Writing: The Power of Exercise

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“The first draft of anything is shit.”
Ernest Hemingway

If you’ve read my blog from the start (Mum, that’s you) then you might be wondering: Where has all the writing gone?

I initially set up this blog as a way to get me writing again, a deadline that would push me out of my word-less slump, and back into my novel. But then I met this writer during a workshop who suggested that blogging my every single chapter might go against me in the future should I ever attempt to get published, or enter my work into competition. Now, I don’t know how much of this true, if any of it, but I am looking to enter my novel in a competition which closes towards the end of the year (October – keep your fingers crossed because I still have 30,000 words to go) so I don’t want to jeopardise entry to this. Apaz some of them have totes strict rules. I am using this competition as a deadline, kind of, a way to finally finish my novel, LOL, and get it out there and stop being afraid of it. Anything else would just be a bonus. An incredibly welcome and much loved bonus, mind.

I thought it was about time to start sharing more of my writing.

There’s a danger that I will start hiding behind my laptop again and this will throw me back into my old ways where people ask how my writing is going and I just sort of nod and smile inanely, feel incredibly silly and flustered, and then suffer a wave of guilty for not having written a single thing in such a long time. Or start feeling that familiar knot of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-I’m-not-a-writer that tangles itself up in my belly.

And if I could recommend one thing that I really believe helps to strengthen writing ability and boost confidence it would be writing exercises.

These are often incredibly simple and can be picked up anywhere. There are lots of exercises in Writing Handbooks/Guidebooks, on blogs, or social media (if you follow writers/writer type organisations on Twitter, you can guarantee to pick up some great tips) you can even go on retreats or courses where you can be taught such methods first hand, although be warned: these can often be pricey. You don’t have to go as far as signing up for a masters degree like I did, but rather you could approach your local community centre, literature festival or college and see what they have to offer. There’s loads of stuff out there. If you’re a ladyface, apply to this, Womentoring, which is a scheme set up by a bunch of writer women offering to help other women who don’t necessarily have the means to study creative writing any other way. I’m tempted to apply as I’ve just found out there’s a pretty fab YA author still up for grabs. And, its completely free!

One exercise I can recommend – which is extremely helpful and not at all time consuming – is something called Morning Pages which is essentially just waking up and reaching for a pen first thing in the morning. Keep a notebook by your bed and write for ten minutes when you first get up. Don’t think about it, just write. It doesn’t matter what you write, just that you do. Its a brilliant way to clear your mind for the day ahead, even if you aren’t planning on spending the day writing. It can help prepare you for that interview, conference call, meeting – anything. And who knows? Those scenes, snatches of dialogue and characters you conjure up could just be the start of a fantastic short story or even a novel.

A really great example of an exercise that was surprisingly beneficial was set by the brilliant Nicholas Royle during a workshop at Moniack Mhor (**sigh**) this year, and the premise was that we were each to choose a different postcard depicting a work of art. Once we’d selected our image, we were to write for twenty minutes using the picture as our inspiration. There were no rules, only that we had to use the piece of art in some way – be it a single person in the image, a feeling, the physical painting/sculpture itself, or even the postcard.

I chose the below which is apaz called “Triptych – August 1972” and is by the artist Francis Bacon.

Triptych - August 1972 1972 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Now I’m about as arty as a baked potato. I can barely draw stick men and don’t really “get” art the way some other people seem to. But I had a go anyway, in my own YA way. Here’s what I wrote:

**

I found this postcard in my dad’s desk drawer. I don’t recognise the handwriting, it’s all fat and sloping and full of words like “darling” and “love” and “mine,” all words we don’t use in our family, feelings we don’t have. I sit in his big green desk chair, the one us kids used to break into his study to take turns spinning each other around on. Sometimes we would pile three or four at a time, clinging to each other screaming and shouting and squealing, as we span round and round, the room a zoetrope – bookcase, lamp, bookcase, lamp, bookcase, lamp. I curl my legs underneath me; place the postcard on my lap. It’s an unlikely image to accompany such tender words.

I am one of those people who doesn’t “get” art. I mean, I can decide whether I think a picture is pretty or interesting, or if I like the colours or textures or whatever, but I don’t understand it like I think I’m supposed to, like other people do, or pretend to do. We went on a school trip recently to some art gallery or other that I forget the name of, the one in town near the bus station, and got bollocked for mucking around by some fat gallery attendant. Kate and I were trying to find all the horses in the pictures, counting them and picking out the ones we found funniest, the ones with the big teeth and eyes with pupils so wide that it looked like they’d just snaffled a load of acid and trotted off into battle.

The images are pretty fucked up. There are three and they’re all of the same man, or at least I think it’s a man, sitting on a stool in a room. Behind him is this dark hole. Or is it a door? I don’t know, but when I think of that dark space it makes me shudder and reach for the old rug my dad keeps slung over the back of the chair. I take a deep breath; inhale the scent of him as I wrap the thick material around me, tightly mummifying my torso. Its smells of his woody aftershave and roll ups – strong tobacco and menthol filter tips – and I imagine him sat at the desk, puffing away on illicit fags when mum thinks he’s working.

I look closely at the images, brush away thoughts of the chair and the gallery and dad, and try to figure it out. I’d like to be smart like Jaz, and not to be thought of as just pretty, or cute, or silly, or funny but proper smart, intelligent, someone with something to say. I want to mention the postcard to dad over dinner and say clever things about use of colour and surrealism or whatever, but all I can think about is how the man’s leg looks like one of those big slabs of ham you see hanging up in the butchers. There’s a pile of something at the guy’s feet that looks like strawberry milkshake or I suppose it could be blood or ham juice, if that’s even a thing.

I look harder, squint my eyes a bit because I’m sure that’s what you’re supposed to when you’re looking at art. I know it’s what you do when you look at those Magic Eye things and I’m guessing that’s pretty much the same. I look at the guy’s face, it’s blurred and red, and his eyes are shut like he’s blocking stuff out. Maybe he’s afraid of the darkness behind him? Or maybe it’s because he’s got a massive hole in his stomach, feet like slices of bacon and he’s wearing an adult nappy.

Why the actual fuck would someone send this postcard? It’s just some man sat on a stool that looks like it’s from Ikea.  I flip the card over and read the typed writing below. It says Frances Bacon and I think that’s pretty apt because the whole man looks like he’s made of bacon but I think it’s the name of the artist not the man on the Ikea stool. At the bottom of the card, next to the info about the painting and its location, is one line of big, sloped writing. “I saw this and thought of you.”

There’s hate in this picture. Loads of it. A half-man, a quarter man, a slaughtered man. A man curled up like a baby. A man seeping red stuff onto the floor. A man with his eyes shut. A man with a dark space behind him, inside him, around him. I think of Dad. I think of how he sits and nods and listens, and says things, lots of things, but not nice things. Not lovely things or things about love.

I think of dad.

**

So, how have writing exercises improved your work? Do you have any fab recommendations or tips for other writers?

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