Try the first exercise in BACK TO CREATIVE WRITING SCHOOL
Called a bubble bath for the brain by one university lecturer, Back to Creative Writing School covers traditional territory such as creating characters and discovering stories in unlikely places. It also experiments with language and how to use all the senses to make a description come alive on the page. There is rhyme, humour and horror. There is alliteration, personification and even a touch of bibliomancy.
With this first exercise you’re exploring your own life story…
PICK A NAME, ANY NAME
“The scariest moment is always just before you start” – Stephen King
This first exercise is very straightforward and it’s about something that you’re an expert in – you. All you have to do is list the names you’ve ever been called: the nice ones, the ones you answered to at different times in your life, the nicknames you’ve earned over the years, the variations of your proper name that have been used by family and friends and lisping toddlers.
In class I wouldn’t ask you to include intimate names. While there’s nothing wrong with the world knowing that someone calls you Dad or sweetheart, you don’t need to declare to a room full of strangers that snuggle muffin was once whispered into your ear and you didn’t mind a bit. Here, though, you are in control, write down as many names as you want, even the ones that might make others blush. This is your writing: you decide what to let go, what to hold back.
Work hard on the list and try to get to double figures. Jot down names you were called this week as well as the ones you haven’t thought about since you were six. Think about the playground in the first school you ever attended, working out at a gym, nights spent clubbing. Think about the time you tasted your first kiss, attended your first job interview or played with your first child.
The only rule is that you have to write it down because something happens when you think with a pen in your hand. In this exercise what I am hoping will happen is that you will become a time traveller and visit a period of your life when you had different concerns and different priorities and sometimes answered to a different name.
Most of the exercises in this book focus on fiction writing – although many explore techniques that are equally useful in creative non-fiction. However, right at the beginning of your writing apprenticeship I think it makes sense to start with a short passage of autobiographical writing because it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that:
You have never fitted under just one label.
There’s nothing as interesting as people.
You can use your own life as a resource. You don’t have to write your life story to use your experiences in a creative way. What you write in this exercise might develop into a theme for a novel or become the heart of a memoir. (Or it might simply be an exercise – you’ll only know after you’ve written it.)
Choose a name from your list and write a paragraph about it. A paragraph is a nicely imprecise length. Dickens could make one go on for pages. For most writers it is between two and six sentences…most of the time.
How does your name make you feel?
Do you hate it but somehow can’t let go of it?
Do you like it and the side of your personality it represents?
Does it fit you? Did it ever?
If it is a nickname who is allowed to use it?
Write about the reason you were called this name – why your parents chose it or why friends fell into the habit of using it. If you aren’t sure, speculate. Perhaps is a useful word in non-fiction. You aren’t breaking faith with the reader and pretending to know something for certain when you don’t, but it allows you to use your imagination to illuminate the shadows.
Something like this (perhaps)…
Perhaps Mum and Dad fought about it. He might have wanted something safe that was a nod to the sturdy farming roots he left behind when he came to the big city. Perhaps Mum was the edgy one who needed a wow! reaction when she presented me to the world. Perhaps there was a tug of war between Mary and Moonbeam, Hannah and Sapphire. Perhaps my name was chosen because neither of them actually hated it.
Write your paragraph and if you find you have so much more to say, go on and write more. I’ll ask you to word count later on, but right now write for as long as you have something to say.
Write about the world where that name was first spoken.
Write about the questions it throws up.
And the answers you don’t always have.
If you enjoyed that exercise, there’s a pretty good chance you will like the rest of the book. It’s recommended by creative writing lecturers and been praised by bestselling novelists AND absolute beginners. It also has over 150 five star reviews on Amazon UK