Blog Archives

Answers (and Unexpected Helpers)

A Quick Writing Exercise

Ok, this is a riff off someone else’s writing exercise. I’m calling it 25 Answers. The original exercise was called 100 Questions and you can find a description of it here on my friend and early writing teacher/mentor Sarah Armstrong’s website:

I tried the 100 Questions exercise and it was fabulous for busting me past my first, most predictable thoughts and further, deeper into weirder, wilder territories – the kind I often long to get to but often find I don’t. Now I know a way to, more reliably.

The 25 Answers thing is something I spontaneously used once I was in that weirder, wilder territory. There was one key, central question to the story I was working on that I really needed to explore more thoroughly, it kept coming up and I kept answering it evasively. I actually initially set out to write 100 Answers but in the end 25 was plenty. I found the best way to approach the exercise was to write quickly but not without depth, I mean, with a real intention to try and get more and more honest with each answer.


I also have to confess to a little bit of magic-business with this one. At one point a small moth landed right on the part of the page I was about to write on and so I had to stop. I almost brushed it away but then something told me not to. Instead, I watched as the moth crept up and across the page, finally settling on one word I had already written. It stayed there for some time. I could keep writing then, so I did, but I kept an eye on that moth. It stayed where it was until I was done, and then it fluttered off. I paid close attention to the word it had settled on, and I felt a little ringing inside, a resonance, a Yes. That word was key, and as I progressed with a full reworking of the story, it became even more obviously so.

So, I would add that along with your 25 (or more) Answers, you be open to mysterious, small, quiet helpers. You never know who might be whispering your most heart-sought answers.

On Being Slow

I joked recently on Meg Vann’s facebook page that I think there should be a movement called Slow Writing, as there is the Slow Food movement that began in France when a farmer drove his tractor into a fast food restaurant in rebellion against a culture that is about immediate gratification, rather than about slow savouring and the conviviality of a shared meal.

But it’s not just a joke. It’s for real, for me. I am a Slow Writer. Which is kind of weird to come to realise, since I often write rather quickly; blurting words out in big, streaming puffs and blows. The slowness isn’t so much in the process of putting the words on paper, or typing to screen. The slowness is in what comes before and after. It’s in the opening and pondering and dreaming and stewing that comes before, and in the processing and digesting that comes after.

This all takes time. And time, for me, is space. This is something I’m still learning to trust. Being different, moving at a different pace, feeling like a slowcoach, can be hard to trust sometimes. You feel lonely, sometimes, when everyone is streaking ahead. Like the little caboose at the end of the train. Like the tortoise being left behind by the hare. The plod of your own steady footsteps your only company, until you recognise the ever-present company of space – the space you’re in, that you’re taking, that you’re held by, that you have and that has you.

This morning, after a long walk in the hills and valleys around my home, winding a wide circle down gravel road and orchard rows, across creeks, among trees, along fence lines, I came back and picked up my very first book about writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. This was apt, seeing as the thoughts that kept bubbling up on this particular walk had been thoughts of old friends, past relationships, memories. It’s an old book I don’t often turn to any more.

But it is such a good book, a kind book, a gentle and wise book. Maybe it is a book more for poets than for novelists. Maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not just for writers at all, because it has a lot of Zen Buddhism in it, and that can be for anyone.

I noticed this morning, while flicking through the pages, something I hadn’t noticed before. There is a lot of talk about space. About taking space, giving yourself space, opening to space. This morning, this is what seemed most resonant to me in her words. It was the same thing my walk had been telling me. Maybe it’s the same thing my whole life has been telling me.

Natalie Goldberg talks about haiku at one point, about how, when you read a lot of it, you start to see that there is a leap in it; “a moment when the poet makes a large jump and the reader’s mind must catch up. This creates a little sensation of space in the reader’s mind, which is nothing less than a moment’s experience of God, and when you feel it, there is usually an ‘Ahh’ wanting to issue from your lips.”

This is what being a Slow Writer can be then, this is what a Slow Writer might be doing, in the savouring of space. A Slow Writer might just be someone who likes hanging out with God.


Japanese kintsugi bowl. Broken crockery is joined with resins and then the cracks (spaces?) are accentuated by gold lacquer.

Here is Goldberg’s haiku exercise:

Write a series of short poems. You only have three minutes to write each one; each one must be three lines. Begin each one with a title that you choose from something your eye falls on: for example, glass, salt, water, the window. Three lines, three minutes. Without thinking, write three deft lines. Pause a moment, do another.

