Thursday, 28 July 2011

"What if...?" - TWO WRITING WORKSHOPS (Part One)

Linda Gillard posting again...

I recently made the long journey from the Isle of Arran to Durham, to teach two writing workshops to scientists and those of a scientific persuasion. (Is an archaeologist a scientist?... Or is that as thorny a question as whether Prof. Brian Cox is an astronomer? I gather feelings about BC run high in Physics departments up and down the land.)

There were 32 participants in my two workshops, from students to Heads of Department and I worked them hard. We used my homemade photo packs to generate ideas for stories and develop characters. We looked at narrative point of view and concluded that you can tell the story of Snow White & The Seven Dwarves from at least fifteen different points of view, not including the apple’s. We decided the best characters to tell that story might be the ghost of SW’s dead mother or possibly the Mirror (which I suggested fulfilled the role of brutally honest, gay best friend, the one you’d take clothes-shopping).

LG teaching a workshop at Durham University
The tough part of the workshop was the Timed Writing exercises in which participants had to write without stopping, correcting, editing, or indeed thinking. Wielding a ticking kitchen timer (which always makes me think of the crocodile in Peter Pan) I asked everyone to write non-stop for five minutes in response to a trigger word, then for ten minutes in response to a mysterious and repetitive piece of music by one of my favourite composers, Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. (Mirror in the Mirror.)

The point of this strange and taxing exercise is to write without trying to write well. Trying to write well is perhaps the greatest enemy of good writing. Perfectionism and an obsession with originality can be counter-creative. Elmore Leonard summed it up in one of his Ten Rules of Writing : “If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.”

This was the first time I’d taught this writing exercise to the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards. The noise drowned out the tick of my timer, but had the same desired effect: the incessant sound increased the pressure on the writers to write.

I borrowed the exercise from Zen Buddhist Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones and I’ve used it for years with all kinds of writers, from primary pupils to professional writers. Most people find the exercise as exhilarating as it is exhausting. For some the experience is revelatory as they discover what it feels like to write without regard to the quality of what they produce. Most people haven't done that since they were at primary school (and I speak as someone who feels a strange compulsion to punctuate text messages.)

“The aim,” says Goldberg, “is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

Or, in the words of E M Forster, “How will I know what I think till I see what I say?”

No comments:

Post a Comment