Creative writing project: 2 Feeling and reflecting
Language is never neutral, and literary language least of all. Even a simple description carries an emotional charge and implies some kind of opinion about its subject.
Whether consciously or not, a writer always has designs on the reader. The aim of any piece of writing is to inspire thoughts and feelings in the person who reads it.
The best writing arouses a powerful response in the reader. The energy that drives such writing comes from the writer's own response to his or her theme.
There are many reasons why the sight of an object may stir up potent feelings. Perhaps it is beautiful, or appealingly grotesque. Perhaps it carries some symbolic meaning; perhaps it has associations that touch us in some way. Maybe it reminds us of old memories. It may represent or allude to a scene from a story that moves or intrigues us. All these things and more may be at work.
In order to write effectively, we must be prepared to tap into our deepest emotions. For some people this is instinctive and easy. For others, this may require a more deliberate effort. It may take time and mental quiet for a full emotional response to surface.
The best writing also contains insights: it illuminates its subject for us.
Sometimes the writer's thoughts on a subject are expressed explicitly. Often, they are left implicit; they work on the reader's perception through symbols and associations. Sometimes both kinds of expression are found in the same piece of writing.
We gain insights into our chosen subject when we take the time to reflect on it. Sometimes insights come to us spontaneously. At other times we have to tease them out and work on them to develop them.
They don't have to be Great Thoughts about Life. Often they may be witty or playful, ironic or paradoxical. They may be expressed in deliberately ambiguous language, or in a deceptively casual, throwaway manner.
However, they ought to offer an interesting and distinctive way of looking at the subject: your own way of looking at it.
One way of starting off is to meditate quietly on your subject and note down everything that occurs to you. Let go of all your immediate preoccupations and keep your subject in the forefront of your mind. Don't strain for great thoughts or especially fine phrases: just aim to keep the ideas flowing and jot them down as they come up.
Call to mind all the associations that your subject has for you. Don't be concerned if these seem very personal, and even eccentric. Don't try to be too rational about this whole process. Just let the words well up. If something emerges that seems irrelevant or even nonsensical, write it down regardless. At a later point you may be able to figure out how it fits in.
Does your subject possess any symbolic associations? Many of the things in museums are symbols of some kind. Here are some examples:
- A sceptre is a symbol of the power of a ruler
- An image of a skeleton symbolises death
- A clock may be viewed as a symbol of time
Perhaps what you are planning to write is a poem. If so, it becomes particularly important that you aim to express your thoughts through images (similes and metaphors ). Ask yourself: what is this like? what does it remind me of? Images have their place in other types of creative writing too.
The result of all this is likely to look like an unstructured mess. Don't let this worry you. What you are producing is raw material, from which you are going to shape your finished work.
These exercises offer some more structured ideas for producing raw material you can use in your writing.
If you are not working in the Museum, you can use the suggested images or you can use the V&A's Search the Collections database of objects to find your own.Go to Search the Collections
Exercise 1: Objects and memories
Aim of the exercise: To use an object as a focus for working with memories
Certain objects, such as domestic objects and personal objects (for example handbags, wallets and powder compacts) evoke powerful memories in individuals. Begin by choosing an object that evokes a strong memory from your past.
If you are in the V&A,you may like to start by looking at some 20th-century objects, or use the image provided below.
Consider working with an object, and a memory, with which you feel less than comfortable. Take a risk: go for the embarrassing, the disturbing, the painful. Your writing will probably be stronger for it.
Write notes about the memory that the object brings up for you. Be as thorough about this as you possibly can be.
Making memory notes
- Try to locate the memory. Where were you? What can you remember of your surroundings?
- When did it happen? If it is a childhood memory, do you know how old you were, or roughly how old?
- Were you alone when this incident or moment occurred, or with a brother or sister? Is this memory an 'I' memory or a 'we' memory?
- What other people were around at the time?
- What sensory impressions do you connect with it?
Be as precise as you can about what you remember taking in through your senses:
- Scent: don't just say something smelled of a single thing; most scents are combinations of different odours
- Colours: try and be exact about the precise shades
- Feel: remember the feel of the clothes you were wearing, the sensation of touching objects or surfaces
- Sound: remember voices, noises, sounds going on in the background
If you could only describe one aspect of this memory, what would it be?