Here are some of mine from this morning:


Flag-like, moved by wind

Touched by air

And the private places of our bodies


Stained, used

Handled daily and nightly, still

Little ants bless you


Discarded, the busy hungry life

You bore

Has been eaten


I forget the wound that made

This slender line of light

Shining from beneath

There is another section in her book titled ‘Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger’. I guess this is her version of a Slow Writing manifesto, but being Zen-like, it’s not very manifesto-ish. In this piece she gently distinguishes the writer from the achiever. “We want to think we are doing something useful, going someplace, achieving something – ‘I am writing a book’”. When you give yourself space, she says, to learn to “trust the force of your own voice” it will naturally “evolve a direction and a need for one, but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”

I like this idea. It helps me to trust the Slow Writer I am, helps me to listen to her and to pay attention to the things she pays attention to. I can see that the achiever wants the things the Slow Writer is capable of making. What the achiever needs to learn is how to let go and let it happen.

This is something else she says in that piece, that takes me back to the haiku exercise: “Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.”

Amen to that. Amen to space … the breath in between things, actions, thoughts, words. The room of it. Space holds, gently; a cupped hand. How fortunate I am, you are, to be held like this. Even in the tightest places, there are paths to tread, tiny alleys, ladders that lead to rooftops, and the sky.

Sensibly Spellbound

I made a promise a while back I would contribute regular writing exercises. I’ve been pretty slack on that front. I hope this’ll make up. But bear with me.  It’s kind of a book review with a writing exercise at the end.

I’m currently writing an exegesis to accompany a group (flock, herd, pack?) of short stories I’ve written for my creative writing Honours project. The ‘thing’ each of these stories has in common is shape-shifting – each tale has a central character that shifts form from human to other-than-human, or vice versa, or something in between.  The theoretical bit I am in the midst of, looks at a bunch of stories (by more famous people than me) that also have a strong element of shape-shifting in them, and examines what kind of stuff gets opened up when metamorphosis is given such an overt presence.


Hathor – Susan Seddon Boulet

The thing about shape-shifting is, when you start to really think about it and engage with it, it opens up into an incredibly rich and ever-expanding territory. It’s big. It’s fun. There’s so much to explore. You kind of start out with these loose ideas about human/other-than-human relations and end up being taken on a wild ride through genetic engineering and poststructural cyborgs, through ecofeminism and postcolonial thought via fairy tales and mythology, and then deep inside the philosophy of phenomenology and finding yourself on the doorstep of animism, opening up to the inherently aware life of everything around us. Well, that’s what happened to me.

All along the way I knew that I wanted to speak about the way shape-shifting in stories is not something made-up and magical, at its essence (if it has one), but is a process inherent in all life, and when it happens in stories, it is addressing something both ordinary (in that it happens all the time) and profound (in that when we take it personally, we can see that it expands and connects us to EVERYTHING).


Ok, I’m being a bit abstract about all this, I know. I’m still forming these thoughts into something that can make some kind of sharable sense. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share the beautiful articulation of thought that I have found in a book called ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram. This book is that rare thing – the one you start to read and shivers go down your spine. The one you read and you don’t feel like you’re being talked to so much as feeling like you’ve been plunged deep inside a reciprocal conversation, because each bit you read seems to be a direct answer to an ache that’s been in your heart since the time you first started to figure out how most people live in this world. It’s rare in a book, and even more rare in a theoretical, intellectual book.


And the marvellous thing is, the way the book does this, it actually embodies what it is speaking about, which is about perception being ‘an experience of reciprocal encounter’ when we pay attention to it at its most direct intersection with what it is we perceive ‘prior to all our conceptualisations and definitions.’

This recognition of perception as a dynamic exchange has a heck of a lot to do with writers and writing. Our perceptions are the base materials that we use in our craft, they’re what we paint with, weave with, build with and blend and bend into all the countless creations possible when words are turned into imagery. No matter how imaginative we are, no imagery is really pulled straight from our heads. It is from our experiences with the world, with things, with other beings, with landscapes and rooms and objects and voices and wavelengths and winds – all the myriad experiences open to the perception of the senses of our physical body, that this imagery is based upon, whether first-hand, or handed down over centuries from our ancestors.


Der, you might say. That’s obvious. And okay, maybe it is. But it’s so goddam obvious I think we miss the profundity of it much of the time.

Take this, for example: ‘… in so far as my hand knows hardness and softness, and my gaze knows the moon’s light, it is as a certain way of linking up with the phenomenon and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollections not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses, certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting this invasion…’ They’re the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose major work was to investigate and elaborate the philosophical terrain known as ‘phenomenology’, which is the intellectual basis of Abram’s book.

