Yesterday I attended my first ever creative writing workshop, coordinated by Jamaican author Olive Senior. I had never heard of Olive Senior before – by her own admission, she is a rather marginal writer – which was perhaps just as well: I would probably never have had the guts to enrol if it had been someone like Toni Morrison or Ian McEwan. Olive Senior has nonetheless been praised by critics for the quality of her writing and her contribution to Jamaican culture, and I have put her 1986 prize-winning short story collection Summer Lightning on my To Be Read list.
French students are unaccustomed to such workshops – to my knowledge, there are no Creative Writing courses taught in French universities as there are in the United States: the emphasis in France is on formal academic training, on rhetoric and a rational mode of thinking based on the abstract, in the great tradition of Descartes and the Enlightenment. This leaves little room for self-expression and creativity. Consequently it took the group a while to unbend and get into the spirit of the thing. Typically, the only person who freely voiced opinions and volunteered suggestions was an American exchange student. And I was the only person there who admitted to wanting to write fiction for a living.
I hope I won’t be violating any unspoken code by revealing the nature of the exercises we did during the three-hour workshop. I think they are fairly well-known exercises, not state secrets, but if they were indeed meant to be kept within the four walls of conference room 12, then I sincerely apologize and beg for clemency…
This exercise is called “Clustering”. It reminded me a lot of the experiments in writing that André Breton and the French Surrealists would conduct together, and is, of course, very much influenced by Freud.
You close your eyes and empty your mind for a minute or so. Then, in the centre of a blank sheet of paper, you write the first word that comes to mind and circle it. Then you write down all the words that occur to you in relation to that word (you can link them with arrows or simply write in concentric circles around the original word). The point of the exercise is not to think but to write automatically, letting your unconscious do the work. By association of ideas, or of sounds, you end up deviating quite a bit from what you started off with and can come up with some surprising results. What you’re hoping by doing this is that your unconscious will deliver up to you some unexpected idea that will spark your imagination and set you off with renewed dynamism.
In my case, I was quite startled and amused by what I came up with. My first word was “headache” (well, I had a slight headache, so that wasn’t as original as might at first appear). That led me to “pain” – “thrill” (already a surprise: since when does pain cause me anything other than fear?!) – “dolorous” – and “guard”. From “guard” I veered off in two different directions: the first one yielded “control” – “mastery” – “master” – “masterful” – “masterpiece” and finally “beautiful”; while the other led to “gory” – “doom” – “fate” – “mystery” – “Rome” – “dark” and “stark”. I feel the need to specify that I have a predominantly cheerful and optimistic approach to life, so that the number of gloomy words I came up with was all the more surprising, as was the rather baroque connection with Rome, which in my mind is usually linked with sunshine.
For this exercise, a pile of postcards, some of them photographs, some of them reproductions of paintings, all of them very different, was handed out, and each person had to select one that particularly appealed to them. For example, I chose a postcard of a painting entitled “Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Garden of Earthly Delights” by Ana Maria Pacheco (a really beautiful painting, by the way!).
The point of this exercise is to work on narrative perspective, i.e. point of view. You have half an hour to study your chosen postcard and write a paragraph (in prose or poetry, according to your preference) in response to each of the following assignments (it’s important to stick to the given order):
1) Describe the photograph.
2) Write in the voice of someone or something in the photograph.
3) Write as someone or something in the photograph addressing the photographer.
4) Write to say something to someone you know who has not seen the photograph.
5) Write about the photo as the photographer.
6) Address someone in the photograph.
7) Describe what happened just before the photograph was taken.
8) Describe what happened just after the photograph was taken.
9) Describe what was happening outside the camera’s range just as the photo was being taken.
10) Write as if you found the photo 50 years after it was taken.
The exercise forces you to think about what is going on in the picture, rather than just passively looking at it. You have to invent a story around the picture, find a reason for why the characters are there and the way they are acting. Half an hour is a short time in which to do all this (in fact, I only got half-way) but working quickly means that you are more spontaneous and often, more creative, than if you had more time to veto your ideas. I enjoyed this exercise a lot, and once again, was surprised by some of the things I wrote (apparently, there are lots of dark things going on in my unconscious at the moment that I am not aware of!).
The focus of this last exercise was on dialogue. Ms Senior read out to us the passage in Genesis on Adam and Eve, and the fatal apple from the Tree of Knowledge (apparently, it was necessary to remind certain people of the story, which shocked me a bit, I must admit: whatever one’s religious belief, or absence of such, it seems to me impossible to study Western literature – or even to understand it – without at least a basic knowledge of the Bible. It was, after all, the cultural framework for centuries of writers, from Chaucer to Goethe, to Louisa May Alcott, to Evelyn Waugh. However, this is beside the point).
Taking, therefore, the story of Adam and Eve as a starting-point, you have ten minutes or so in which to re-tell the events in a different way, using only dialogue between two protagonists of your choice. This would probably work with any other cosmogonical myth – the point is to choose a story that is so well-known that you have to find a different and personal way of telling it again, especially when all the facts are there, but little psychological detail (does anyone really know what Eve was thinking when she handed Adam the apple?!). The results in our group were inventive and entertaining – one girl turned Adam and Eve into a quarrelsome suburban couple who spent their time complaining about how boring it was in Eden, with nothing to do all day but eat and sleep, and then had the snake unexpectedly turn up on their doorstep as a pizza delivery guy who wouldn’t take back his order (including one stewed cinnamon apple – “It’s ok, you can eat it: it’s cooked!”) because it had already been paid for.
I chose to tell the story from the point of view of two archangels looking down from their fluffy cloud perches in Heaven and commenting on what was going on in the garden below, as if Adam and Eve were little figurines in one of those glass bubble ornaments you shake to make it snow. It was more than a little irreverent (at one point they took bets on who would take the first bite) but it was a lot of fun!
© Florence Berlioz 2011