The first step towards writing well is to train ourselves to notice the world around us. It is only when we have learned to concentrate on what we are receiving through our senses that we can recreate our experiences effectively in words.
Examining an object
Pick up an object—any object—from your computer desk, or take one from your pocket or your bag. Look at it as though you have never noticed it before. Perhaps you never really have.
Take in the colours. Does it catch the light and glitter? Or is it completely matt and without lustre?
Look at it from every angle. Take in the shape. Move it around and notice how the shape you see changes. Look at its underside, if it has one. If it's possible, peer inside it.
Does the shape of it remind you of anything?
How heavy does it weigh in your hand? Is it heavier than you might expect from looking at it? Or lighter, perhaps?
Hold it at a distance from your eyes. Then bring it so that you can study it close up.
What happens if you mentally alter the scale? Imagine how large it would seem to a mouse. And then imagine a giant's eye view.
Notice the substance from which it is made. Perhaps it is made from more than one substance.
Examine its texture. Is it the same all over? Or not?
Run your fingers over it. What does it feel like?
Are there any marks or irregularities left from when it was made: uneven stitching, perhaps, or marks of filing or polishing? Even mass-produced objects often have something that distinguishes them: a label stuck on crooked or a flaw in the moulding.
Does it show signs of wear or damage? Is it chipped or scratched? Is there dirt on it anywhere? Can you tell anything about how much use it has had, or the way in which it has been handled?
Does it make a noise? Or could it, if you moved it in certain ways? What does it sound like?
Sniff it. What does it smell of? Does the smell remind you of anything?
If you feel happy to do so, lick it. What does it taste of? Does the taste surprise you?
By now, it is likely that you are noticing things about this object that you have never previously taken in. Observation and curiosity are important qualities for a writer to cultivate.
Objects in museums
Of course, when it comes to museum objects we cannot usually examine them as closely as this. They are protected by glass cases, or there are signs warning us not to touch.
Still, when we stop and look at them carefully we start to notice very much more than we absorb from a casual glance. And we can always try to imagine the things that we can't see or sense: the feel of the object under our fingers, and the way it smells, for instance.
Suppose our attention is caught by a fine piece of wood carving. We take in what it represents; perhaps we also consciously notice the way it achieves its effects: the movement of the lines, the relationship of the planes, the balance of the composition.
Do we also take in the marks of the individual tool cuts, the cracks running through the wood, the small patches of ancient rot?
We cannot touch or sniff it. But we can imagine what it would feel like and how it might smell. We can guess what it must have smelled like when the wood was new and the carver was still at work on it.
One of the ways you can use this course is to print out the exercises and bring them with you to the Museum.
Alternatively, you can use images of V&A objects—each exercise has a number of suggested objects, but you can also use the V&A's Search the Collections database of objects to find your own.Go to Search the Collections
Exercise 1: Looking intensely at an object
Aim of the exercise: To recreate the object as fully as possible in words
If you are in a Museum gallery, find a suitable object. If you are working from your computer, choose an image from the selection below.
There are some objects that inspire an immediate sense of connection. Others yield themselves up less easily. They have a secret identity which does not reveal itself at first. You have to think your way into them. Bear in mind that these less instantly appealing objects are often the ones that provoke the best writing. Begin with a list writing down all the things you notice about the object.
- marks from when it was made
- signs of wear or damage
Sort out your list in order of importance. What is at the top of your list? What is at the bottom? If you could only show the reader two of the elements from your list, what would they be? These are going to be the central themes in the poem you will write.
Title this poem after the object itself. Write about what you see, and include as many details as possible, but always remember which are your two main elements and give these centrality. Give the poem a repeated line at the beginning and the end. This might be entirely factual: 'In a glass case at the V&A, stands a white vase.' Or it might be more to do with colour and image: 'A white vase, like an elegant swan.'
