Words, words, words.

Make a list of your obsessions, the writing exercise instructed. Keep adding to it, over the day, then put it in a drawer for a week. At the end of that week throw it away without looking at it, and write another list, that you will keep.

I had an old A4 envelope ready for the recycling bin. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Seeing them written down might help me to manage my time.

Now, my writing is quite large, when not confined to lines, so I’d like to make clear that filling the long edge of that envelope with bullet points shouldn’t be assumed to signify anything. A few hours later, though, as I found that even by reducing my writing font down several sizes, a last thought wouldn’t fit on the same side as the rest, I felt a qualm. Did I really do all of these things, regularly?

I read through them, looking for things to cull. Maybe I’d exaggerated. Were they really, all obsessions? What was an obsession, anyway?

I realised I wasn’t sure. A quick look at the Cambridge dictionary gave me two definitions. First, something or someone that you think about all the time. Well, clearly I didn’t, couldn’t, think about every item on my list all the time. If I did, nothing would ever get done, and I do have a life.

The second definition said it was, the control of one’s thoughts by a continuous, powerful idea or feeling, or the idea or feeling itself. If anything, that offered the potential to lengthen my list. But it was closer to the idea I’d had when I started, and maybe justifies the number of things I mull over as I go through my day.

I put the list aside, and forgot it, not for one week, but two. When I saw it again, I remembered that I wasn’t to read it, and dropped it in the bin.

I had five minutes to spare. I opened my notebook and wrote, ‘Obsessions‘ at the top of a page.

Oddly, the first word that came to me wasn’t a physical activity, it was described an emotion. I paused. My first list had been constructed from activities, for instance reading, and blogging. I wrote my word down, quickly, then added those two remembered ones.

Don’t rush it,’ the instructions had said. ‘Let the second list build naturally, over the next few days.’ That was easy, I was busy, in and out of the office, house and garden. I put the notebook away. I could remember most of what I’d originally written anyway. Days passed.

I must have been aware of it waiting, because at unexpected moments I’d come up with a word that needed to be added. It was never anything I’d written that first time round.

I kept reading back through this new list, wondering why I was reluctant to mirror my first version. I knew I could have, easily. By the end of the week that thought began to niggle, but I still had other things to do.

The sub-conscious is a wonderful tool. I woke up the next morning with a short phrase, and an idea. Completing things, I wrote.

Then I checked through the list again and confirmed my suspicions. The reason I’d not wanted to add my original list to this one was that it was already there, condensed under headings like, environment and work.

For years, I’ve been reading accounts of novelists who, on completing the first draft of their novel lock it in a drawer and start writing it again, from scratch. I could see the principle made sense, though I’ve never, until now, tried it. I think I’m likely to repeat this trick with my short prose.

I just wish I could remember where I found this exercise. I can’t. I noted the instructions on a scrap of paper, and even that has been lost.

* Paintings: top and bottom, by Kitagawa Utamaro. Middle one by Tori Kiyomitsu.

Random ramblings that work – free-writing part 2

One of my all-time favourite songs probably says an awful lot about my approach to writing.  I can’t find any information about the way Guy Marks wrote this, but Loving You Has Made Me Bananas feels like it might have started out as a piece of free-writing.



Yes, it is a parody, but the absurd combination of images and malapropisms are what can happen when writing against the clock to a given trigger word or image.  The opening lines feel crafted,

From the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville
The Publican Broadcasting Company presents:
The Music of Pete DeAngelis and his Loyal Plunketvillevanians!
Here in the beautiful gold, yella, copper, steel, iron ballroom
of the Hotel Sheets in Downtown Plunketville,
Overlooking the uptown section of Downtown Pottstown!
Stay with us, won’t you, and enjoy the sweetest music
This side of the Monongahela River!

but, such combinations can emerge while practicing what some people call automatic-writing. In the rush to get my words on the page I could easily mis-write Hotel Streets as sheets.  And, when following the free-writing rules rigorously, even if I noticed, I would not be allowed to stop and correct it.

Learning to value this kind of experiment helps to ‘free’ us from the restriction of writing-rules.  Rules are good, rules are important.  Grammar, punctuation, all the theories about how writing and plot work, we need to know about, because then, when we break them, we can add dimension to our writing.

