Wednesday, 13 January 2010


What do you do when you can't make a living writing? You run workshops of course. And actually in some ways I prefer doing these to the actual writing. Sometimes writing, with all its frustrations and agonies, feels like a twisted compulsion. A perversion. Whereas my workshops? well there I'm meeting all sorts of people I wouldn't otherwise come into contact with, and I'm listening to their stories - plus we all improve together. We feel like a team. And I get to feel like the captain. Or the player-manager.

This doesn't mean that I'm the best player. Quite often I set exercises and have no idea how I would go about beginning the task, never mind completing it in fifteen minutes. And yet in both my regular workshops there are people who regularly pull magnificent and multi-hued literary rabbits from my tatty workshop hat.

I've just started up a new class and this is what we did for the first session:

1. Five minutes free writing beginning with the phrase 'I want...' I always start with free writing. The rule is that your pen must not stop moving. Whatever is in your hand should end up on the page without the critic on yourshoulder trying to get you to shape, organise or edit your work. We don't show these pieces to anyone. We dodn't use them. Each writer is free to throw them away and never look at them again. Alternatively, you might keep them ready to plunder for ideas when inspiration levels are low. Every time you do this exercise, something new or useful is thrown up. Even if you can't see it straight away. Every week we start with a different few words to set the group going, but this time I wanted to use I want because - wothout prying eyes but pushed for time and forced NOT to think, what people wrote would be the absolute unvarnished truth and something to hold in mind for the rest of the sessions...

2. It was a new group so I got everyone to write their autobiographies. Simple enough. Only they could only do it in 50 words. Exactly 50 words. Not 49. Not 51. Everything that is important about fiction writing is contained within this exercise. The strict word count forces writers to search for the exact precise word. Redrafting becomes essential as everyone strays over the word limit at first. Writers must also select and shape the raw material of their own life. Like a skilled stripper, revealing themselves in modest glimpses. These we did read out and have a laugh about. As usual this new group is a diverse crowd. Anglo-arabians, Canadian adventurers, Health Service managers, social workers and senior council officials, my friend Sarah who devises questions for TV quiz shows (the best job in the world. Can you believe they actually pay people to do that?), the retired, and the just starting out all mixed up together...

(An aside: sometimes as an alternative - I let people use as many words as they want but won't let them use the letter 'e'. It's hard. Like all good writing. And, again, trapped in a cage like this the imagination and the vocabulary are forced to work overtime...)

3. Next I got the group to write about their parents from a time before the writer was born. It could be a week before or years before. The parents could be together or apart. Maybe they hadn't even met yet. It could be first person or third person. It cover one incident or a period of time. The point was that we are all used to telling our parents stories, but usually from our perspective. We put ourselves at the centre of the world. It's an interesting discipline to try and be empathetic with our parents. To try for once to walk - if not a mile then at least a few steps - in their shoes. Again we are forced to weld imagination and speculation to a few hard facts.

And that we heard these and that was 90 minutes...

Feel free to steal these exercises... I'm sure I did...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the ideas! I won't exactly steal them, but will alter them, as I teach art workshops. Especially the first one, 'I want...' because I think you can do that visually as well. And I use the time limit occasionally, too - it frees people up. There are people so afraid of making a single mark on the paper and if they have a time limit they tend to do a better job than if they had all day. Thanks, I will keep reading!