Thursday, 20 October 2011

Working With Words

(by Lynne Hardy)

I was very disappointed to have missed the writing workshops held in the summer as part of Linda Gillard’s Celebrating Science residency, so I was thrilled to bits to see that there was to be a repeat run this semester. The write-ups from Linda on the Celebrating Science blog had me intrigued and I was looking forward to seeing what was on offer.

So, on Monday morning I made my way to the very top of the Calman Learning Centre ready to be inspired. We were a mixed group: professors, lecturers, science communicators and students with a variety of backgrounds and experience (including Emma-Kate, who has also contributed to this blog). The room we were in looked out onto a high blue sky and a magnificent view of the Cathedral and Castle, presiding serenely over the bustling city below.

Our first exercise was to read two scientific newspaper articles and discuss our thoughts on them. One was brief and clinical, concentrating on getting hard data across to the reader without engaging them on a more visceral level; the other read more like a story, beginning with a question that people could identify with, then building on that to deliver an accessible scientific message. They served to highlight key differences in the way that science can be presented to the public and, as I’ve discussed before, how words can be used to turn people on or off regarding it.

The next set of exercises used photographs. For the first one we had to choose a picture that spoke to us and write down the questions it inspired. In the next, we answered a series of questions relating to a different picture, trying to create a character with depth but not useless detail (or, as Linda described it, it’s not as if you need to know what school the character went to, or what they had for breakfast, to get a handle on how they behave). We also used photographs to look at ideas of stereotypes and how to subvert them to make for a more interesting plot.

Now I’ve done quite a lot of writing in various different fields, scientific and fantastical, but as in everything, there is always more to learn and I was particularly interested in the timed writing exercises I’d read about. I knew that many of my comic artist friends did warm-up sketches before they settled down to more “serious” drawing (here's an example of one of Abby Ryder's) and the timed exercises seemed to be the word equivalent of that. Having tweeted some of my writer friends after the workshop, several of them also do warm-ups to get their creative juices flowing; sometimes it is with similar exercises to this, or in Dan Wickline’s case, he likes to do sudoko puzzles to take care of his brain’s logical needs before flexing its creative muscles.

The challenge of the timed writing exercise is to write for, say, ten minutes without stopping or correcting spelling and punctuation or worrying about quality, starting from a trigger word. Linda had supplied a very long and varied set of words to choose from and so we began. My first word was “silence”, which I then proceeded to destroy by tippy-tappying away at my keyboard. Interestingly, the non-stop part of the exercise didn’t phase me and the words tumbled out in a stream of consciousness that was very liberating. What was difficult was not going back to correct myself; I’m a fast typist, but not a very accurate one, so the piece was littered with inversions, trip-ups and gobbledygook caused by my racing fingers.

This first attempt was followed by a discussion on how people had found the exercise. It’s always fascinating to hear how people work, why they write and the difficulties they have with it. Some had relished the experience, others were not so sure; the lack of structure and an end product was sufficiently different to the scientific writing they were used to, that it had taken them out of their comfort zone completely. After this analysis, we had another go. And another. This last attempt was slightly different; a word wasn’t the inspiration this time, but a piece of music. I can’t remember the name of it, or who wrote it, but it was a very sad and haunting cello and piano duet that led to quite a melancholy response.

And then, suddenly, we were out of time. The morning had flown by and had, by turns, been instructive, illuminating and demanding, but very rewarding. Linda was an open and engaging teacher, more than willing to share her own experiences, ideas and advice with all present. My only complaint would be that it just wasn’t long enough, and it’s not often you hear that about CPD!

1 comment:

  1. The music was SPIEGEL IM SPIEGEL (The Mirror in the Mirror) by Arvo Part.

    Glad you found the workshop useful, Lynne. It was great having you in the group.