I don’t think the great experimental writers were accidentally creating marvellous writing.  When we read their essays or interviews, they usually talk about literary influences.  They knew/know the rules.

I’m not claiming all great writers practice free-writing.  But some did, and do.

Here’s me, rambling along as if you all know what I mean by free or automatic-writing.  For goodness sake, don’t google the second term, click on this free-writing-link, which will take you back to one of my earlier posts.  I just checked on-line descriptions for automatic writing which, according to them, is a psychic phenomena.

I’ll stick with free-writing.  In my version, this is an exercise in freeing us from self-critical thought.

It’s also prone to throw up all sorts of intriguing word and idea combinations.  With practice, it can allow us to write from that area of consciousness that I think of as the area between waking and sleeping: the realm of drifting into or out of dream*.  There, stories happen.  They may be muddled and confusing, but free-writing sets them on the page.  Then you can pick out words, phrases or ideas, and set yourself on a fresh route to creating stories.

The great thing about this exercise is that so long as you write without stopping to think, correct or workout what you want to say, you can’t go wrong.  Whatever you write is right.  Sometimes it will make sense, often it will not, unless you step sideways and take a slant view of it.

After that the choice is yours, whether to lift out fragments and work it into something rational and logical, or enjoy the bizarre aspects of it.  Who knows what you might come up with, a walrus and a carpenter, walking by the sea… or the chorus from Guy Marks’ medly:

Oh, your red scarf matches your eyes
You closed your cover before striking
Father had the shipfitter blues
Loving you has made me bananas.
Oh, you burned your fingers that evening
While my back was turned.
I asked the waiter for iodine
But I dined all alone

Sometimes, sense comes from non-sense.  Maybe loving this has made me bananas, because somehow, when combined with the music, these lyrics do seem to transport me back to wet Saturday afternoons spent watching re-runs of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosbie road movies.  Happy days….


Here’s a Tip:

If you want to push yourself with this writing exercise, aim to get as many words down in the given time as is physically possible.  The faster you write, the less time there will be to form sentences.  This, after-all, is stream-of-consciousness writing.


* I know a few people who claim never to dream.  Scientists say that we all do, some of us just can’t remember them.


Playful neolexia.



This week I’m setting a creative challenge.  It’s an apparently simple task, invent a word, and write the definition of it – as it would be entered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

That means that after you’ve explained its various meanings you need to show the history of your word.  So:

  • Where was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • What date was it first published?
  • Quote a line from the publication that shows how your word was used.
  • Include at least two more quotes from later publications that used your word and reference them with author, title and date.

This is a task that we were set on the Imaginative Writing BA, by the late Edmund Cusick.  So far as I’m aware, he created this exercise.


OED mantrap2

Choosing the scenic route.

I’d never heard of black Friday until last year.  This year, not only do I hear radio presenters talking about it as a tradition, I notice that it’s become a long black-weekend: several of the sales I’ve found popping up on my internet accounts extend until Monday.

Shopping in Cheltenham, photo from the Gloucestershire Echo

Photo from the Gloucestershire Echo

I’ve been a little busy lately, so hadn’t given much thought to what this meant, until we drove into town for a lunch date on Sunday and found ourselves in rush-hour-style traffic.  While I’d been counting down classes towards the end of the term, everyone else had already got into Christmas-mode.

‘Yep,’ said my good friend Claire, ‘I’ve got our presents all done and dusted.’ She grinned, and added, ‘We’re going fun-shopping this afternoon.’

I came home to light up the woodburner and listen to the wind blasting rain against the windows.  As I lounged on the settee, digesting, I wondered if this might be a useful moment to suggest taking some time out.

How often do you give yourself permission to sit still?  I don’t mean at home, where it’s easy to get distracted by family or responsibilities.  Take inspiration from this old favourite by W.H. Davies.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

At this time of year, in Britain, it’s rarely warm enough to sit outside for long, so why not visit an art gallery?  After all, they tend to be comfortably warm, dry and peaceful places.

Whether you consider yourself a writer or not, before you set out, put a notebook and pen in your pocket or bag.  Just because you’re carrying them, doesn’t mean you’ve committed yourself to anything.