Once your memory notes have been completed, have a go at writing either a short prose piece (under 1000 words) or a poem
Utility dressing table, Sir Ambrose Heal for Heal & Son Ltd
Utility dressing table, Sir Ambrose Heal for Heal & Son Ltd, 1947. Museum no. W.114:1-1978
Indian film hoarding, Balkrihn Arts
Indian film hoarding
Oil on canvas
Museum no. IS.112-2002
From the film Mughal-E Azam
Sindy Doll, Pedigree Dolls and Toys
Sindy Doll, Pedigree Dolls and Toys, 1975. Museum no. Misc.36-1975
‘Midwinter’, salad bowl
Salad bowl, servers and plate
Terence Conran for Midwinter
Museum no. C.34-1987
Platform shoes, Biba
Green and silver
Museum no. T.460-1988
‘Labour still isn’t working’, poster
'Labour still isn't working'
Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising
Colour offset lithograph
Museum no. E.141-1986
Mini dress, Mary Quant
Mini dress, Mary Quant, 1967. Museum no. T.351-1974
Teddy Bear, Merrythought Hygienic Toys
Merrythought Hygienic Toys
Cloth, with squeaker
Museum no. Misc.148-1976
‘Happy Reflections’, biscuit tin
‘Happy Reflections’, biscuit tin, Barringer, Wallis & Manners for Peak Frean, about 1935. Museum no. M.687-1983
‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, poster
‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, poster, Cyril Kenneth Bird (Fougasse), about 1940. Museum no. E.1559-2004
Portable radio cassette player, Sharp
Portable radio cassette player, Sharp, 1986. Museum no. W.13-1992
Mister Tambourine Man, poster
'Mister Tambourine Man'
Martin Sharpe for Big O Posters
Museum no. E.7-1968
A psychedelic poster, paying homage to Bob Dylan, which appeared in the 7th issue of London OZ magazine
Exercise 2: Memory poetry engine
Aim of the exercise: Finding the right words*
Select another object. This time, pick one that reminds you in some way of a particular person.
Take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. At the top of one column, write the name of the object. At the top of the other, write the name of the person.
In each column, quickly write a list of words that you associate with the subject.Example
smelling of tea-leaves
caddy spoon, etc
Carry on with this until you have about twenty-five words in each column.
Choose the best twelve words from each list.
Write a poem about the person whose name headed the second list, making sure that you use the twenty-four words you have chosen.Poetry engine
The 'poetry engine' approach to starting off a poem can be adapted in many ways. For example, you can choose a smaller selection of words, perhaps five or six, and write a poem in which those words are frequently repeated for effect. Or you can use the words from your lists as the link words in a hypertext poem.
You can choose to be strict with yourself about sticking to the words that you select from your lists. Alternatively, you can use the exercise as a way of starting the words flowing, and allow yourself some freedoms when you come to work on your poem.
*This exercise is a variant of an exercise described by the poet Mark Goodwin in Poetry, Prose, and Playfulness for Teachers and Learners, ed. Mark Goodwin and Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Leicester, Leicester County Council Press, 2004, pp 66-67.
Exercise 3: Concrete and abstract images
Aim of the exercise: Explore the differences between concrete and abstract images
This is a variation of the 'poetry engine' style of exercise. Select another object.
The first step is to look at the object, or a picture of it, and 'free associate': let words spring spontaneously to mind.
I have before me a picture of a tin tea caddy and spoon. I write down a full side of notes on a sheet of A4 paper concerning any thoughts that come into my head when looking at the picture of the objects. Some of these words and phrases may be obvious: 'tea leaves', 'tin', 'time for tea!' Others may be less obvious: 'clipper ship', 'dark waters', 'swirling'. Sometimes it may not even be obvious to the writer just why certain words and phrases have come up in relation to that particular object. This is fine, and to be expected. The point is for the writer to fill his or her sheet of paper with words.
The next stage
Once you have your sheet of notes, decide how you could order these into either a sequence of short poems or verses, or a short series of linked prose paragraphs, forming a story
Begin with a concrete verse that is then followed by an abstract one, or a descriptive paragraph that is followed immediately by a paragraph containing abstract images. Continue to alternate concrete and abstract verses or paragraphs.
Concrete and abstract
A concrete word or image is specific and sensual: it evokes a material reality. An abstract word or image is general, and communicates an idea; it expresses a connection that is mental rather than sensuous, sometimes one that is not immediately obvious. Sometimes the most disconnected image of an object can prove to be its most memorable incarnation. For example, describing a tea caddy as a 'tin box' might have less effect on the reader's imagination than describing one first as a 'tin box', but then in more abstract terms as 'swirling a tea brown ocean'.
If you are writing a poem, try numbering your verses, and playing around with the space that they occupy on the page. This will encourage you to think about the shape that the poem makes, rather than taking this for granted. If you are writing in prose, try putting the concrete paragraphs in a normal typeface and putting the abstract paragraphs in italics, in order to highlight the differences between the two.