Suggestions for Writing

The conditions under which writing happens, both physical and emotional, is a topic of much fascination and little certainty. We can only guess what causes the seeds to grow. But we do know that writing workshops sometimes allow the imagination a chance to create those conditions. The imagination acts as a form of flight simulator, so that although you are actually sitting at a desk and writing, you are also, in your imagination, somewhere else, writing in the voice of someone else, maybe a character or persona, or reliving an experience of your own. You are also learning at the controls what happens when language is used creatively. The suggestions below, as with others in this book, are intended to advance your confidence, and help you both to explore new possibilities, and to devise your own simulations using these as examples.

Read the following passage by Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop lived and wrote in South America. The animal in this prose poem is a real creature and here she has given it a voice.

from 'Strayed Crab'

This is not my home. How did I get so far from water? It must be over that way somewhere.

I am the color of wine, of tinta. The inside of my powerful right claw is saffron-yellow. See, I see it now; I wave it like a flag. I am dapper and elegant; I move with great precision, cleverly managing all my smaller yellow claws. I believe in the oblique, the indirect approach, and I keep my feelings to myself.

But on this strange, smooth surface I am making too much noise. I wasn't meant for this. If I maneuver a bit and keep a sharp lookout, I shall find my pool again. Watch out for my right claw, all passersby!

My eyes are good, though small: my shell is tough and tight. In my own pool are many small gray fish. I see right through them. Only their large eyes are opaque, and twitch at me. They are hard to catch, but I, I catch them quickly in my arms and eat them up.

What is that big soft monster; like a yellow cloud, stifling and warm? What is it doing? It pats my back Out, claw. There, I have frightened it away. It's sitting down, pretending nothing's happened. I'll skirt it. It's still pretending not to see me. Out of my way, O monster. I own a pool, all the little fish that swim in it, and all the skittering waterbugs that smell like rotten apples.

Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly, not that you will ever know about it.

And I want nothing to do with you, either, sulking toad. Imagine, at least four times my size and yet so vulnerable. I could open your belly with my claw. You glare and bulge, a watchdog near my pool; you make a loud and hollow noise. I do not care for such stupidity. I admire compression, lightness, and agility, all rare in this loose world.

(Bishop, 1991:140)

Notice how Bishop gets right inside the nervous system of the crab and develops its voice accordingly. She is maybe saying something about herself, but indirectly.

1 Write a passage of similar length using an animal as speaker. This animal is in a state of discomfort, possibly dislodged from its usual habitat. Another animal appears. An action takes place.

Write another passage where the speaker is human. Again, in a state of physical discomfort, showing an attitude. Another person or people are present, and at some point—as in the passage above—the speaker is threatened.

2 Write a poem in the voice of a famous person; alive or dead, past or present. Try to enter his or her imagination. Include in your poem three things significant to your speaker; these are an object, a question difficult to answer, another voice.

3 Each of us is involved in a whole range of different activities and any of these could be useful for writing. Using ideas from your workbook, write a short story, a poem, the first scene of a play, or a piece of personal narrative, making use of your special understanding of a work place, surroundings you know well, an individual or group activity. Pay attention to voices, details and reality effects, close-up images, building on your sense of what you know.

4 Try looking out of a window or taking a walk down a street—perhaps it leads somewhere a little unusual, or to somewhere not very surprising. Maybe the window looks out over neighbouring gardens or fields. Whatever you see, describe it, find something in the surroundings interesting to you, something you are looking at with new eyes. Using these and other details, put together a poem or short story with these surroundings as its opening setting.

5 Go into the streets of a nearby town. Write down words from notices, street signs: 'WALK THIS SIDE', 'FOLLOW DIVERSION', 'KEEP OUT'. Also write down words and phrases from street adverts you can find. Mix these together into a long sequence—one phrase per line—repeating some if you need to. Working in small groups, assemble your list in a way that satisfies you. Be aware of the process and discuss your decisions.

6 Write a piece of dialogue between two characters. Centre this dialogue round an object in a room, for example, a cupboard, a vase of flowers, a suitcase, a chair. Or think up a more unusual object—a toolbox, a screwed-up piece of paper with a message on it, a supermarket trolley, a dismantled motorbike. Write it so that the object becomes an image with real force of significance for the two speakers. At one point one says to the other, 'Don't touch it!'

7 Imagine a photograph of the room in which you are sitting—you are in the photograph too, and there might be other people there with you in the moment of the shot. Write a poem as if you are describing this photograph. Use close-up focus, significant details. Make the reader see it. Then write about what it does NOT show: a moment, scene, event or feeling that the photograph leaves out. Also try this using an actual photograph. Decide who is the speaker and the voice.

8 Write a very short story or a poem which centres on a character in a film, but not one of the main characters. Find one of the extras—somebody relatively insignificant. Explore his or her position, viewpoint, and voice.

9 Working in twos, each person tells the other a story. Choose something that has happened to you and has become fixed in your memory, or something that happened to someone you know. Exchange stories with your partner. Pay close attention to what you are being told. Then tell the other person's story to the whole group. Tell it as if it had happened to you personally. You might want to exaggerate certain details, and leave out others. If so, go ahead. Aim to attract the attention of your listeners. Bring the story to life in your own words. Make it animated. If you can, perform the story, emphasising speech and dialogue, elements of suspense, particular images that seem to you important or unusual.

Compare the story as you heard it with the way you told it. Be aware of how these versions differ.

The group will now have a collection of stories, a pool of images to draw on for writing. From this resource, each person chooses something that engages his or her imagination, sense of drama and story, and writes a short piece of fiction (1,000 words limit) or a poem (40 lines limit). You might choose your own story, the one you told, or one you have heard. Use images, voices, close-up focus, reality effects. Think about whether the story has a point or purpose—what is it? Can you make your readers sense what this might be without telling them directly?

10 In the following poem I am describing a small crowd of people in a London tube train. They all believe they are watching a story: two people about to become lovers. A story world seems to be happening right in front of their eyes.

'Mile End Opera'

The man with whiskers of ponytail hair growing out of the back of his shaved skull, the woman with the Anna Ford face, catacombed under London with other strangers.

Cornered, like prison visitors.

Swaying with the machinery.

Beautiful black and white. He's telling her about his college courses. Things he likes. She telling him about her. They are directing such smiles at each other every one is a hit, so that everyone in this carriage seems happier a shade less absent. People are listening.

Even Anna Ford is feeling distinct. Even the shaved/unshaved head is alert. This girl's voice is luminous with this boy. Whatever she's saying to him she can't stop. just listening, just looking at her is becoming something phenomenal to him. And, if she's seen that smile—which she has—

she must know what the audience also knows—

that it's real, that these two are somehow going to get off at the same stop, that they've only just met but.. .what the hell.

This is it! Though they don't know it we're all shouting for them, leaning towards them, giving them space, swaying together, silently wishing them things which in ourselves we never knew, or once or twice have known.

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