Once in the gallery, don’t wander for long.  Find a comfortable seat and study a painting.  Any landscape will do.  It doesn’t have to be one that you like at first sight.  In fact, it might be better that you don’t have strong feelings about it either way.

What I’m suggesting, is that you sit and stare at it for a minimum of five minutes.  Let your eyes roam over every segment of the picture.  Absorb the details, but let your mind drift: allow the gallery surroundings to recede, and let the painting take over your mind.


Pearlblossom Highway, David Hockney 1986

Later, as you return to the gallery, take your notebook out and write a word about the painting.  Start off with the one, that might be enough…




Recognising the individual within a pack


An exercise I often use for creating a character is based on a questionnaire.  It begins by asking for the mundane details of human life: name, age and address, then moves into the personal areas of like, dislike, favourite things, hopes and fears.

I’ve no idea who first realized that forms could have a creative use besides being a boring necessity.  Not me, my tutors all used versions of this when teaching me.

In my turn, I’ve adapted my own variations on theirs, that I set according to which aspect of character formation I’m working on.  For instance, do I want to create a character from scratch, or develop an existing one?

Here, in best Blue Peter style, is an example of a general purpose one:

© Cath Humphris

Twenty Questions on your protagonist.

Character Profile for _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (full name)
1. Address:
2. Date of Birth?
3. Place of Birth?
4. How does this character occupy most of their time?
5. Who, if anyone, do they live with?
6. How long have they lived like this?
7. What object does your character always carry?
8. What do they most like about their appearance?
9. What do they least like?
10. What does your character do on Thursday nights?
11. What is character’s most valued talent?
12. What is their favourite way to spend holiday time?
13. List three things that make them angry:
14. Describe their favourite clothes?
15. What is their favourite pass-time/hobby?
16. Who are they closest to?
17. What is their favourite extravagance?
18. What is their favoured economy?
19. Describe their most embarrassing memory:
20. What is their secret ambition?

No, don’t groan, trust me.  It can work, even if you start rather flippantly, because clearly the name, and the answers to the first three questions can be plucked from the air.  The trick is to write your answers down, and complete all the questions, even if you have to complete them out of order.

Commit to completing the list and I defy you to not find yourself linking the pieces together.  As the questions become more personal the whys and wherefores build up and a backstory emerges.  This is research.  It’s the bottom of that Hemmingway iceberg theory that is your story.

There are two things that I like to see happen when I do this with a group.  The first is that some of their answers extend beyond the page, either into the margins, onto the back of the handout, or into a notebook.  The second, is when someone has to go back to an earlier answer and rewrite it to make it fit with the answers they’ve made further down.

That’s when I know they’ve hooked into the individuality of their character, and a flat stereotype is becoming individual, and therefore, rounded.

Quick notes – an acheivable exercise for the rushed.

Have you got five minutes, and a scrap of paper handy?

Anything will do, the back of an old envelope; the border of a newspaper; that blank page in your diary – you know, the one you leave all year because it’s bound to come in handy some time…well, now’s the day.

Why not start making notes for a Pillow Book?  It seems to me a perfect occupation for time spent waiting in queues.

Not sure what a Pillow Book is?  Well, the term is flexible.  In general, it seems to haveSei_Shonagon_artist_unknown 1700s been an early form of notebook.  But I’m aiming to be specific in my use of the term, and refer to the one kept by Sei Shonogan, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress Consort Teishi.  This was circa 1002 AD.

Sei Shonogan’s Pillow Book is predominantly made up of lists.  The topics and contents of these range widely, and include references to objects, people, events, her thoughts, observations, poetry and gossip.

Not sure?  Try this one:

Things that give a clean feeling

An earthen cup.  A new metal bowl.  A rush mat.  The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.  A new wooden chest.

On one level it’s a simple collection of objects.

And yet, it’s much more, isn’t it?  I see a fragment of sensations from another society: another age, but some of them still echo in ours, don’t they?  I think there’s poetry in the way she groups the images, and I love the phrasing of the title.

