Saturday, 5 February 2011

Workshop: I Am

This is a very short workshop I usually give to kids or people who've never written before. I'm presenting it as something you might use in your own work with kids or new writers, although it's equally fun to do this yourself.

It's very, very simple, but quite effective. Its power lies in the act of completion. The most intimidating thing for most writers (especially beginners) is starting a project--because their focus is on the finish line instead. Because they see a big project ahead of them, they panic. This workshop allows those writers to finish something by focussing on the simple--on small steps--on detail--to render an effective poem without it taking a lifetime.

Firstly, the writers are invited to use their senses and/or their awareness of detail in their surroundings and in stimulus objects made available to them. For instance, if your workshop involves walking down a highstreet, point out a few poetic images: the perfume of asphalt and car fumes; the jingling pockets and purses of shoppers; the ching of stopping buses.

If you're presenting stimulus objects, your examples might be the rustle of screwed-up cellophane, the cold-smooth of a new silver spoon, or the elusive smell of hard plastic.

The focus is on two things: detail and the senses. That is, the specific as rooted through the subjective. The detail paints a picture; the use of one or more senses brings that picture alive in the mind of the reader.

Now get your writers to write their own. The trick is that the description has to begin with the word 'the', like my examples above. This point is important in structuring the descriptions in a way we can use later.

Have a read-round of everyone's lines (their noticings of the world around them), which should between them utilise a variety of senses. If everyone has defaulted to sight, which is the most obvious of the five senses, give them encouragement and then ask them to write another description, perhaps similar, but using a different sense. So if they write about the rainbow gleam of oil on water, for instance, they might instead think of the garage smell of that same water. (Writer's note: smell is the most effective sense to use in writing, as it conjures the most actual memory and feeling of place in the reader. Smells are more specific to us than descriptions of sight and touch.)

Once this is done and you feel you've covered a few different senses between the writers involved, get them to add the words 'I am' at the beginning of their sentences. This may require adding another word or two in order to make sense, but should be pretty straight forward.

Now read round again. If done properly, the result should be something like this (using my examples above):

I am the perfume of asphalt and car fumes;
I am the jingling pockets and purses of shoppers;
I am the ching of stopping buses.

I am the rustle of screwed-up cellophane;
I am the cold-smooth of a new silver spoon;
I am the elusive smell of hard plastic.

Now this doesn't have to be a masterpiece (and most likely won't be), but it's a simple exercise to get those who might have little experience of writing to put pen to paper and create something. It gets them to think creatively, to use their skills of observation and their awareness of their surroundings, and finish a poem in a short space of time. It also makes poetry more accessible.

This technique can also be used to develop description for prose, although you probably wouldn't add the 'I am' at the end, unless it was for specific effect.

Have you tried this workshop yourself? Post your own examples below, if you dare.

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