Friday, 13 September 2013

Truth - stranger than fiction? By Sue Purkiss

Today I set my weekly writing class off on a story. We started off by looking at some pieces of jewellery I'd taken in - a complete mixture, ranging from a glittery owl brooch my daughter bought me when she was quite small, through a simple one made out of pewter set with an oval blue stone which my mother made at school, to a carved ivory necklace which Mum often wore when she was younger. I didn't tell them anything about the pieces. Everyone chose something and began to think about who might have bought it and why, whether it was a gift and if so what was the occasion and to whom might it have been given - and so on.

This was leading up to a story, which would involve a character which I would help them to build and a piece of jewellery - probably the one they'd been looking at, but it didn't have to be. 

They like it when I give them clues which help them to create a character. There are different ways to do it. Once, I took in a selection of objects; they had to choose three or four and imagine who might have owned them, how they'd come by them, what kind of person might have ended up with this particular selection. Another time, we did something similar using a random list of ten objects, cutting it down to five, and doing the same thing.

My own favourite is using pictures, like those above. I spread out postcards, cuttings, reproductions of paintings etc. They choose the one that interests them and then invent a name and a back story - or maybe write a monologue to explain what's behind the image.

But quickest and easiest, and probably the method most of them prefer, is Character Consequences. Each of us has a piece of paper. At the top, you write a first name. Then you fold the paper over and pass it on. The next person writes a surname. Then it might be the thing the person most wants, or their favourite piece of clothing, or their most noticeable physical characteristic - or the kind of house they live in, or the job they do. They can change or just not use one element, if it really doesn't fit in - but they tend to take pride in managing to finagle all the ingredients into the mix.

I think it was Alan Sillitoe, a lad from a working class Nottingham background, who found success as a writer after someone advised him to write about what he knew. It certainly worked for him, and it's a piece of advice that's often given to aspiring writers. I think there's a lot in it, but like most of the advice writers and writing tutors hand out about their craft, it's not the whole story. The exercises I've described above produce a surprising variety of entertaining work. I think that's partly because they provide a bit of a shortcut, a scaffold, a way in - but I think it may also be precisely because they introduce an element of something outside the writer's easily available normal environment.

What's led me to this earth-shattering conclusion? Well, I've just been away for a few days, staying with relatives not far from a small town in rural south-west Ireland. (I don't think the place is necessarily significant: it's just that it was a different place to the one I'm used to.) They told stories, one after another, about themselves and the people they knew, and I listened, fascinated. The stories - and the characters who peopled them - were dramatic, funny, fascinating - and different. I wish I could tell you some of them, but... best not!

But it did just strike me that these little exercises do something similar. We get used to our own attitudes, assumptions and experiences, and it's easy to draw on them when we write. But a simple exercise like one of those above does what a trip to another community does: it takes you out of your comfort zone and helps you step into the shoes of someone you would never otherwise have known or imagined.

Now, to finish - a little story from Ireland which is nothing to do with characters, but which created a haunting image that will stay with me.

My brother in law lives on a farm which he bought thirty years ago from an old man called Jack, who had been born there. Jack was extremely generous with his time and experience, and he taught the young incomer all he could about farming. He also told him stories of course, and one of them was this. 

In the old days, when Jack was small, the children from all around came to a school in the middle of the countryside, called the Model School. For Jack, it was only a half hour walk across the fields - perhaps a little less. But some children came from the top of the mountain - you can see it in the picture, on the left. Their families were poor, and they walked barefoot, carrying their shoes so as not to wear them out. 
At the end of the day, they had to trudge home again, back along the valley and then all the way up the mountain. The path went past Jack's family's farm, and his mother felt sorry for them and so would come out with a potato or a piece of bread and butter to help them on their way.

Only sometimes, she didn't hear them, or for whatever reason didn't come to the door. And when this happened, they would walk round the farmhouse (on the right there), over and over again till she noticed them. And only then would they continue their long journey home.

And that's the picture that sticks.


Tabatha said...

Great story! Enjoyed the description of the jewelry exercise, too. Thanks.

Penny Dolan said...

Nice post - and photof green Ireland. Your last story about the children walking around the house sounds like a far more poignant (and needed) version of pester power at the supermarket.

Joan Lennon said...

Your classes sound excellent - they're lucky to have you!

Savita Kalhan said...

I love that last story, Sue, and the fact that the kids never once knocked on the door, but just walked round and round until they were noticed. That resonates.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, Savita - I hadn't realised it, but I think that is the detail that hits the mark - that they know they don't have the right to ask.

Ann Evans said...

Great post Sue, and really helpful. I particularly liked your conclusion as to why bringing in objects and photos helps budding writers to think beyond their own readily available environment. Thank you!

Stroppy Author said...

Great ideas, Sue!
I send my students into the anthropology museum next door to their college and tell them to choose an object. They have to photograph it and email me the photo so I know what they're writing about.

Emma Barnes said...

Inspiring - it's all about tricking ourselves into looking at something (or somebody) slightly differently, isn't it?