Here’s another:

Things that are distant though near

Festivals celebrated near the palace.  Relations between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.  The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama.  The last day of the Twelfth month and the first day of the First.

So much of this is in what’s implied.  Is it just a list, or is it part of a picture?  I like the way this one ranges from the general to the particular.

Lists like this seem to me a style of writing that thrive on breaks for reflection.

The first challenge, is the title.  Will you make up one of your own, or borrow a ready made one?  What about, ‘Things that make your heart beat faster‘?

You could treat it like a brainstorm, and throw down images in a hurry.  But take a little time, and let some of them expand out, to include sentences, ‘On a night when you’re waiting for someone to come, there’s a sudden gust of rain and something rattles in the wind, making your heart beat faster.

After that, do you leave your items in their naturally occurring order, or do you rearrange them?  Perhaps you break the lines up…

How do you begin?

DSCF5213My nephews have toys all over the floor and I hear Sam say to Bevis, ‘Just pretend that I’m up the tower and…’

He didn’t say, let’s pretend, he said ‘just’.  There was no gap between reality and make-believe.  He was standing on the top of the lego tower being threatened by the giant plastic dinosaur and he was working out his action strategy.

On one level, it is that simple, that we ‘just pretend’ when we write stories.  Not only with straight-forward fiction, those of us using our lives as inspiration for stories need to hold onto that thought too, and learn to lie, convincingly.

Why not give it a go now?

Think back to childhood.

Who was your favourite relative?

Write a short description of them.

Now think: what did they do that made them special?  It doesn’t have to be anything fantastic, or exciting.  But try to visualise one event, in detail.  Find the starting point for the story.

Now change one thing – try gender – aunt becomes uncle or vice versa.  Describe them, and let go of the remembered truth.  Let the story follow, naturally.

Because sometimes a lie makes the best truth.

A Special, once-in-a-lifetime, not to be missed, Offer

I want to let you into a secret.  I’m an inventor.  I know, you’d never have guessed it, would you? It’s taken me years to design, but now I am ready for the grand unveiling of my life’s work, a TIME MACHINE.

There’s only one minor problem, the ingredients for the fuel are so rare that I’ve only enough to make one, return trip.  But, I’m willing to share that trip with you.  Only you.

Salvidor Dali, The persistence of Memory, 1931

Salvidor Dali, The persistence of Memory, 1931

Where would you like to go?  Will it be the past or the future?

Why?  What will you do there?  Who will you see?

There’s a story there, I think…

An Alphabetical Brain Stretching Exercise – The sense of using Non-sense

I’m starting this with an apology, because I can’t trace the creator of the exercise I’m leading up to.

alphabet topper 3I don’t remember where I first came across this piece of word play.  I do know it’s been around a long time.  I’ve old books of ‘parlour games’ that do something similar, so perhaps the author was the wonderfully talented Anon.  I’ve tried looking it up, but that’s not easy without knowing the correct title.  So, should anyone know the origins of this, I’d be grateful if you’d tell me.

This is really an exercise that allows us to be absurd.  In case you’re wondering why you would want to, let me ask, why wouldn’t you? At its purest, nonsense literature covers a great raft of wonderful imaginings, in poetry and prose.

You may not want to write of owls and pussycats, or even a Jabberwocky or a disappearing Cheshire cat.  That’s fine, no reason why you should.  But don’t pass by this exercise because of that.  Being able to let go of rational and logical reasoning does not have to be just about the sense of ridiculous.

Exercises like this one help us to free our imaginations.  Like Freewriting, the purpose of this is to block off that annoying inner critic we all have.  Here you are not just allowed to write nonsense, you are almost obliged to.  Adults often need to be reminded how to be playful, especially with words.  This is another way of practicing that.

