Writing group workshops bring out a mixture of feelings in me. I’m overjoyed to be able to discuss writing with other writers. But then there are the exercises. As soon as the countdown begins, my mind goes blank. All I can concentrate on is the sound of other writers’ pens racing across the paper; diarrhoea to my constipation.
Not that anyone in my group writes shit, of course. Far from it. By the end of the exercise I have managed a few strangled sentences of clumsy words. They completely elude the idea I have finally decided to write about in the last minute of the exercise. Then comes the reading out of our words. I try to console myself with the thought that those who have written fast and copiously can’t have had time to construct a work of beauty. Wrong. I am astounded by the vocabulary and the images they manage to convey in ten galloping minutes.
In a recent homework exercise we had to write a description of an object. Everything I wrote sounded banal. I complained about my lack of skill to a friend.
I’m at war with this particular friend. He’s a fan of la bande dessinée, or comic books, better translated as graphic novels.
Our war pits Picture Novels against the far superior Word Novels (guess which side I fight for).
It’s a cloak and dagger war, and because my friend wasn’t wearing a cloak, his lunge took me by surprise.
“What’s the point of writing a description of an object?” he asked. “That’s what pictures are for. And they’re much more efficient than words.”
He gloated over his fortuitous thrust. While I hopped from one foot to the other, searching for a weakness in his argument, he attacked again.
“Words are only any use for telling stories, not for describing things visually. A good picture will bring an immediate emotive response. Words are a barrier to communicating a feeling. Art – and music and dance – are purer than literature because there’s no need to pass through the medium of words. Even the most apt words only dilute emotion. Our vocabulary is limited compared to the range of our feelings.”
The tip of his sword pinned me to the wall. I twisted and parried.
“It’s the way we use words that’s important,” I said. “A picture may be more immediate, but words take us further than our emotive response. They show us relationships between things that appear unrelated. When you write, you make links between ideas that are otherwise separate. That’s why clusters, or word association diagrams, are useful.”
His sword spun across the floor.
“In writing, your aim isn’t to describe a scene or object,” I reprised. “It’s to infuse it with meaning that takes you beyond what you can see, hear, feel and smell. That’s why imagery is more powerful than adjectives.”
I didn’t listen to his counter attack. I suddenly understood why I couldn’t produce a satisfactory description of my object. The description was only a start point. It would help me to look beyond the object’s visual appearance. The object was simply a portkey to a hidden subtext.
It takes much longer to find meaning in objects than to describe them. Meaning doesn’t always occur on demand – especially not in the presence of a ticking stopwatch. The writing exercise is a way of ‘writing in’ to find a meaning associated with the theme of the exercise. The placing of words on paper allows our subconscious to guide us to the memories or ideas lurking in the depths of our minds.
I’ve been doing those writing exercises all wrong. It’s time to play around and put things right. Forget the meaning to start with: just write about the object. A meaning will gradually make itself clear. Only then can you start to build your piece of art.