Friday, 12 January 2018

Writing Exercises I Have Loved: Part 2 - by Ruth Hatfield

A quick one today to cheer up drizzly January! This is one from a workshop I attended given by Olivia Laing, who wrote the wonderful ‘To The River’, which manages to be a nature walk, a soul search and an homage to Virginia Woolf all at the same time. Laing writes beautiful, expressive prose about the world around her – intricately descriptive but not overly rambling. 'To The River' is about a walk down the Ouse in Sussex, for the most part a reasonably well-travelled journey - how does she manage to write so freshly about a place that so many others have described before?

Go to the nearest window (Ok, so I did this exercise in a room in one of the Cambridge colleges and naturally the view was painfully beautiful, but don’t go further to pick one with a classically pretty view – just deal with what you’ve got to hand!).

Spend 5 minutes looking at the scene. Now spend 10 minutes describing it in writing (trying to write reasonably well and coherently).

Then walk away. Come back. Pick up your pen and spend 10 minutes describing the same scene, writing as badly as possible. Use all the adjectives you like, all the clichés, all the overblown or ill-fitting similies and metaphors. Repeat anything you like, as often as you like. Don’t censor yourself in any way – actively try to exaggerate and write badly.

Compare the two. Which one seems more full of life?

Obviously for me it was the second passage – really letting my self-censor go meant I had twice as much written, and had poked my pen into places I simply hadn’t seen when I was trying to persuade it to write elegant, studied prose. Perhaps it was because it was easier to knock aside the obvious points of the view with a few clichés and lists of adjectives, leaving me with spare time to look further into the landscape. But I’m sure there were other reasons, too.

We spend a lot of time trying to write ‘well’. But the point that this exercise made to me is that trying too hard can stifle us, sometimes catastrophically, to the point where we strip away our own thoughts and words because they seem inferior or clumsy. Then we compare the situations we’re writing about with others’ descriptions of similar situations, and often end up leaning on others’ writing. We might go so far as to use bald, overheard phrases in our descriptions, while suppressing words that leapt first to us as we looked out at the world through our own eyes.

Sometimes in writing, less is more. And sometimes more is more! I plan to spend drizzly January trying to let go, and seeing where I end up.

Happy writing!


Pippa Goodhart said...

How very interesting! Thank you, Ruth, I must give that a go.

michelle lovric said...

Oh, really want to try that one!

Helen Larder said...

Thanks for this interesting post, Ruth xxxx

Penny Dolan said...

Like this very much. Thanks, Ruth.

Sue Purkiss said...

Now here's something different!

Lynne Benton said...

What a bright idea, Ruth! Must try it.