There is only one big rule here: No dictionaries.  That would definitely be cheating.

capital lettersWrite your name, then start to write about yourself using ONLY words that begin with the same initial letter.  You may aim for some form of sense, but obviously that’s going to take some ingenuity, and lateral thinking, and it’s much easier, and playful, to allow the words to take-over and lead you.capitals 3

Here’s my attempt:

Cath can’t count competently.  Cringes concerning cubes.  Creatively challenged, Cath calls cute canine companion.  Cooperatively contemplating clouds causes calm creativity.  Circling charming countryside can counteract craziness: certainly challenges concerns.  Change corners constantly.  Cooky claims, continuously cooling cures cheese.  Codswallop! Canned corn concerns con-captain creating caption concerning cash.  Can’t continue containing corn.  Could con-captain can cabbage, cubed?  Credit card claimants call competent cats.  Cool cats corner crazy con-captain, controlling control cars.  Crushed customers claim considerable cash.  Council catch crook, charge certain callers copiously.  Cuffs count collars, claim cheese.  Cool cats can consume cheese.

As you can see, there’s only a nod towards sense here.  You may be able to achieve something more coherent.  The thing is, you don’t have to.

What you will do, though, is stretch your vocabulary, both for words and for meaning.  Hopefully, what you will find is that while you may start out slowly, every so often the words will flow.  They may not make much sense, but try to let go of your need for rational and logical, and allow your pen to lead you.

Look instead at how wide your vocabulary really is.  Because if you can do this for one paragraph, using just one letter of the alphabet, just think how many words you must have tucked away in your personal lexicon, just waiting for a chance to be applied to your writing.

Writing Blocks – Strategy 2.

I had to go for some training the other day.  In the break one of the other tutors said, ‘I’d love to write, but I have no imagination.’

A lot of people believe that.  I don’t.

I suppose it depends on how you perceive imagination, and writers.  Even though writing courses are now available at many universities, it is still possible to come up against the belief that writers are born and cannot be taught.

My friend, the language tutor, had something like that in mind, and we had an interesting discussion about how much creativity she already used in planning and delivering lessons.   The discussion broadened out to include other activities.  I suggested that any kind of a plan required the use of our imagination, from writing a shopping list to working out the details of a holiday.

‘Yes, but,’ she said, ‘it’s not like writing a story. I’ve never had a good idea.’

There it was, the one word that gave the game away, ‘good’.  She had had ideas.  Most people do.  What was really stopping her from translating her ideas into writing was that most annoying of all blocks, her inner critic.

I’m sure you know the one I mean, that quiet but insistent voice that is always trying to control your imaginative impulses.  It says things like:

  • ‘You stole that idea.’
  • ‘Anyone can see you’re not being original.’
  • ‘You think you can write?  This is just a cheap copy of Katherine Mansfield, A.S. Byatt, Raymond Carver, Stephen King…’
  • ‘How can YOU, call yourself a writer?  You’re not clever enough, or wise, or talented.’
  • ‘You are being ridiculous.’
  • ‘You are not a writer.’

The list goes on, endlessly.

I have two strands of attack for my inner critic.

  1. Overpower it.  Timed writing exercises are great for this.   The need to complete a task within a set period means my focus is all on what I am writing.   Try the free-writing exercise I’ve set below.
  2. Aristotle.  Yes, I am talking about a theory that was written in 335 BCE.  Think about it.  Aristotle claimed that there were 7 basic plots, and most of us still agree with him.  So, all those years, those hundreds and thousands of stories told and written, have all been reworking the same seven ideas.  If it was good enough for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boccaccio and the hundreds of other storytellers to do that, who am I to think I can produce plot number 8?  Of course, that won’t stop me trying, but there’s another story.

Free-writing – The rules are strict on this.  If you break them, it doesn’t work.


A timer – mechanical or digital, or a friend with a watch.

paper & pen/pencil,

or wordprocessor.


  • We’re starting off gently.  Your aim is to write for two minutes without stopping.
  • Once the timer is set the writer must start writing and not stop until the two minutes are up.
  • You must not pause once you have begun – ignore grammer, spelling and punctation mistakes.
  • This is not about creating a plot, with a beginning, middle and end, it is about freeing up your access to the creative areas of your mind.  Don’t inhibit or restrict yourself, let words form on the screen or paper without thought.
  • If you get stuck don’t stop, write, ‘I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck…’ You will soon find you are writing something else.
  • Do not think about where you are going with this peice of writing, you must not be following a plan. Copy the words and then continue writing without stopping until the timer stops you.
  • When you are ready to begin, write:  ‘She would always…’

If you try this, why not post your result below.