‘Battle of Sarnal in Gujarat’, about 1590-95. Museum no. IS.2-1896 106/117
'Battle of Sarnal in Gujarat'
Painting from the Akbarnama of Abu'I Fazl Mughul
India or Pakistan
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
Museum no. IS.2-1896 106/117
Robe, 18th–19th century. Museum no. T.199-1948
Chinese Imperial Dragon robe
Qing Dynasty, 18th -19th century
Silk tapestry weave
Museum no. T.199-1948
'Rotunda Chandelier', Sculpture
Fabric sample, Susan Bosence
Made under the direction of Susan Bosence
Indigo tie-dyed cotton
Museum no. Circ.96-1962
Shah Jahan’s wine cup, about 1657. Museum no. IS.12-1962
Shah Jahan’s wine cup
Museum no. IS.12-1962
Alabaster panel showing the Adoration of Christ, 15th century. Museum no. A.94-1946
Alabaster panel showing the Adoration of Christ
Carved, painted and gilded alabaster
Museum no. A.94-1946
Sindy Doll, Pedigree Dolls and Toys
Pedigree Dolls and Toys
Museum no. Misc.36-1975
Toilet Mirror, about 1665. Museum no. C.202-1977
Diamond-point engraved glass showing portraits, coat of arms and decorative detail in an ebony-veneered wood frame
Museum no. C.202-1977
Dish showing a mermaid, Thomas Toft
Dish showing a mermaid
Museum no. A.18-1913
Netsuke, figure of a rat
Figure of a rat
Museum no. A.958-1910
Cyantope photograph, Anna Atkins
Poppy with translucent petals in white silhouette on bright blue or cyan background
Museum no. PH.381-1981
Figure of Lydia Dwight, John Dwight
Figure of Lydia Dwight
Museum no. 1055-1871
Exercise 2: Simplifying an object
Aim of the exercise: Learning to look in a different way
You can use the same object as you used for the first exercise, or choose a new one from below.
Try and simplify the object you have chosen to a single quality: colour, shape, texture, material.Colour
Perhaps you have chosen a colour. Here are a few examples:
How can you best describe your object's colour or colours? Think of similes and metaphors you can use. Examples: for a piece of blue Delft you might write: 'like an open cornflower on a white field'; for Chinese lacquer: 'a glossy drop of blood.' Use these verbal images as the basis for a poem.Similes and metaphors
A simile is a comparison. It contains the words 'like' or 'as':
- 'the blue glaze, like an open cornflower'
- 'the glaze as blue as a cornflower'
A metaphor does not draw a direct comparison. Instead, it implies an identity between two similar things:
- 'the blue glaze, an open cornflower'
Instead of colour, you can use shape. Here's a suggestion you might like to try:
Find words to convey the shape of the object. Again, think of similes and/or metaphors you can use. Then try and represent the object visually using the words on the page. For example, if your object is a vase, you can play with irregular line lengths until you have made a rounded poem that conveys its shape before the reader has read a word.
You can make the poem purely about shape. Alternatively, once you have explored the possibilities of writing about the object's shape, you can introduce other qualities: texture, colour, decoration, etc.Texture
The texture of an object is always a useful thing to focus on, whatever your subject. Imagine how it might feel against your skin. Is it smooth or rough? Hard or soft? Is it scratchy? waxy? silky? What words will best describe it?Material
You can write about the material the object is made of. If you were only going to describe this, and nothing else, you'd need to look really closely, noting any changes in colour and texture, and any marks or imperfections. Suppose you choose a wood-carving: can you make out the marks left by the carver's gouge? Are there knots or wormholes in the wood? Is it chipped or scarred? Can you see stains in the wood? Can you describe them?Abstraction
Whatever quality you select to write about, you can, if you choose, move away from the physical presence of the object to explore that quality alone, writing quite an abstract poem that focuses purely on a particular colour (or colour combination), texture or shape.
Plaquette, about 1600. Museum no. 108-1864
Museum no. 108-1864
Ruyi, 1793. Museum no. A.17-1925
Dark green nephrite jade
Museum no. A.17-1925
This Ruyi or ceremonial sceptre was presented to Sir George Staunton by the Qianglong Emperor.
Fireman's Hood, late 19th - early 20th century. Museum no. FE.107A-1982
Late 19th - early 20th century
Quilted indigo blue cotton
Museum no. FE.107A-1982
Furnishing fabric, designed by Raoul Dufy
Designed by Raoul Dufy
Museum no. Misc.2:29-1934
Evening dress, Madeleine Vionnet
by Madeleine Vionnet
Silk velvet with pink and purple chiffon streamers
Museum no. T.89-1982
Box and cover, 18th century. Museum no. IS.02603
Box and cover
Museum no. IS.02603
Fabric sample, Susan Bosence
Indigo tie-dyed cotton
Museum no. Circ.98-1962
Hunting party mirror case, 1330-40. Museum no. 219-1867
Hunting party mirror case
Museum no. 219-1867
Diptych relief, possibly 14th century. Museum no. 293-1867
Possibly 14th century
Museum no. 293-1867
Hercules statuette, 17th century. Museum no. 416-1854
Museum no. 416-1854