio or a major work that’s put together over time.

  2. Norah says:

    I didn’t know that about Porcupine Pie. I love Neil Diamond and never thought about the lyrics. I have thought about the issue you raise in this post though and share your concern about the assessment of creative writing and what might be a better way. I appreciate your description of creativity and writing and its importance to humanity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post. I missed the Facebook discussion.

  3. Pingback: A Recipe for Porcupine Pie – How We Assess Creative Writing in Schools — Nick Earls | Perth Words... exploring possibilities.

  4. Year Three and Year Five NAPLAN writing tasks are the same as the older grades. I’d like to see the adults who set these assessments sit down and complete the writing task under the same test conditions. I doubt they would be able to produce the quality of work that is expected.

    • nickearls says:

      Past experience (ABC radio at Sydney Writers Fest; the 24-hour book, where I had to write a 5000-word chapter in about 10 hours) tells me I wouldn’t either.

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