There is something profound in recognising that what is ‘outside’ our bodies, can ‘invade’ us in the process of perception. As Abram points out in his book, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is full of such words. Throughout his work, all that we traditionally describe as ‘passive and inert’, is ‘consistently described in the active voice’, so that the ‘sensible world’ beckons, summons, ‘holds itself aloof’, expresses itself, takes possession and even ‘thinks itself within me’. Abram suggests that this isn’t just a pretty, poetic turn of language, but is an inevitable result of what happens when you try to speak about the world as it is directly experienced, rather than shutting off from it.

So here’s my writing exercise for those who are up for it (and the potential profundity it may reveal in the ordinary world surrounding you): write about the ‘sensible world’ in the active voice. Any bit of it, whichever bit of it presents itself to you. It might be a cup or the sky. It might be a cat or a rock, a breeze or a building. See what happens. (eg. I could write quite a bit about the persuasive powers of my bed in the morning! It frequently resists releasing me. I think it makes itself more comfortable and snuggly on purpose as soon as the alarm clock rings. Maybe they have an agreement…)


image by Miftah Fauzan

But if you remain unconvinced of the worth of this exercise for your writing (or your life), read this:

“We conceptually immobilise or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies… Only by affirming the animate-ness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world.”

So, go for it. See what happens when you open up to experiencing the world as awake and alive and active and then write from this openness. I dare ya.

More Writing Exercises for When the Well Runneth Dry

I did a writing workshop with the fabulous Kelly Link early this year. If you haven’t read any of her short stories you really should. They are soooooooo yum. I love the one about the Library/’reality’ TV show. Man it made me wish that show was real. It was even better (and weirder) than Buffy.


(Image by Shaun Tan – illustration from Kelly’s book ‘Pretty Monsters’)

One of the exercises she gave us was to write 50 first lines as quick as we could. Just like free-writing (which Kelly called ‘the equivalent of doodling’), with no pausing and thinking, but with a separate, numbered line for each. You can try out using different point-of-views (first, second, third, and everything in-between), tenses and genres.

Then, when you’ve got your 50 first lines/sentences, pick out your ten favourite and go on (in the same doodlin’ frame of mind) to write a paragraph following on from each. So then you’ve got 10 first paragraphs. Now pick out your favourite of these and go on and write a page that flows on from it.

You’ve now got yourself a good start on a new story, and a whole bunch of material to draw upon next time you’re feeling stuck and just need to start somewhere.

Here are some examples of first lines that came out of that workshop for me:

In the waiting-room, there was magpie in a cage.

Beeswax, leather and woodsmoke.

That time I walked on water.

Monks and mermaids have one thing in common.

She smoked cigars and ate blue-vein cheese.

Some other things Kelly suggested:

Write a list of the things you reliably LOVE having in stories. Many people can’t resist a story with a haunted house in it.


For me, a wild, witchy, weird wilderness is always a pleasure. I also love dirt and grit, bitter medicines and difficult healings, straight-talkin’ voices and double-decker buses.  What about you? Get particular about it.

When you are totally sick of yourself, try typing out a few paragraphs or pages of the work of someone you deeply admire. It usually won’t take long for your desire to create your own work to come shoving through nice and strong again.

Feel free to leave your favourite first line, or list of favourite story items, or most inspiring, envy-making writer in the comments section.

When Your Mojo Needs A Kickstart

Char sang out for a writing exercise this morning, cos the mojo wasn’t flowin’. I was happy to oblige. Bek reckons I should do a regular installment of such things on the blog. I reckon it’s a good plan. I’ll keep ’em short n sweet so’s I’m more likely to keep it up. So here’s the creative juice starter-upperers I prescribed for Char today. Feedback after usage most welcome!

Hmm. Okay. Something cathartic?
Put on music that suits where you’re at and write to it, for starters. One page, no stopping, no thinking, just write.
If you don’t feel ripe to go straight to that, maybe do a sorta zen exercise first – a page or 2 (I’m talkin hand-writing here) of paying detailed attention to your surroundings. Move through all the senses. Textures. Sensations. Then take that closer and do the same thing with your own being (mental, physical, all of it). Don’t stop and think, and sorta try to be objective, even scientific, non-attached and non-involved… (but not heartless!) Get intrigued by detail, the sheen of your skin, the spiderweb of lines in your hand, the buzz in your scalp … whatevs.

Ok, and here’s one from John Marsden:
‘Hell is the denial of the ordinary’. Do you agree? Design your own personal hell.

Image Hell can be pretty goddam ordinary, too, I reckon … 😉