It’s always more fun writing in a group. The camaraderie, the coffee, the small talk between exercises – and then there’s the tickling urgency of the clock. But something more is shared. Crumbs. Oxygen. Time.
And you get to know people through listening to them read out their writing. Shyly, confidently, sadly, bitterly, laughingly, passionately. I get the feeling that despite sitting at a round table covered in waffly paper, tostadas and cafe con leches vying for space with sprawling notebooks, in fact we are on a boat, each one of us dipping our hand into the water as we speed along, feeling the cool liquid slip over our fingertips, sifting out seaweed, bits of fishing wire, perhaps even a fish.
Rumi once said: ‘In a boat down a fast-moving creek, it seems that the reeds are moving by. What seems to be changing around us is actually the speed of our craft leaving this world.’ With his words in mind, here are a few creative writing exercises to get your outboard motor spluttering into action, so that you and your writing can get out into the open sea.
Raid the Fridge
For this exercise you will need to invite yourself to someone’s house, let off a small remote-controlled firecracker or similar distracting device on their front lawn so they leave you alone in their kitchen for five minutes, and quickly open all the doors in their pantry, fridge, freezer, oven and write down twenty items of food.
Now, when you need inspiration to kickstart your writing, pick a word at random (it can help to write them on separate pieces of paper and pick them out of a hat). Let the smells rush through your nostrils, the tastes enliven your mouth, the image remind you of that Thai restaurant, your university days, an English summer day watching the cricket…(don’t forget to pick up your pen at this point).
Take two short pieces of your own writing or extracts copied from a book. With a coloured pen, underline all of the adjectives in both pieces. (You might want to use different colours for each one.) Now rewrite one of the extracts, substituting an adjective from the other piece for each highlighted adjective you come to. The more different the styles of each piece, the more peculiar and funny the exercise will be.
Cut out pictures of people from Sunday newspaper supplements (usually more real and interesting than magazine faces). Keep them in a folder somewhere. When stuck for a character, take out the wad of pictures and one will jump out at you (try not to pee your pants when it does).
Pick a piece of your own bad writing, the worst you can find. Now swap it with a friend’s worst bit of writing, and each of you rewrite the other’s piece, changing it as much as you like. Having something concrete to hack to pieces, without fear of offending, is a great starting point when you’re lost for words.
Brainstorm all the styles of writing you can think of – comedy, horror, romance, fantasy, period drama, chick lit, tabloid, magic realism, futuristic and so on. Write them down on separate pieces of paper and fold each one up. Now write down possible scenarios, such as: child buying sweets from a shop, a teenage girl telling her parents she’s pregnant; a man running over a dog in his car; a politician accidentally using a swearword live on camera; a boat sinking; a couple arguing, and so on. Write each of these down on other bits of paper and fold them up.
Now close your eyes, have a rummage, and take one of each. Write the scene in the genre.
Each person writes a title for their neighbour’s mini-story (one page or so).
A Picture Paints a Thousand Words
Make a list of, say, ten proverbs, quotes or hackneyed statements. (Try http://quotes.dictionary.com, or http://www.phrases.org.uk if you get stuck.) Now choose one at a time and create a scene that illustrates the statement without mentioning it explicitly.
My favourite: Chinese Scribbles
Each person begins with a strip of paper. At the top they write something – anything, song lyrics, a strange image, a bit of speech, whatever. The more abstract, or the harder it is to draw, the better.
Now everyone passes the paper to their neighbour, who draws what you’ve written. They now fold over your writing and pass it on to their neighbour, who writes what they’ve drawn. Continue thus, folding over the last-but-one contribution each time. Feel free to fall off the sofa laughing, shrieking with absurd glee and spurting your beverage out through your nose as you see the wildest creatures ever created in Biro evolve from the primordial soup of your communal imaginations.
Unroll the strips of paper when there is no more room to write and read out the Chinese Whispers. (The drawings are usually the funniest bit. Be sure to invite someone who has no qualms about drawing abysmally.)
With that, dear writing readers, I leave you to your beckoning pens, hoping they will moonlight for you as oars.