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Creative exercises

In this article, Vahni Capildeo encourages us to go deeper into the process of creative writing.

Deepening the exercise

The main thing is to set aside dedicated time.

There’s nothing strange about practising creative writing. Athletes do warm-ups and conditioning exercises. Many visual artists learn how to paint, draw, and make sculptures by using techniques and materials in imitation of artists from the past, even if they don’t stick with that as their personal method.

Yet somehow, people hardly ever make time to work on their own use of language: how to shape it, make it memorable, make it dance. Why? You might be embarrassed or ‘too busy’ to ‘indulge yourself’ in ‘scribbling’. You might have inherited traditions but not yet realized how worthwhile they are for your creative practice: there might be good storytellers or tellers of jokes in your family or acquaintance group; there might be fierce debaters, folkloric singers, preachers; importantly, there might be examples of good listeners…

There’s another reason to set aside special time for reading, listening, and writing. In daily life, we’re bombarded by more kinds of language than ever. Words come at us from everywhere. There are interzones of noise in our physical environments: actual noise of advertisements, leakage from people’s headsets, criss-crossing talk, someone nagging or screaming at you or making small talk about ‘your day’, and so on. Even if we’re quiet and alone, these interzones of noise can carry on in our heads.

As you can tell, it’s incredibly important – or so I’ve found in my own practice – to decide on how you, yourself, will deal with the questions of noise, silence, and creative concentration. Now I’ll briefly describe two approaches.

One approach is to acknowledge the noise that is there. Listen attentively (but not too respectfully) to all the layers of surround sound in which you’re living. Then proceed to make your sound environment your own, by engaging with it actively instead of letting it act on you. Make a note or a voicenote about what you’re hearing. Record or reflect on what’s sticking with you from the sounds you hear, no matter how trivial or bizarre. Is it words? Volume? Intensities? People? Nature? Machines? What echoes have you picked up from the everyday language that soaks into us? Don’t let randomness rule you. Start playing with it. See if you can collage or interweave patterns for your writing from the noise.

Another approach is to use meditation-like techniques to arrive at a deep inner stillness. The exercise laid out on the previous page is one example of a meditation-like technique by which to get away from the busy mind. In this stillness or silence, eventually you’ll be surprised to find things are going on. Rhythms may start to move without words. Words will speak themselves or float into your head, as if they were simply waiting for you to listen. Images may show themselves to you, perhaps fused with words and/or rhythms. These words, rhythms, images, may seem to be happening of their own accord within you – but it’s your material. Stay with it. Consider what it is and how it behaves. Alternatively, if you feel bored and come up against the absence of any kind of imaginative movement, challenge yourself to find the extreme of boredom…something may then spark in you, a resistant energy.

Sweep away any negative or hyper-aware self-questioning about whether such and such a word, image, or situation really ‘belongs in’ a poem or story or script; about what’s ‘literary’; about whether you’re being too much, too extravagant, or not brave enough, not good enough. Working with, rather than against, your deepest resources and tendencies will help you to get away from any artificial limits by which you might feel constrained. This is much more than so-called ‘self-expression.’

This is part of getting to know what kind of writer you are. Compose yourself before you embark on your composition.

Over to you

How did this warming up exercise feel? What was it like to tune in to your own ‘surround sound’? Let us know in the comments.

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This article is from the free online course:

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

University of York