I always wanted to be a writer when I was younger. Things didn’t quite work out that way (although I have written a couple of non-fiction books) but, as a trainer, I still get a buzz from working with groups and encouraging them to put pen to paper.
Listening to the radio this morning, I heard that Radio 2 has launched a short story writing competition to inspire children under 13 to put pen to paper as part of the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival.
This reminded me of a number of writing games that I use with groups that are designed to encourage creative writing. In fact, I incorporated one of these writing games into a training session I delivered earlier today.
Probably the best sort of writing to aim for with these exercises is the sort that isn’t too directly autobiographical and you should try to stress the fun aspect. I hope you find them useful.
On a sheet of paper, write the words “I remember” and go straight into whatever memory springs to mind first. Don’t spend time agonising about what to write. It can seem totally stupid and trivial – the clothes on a doll, the particular colour of a crayon you had when you were four – but write it down anyway.
Keep going until you run out of steam. Then as soon as that happens, whether it’s three words or three paragraphs, stop, write the words “I remember” again, and go into another memory. The main thing is to keep the pen moving on the page. Don’t look at anyone else’s. Focus on what you’re writing. No one else has to see it.
MONSTER HALL OF FAME
Imagine there’s a portrait gallery of all the people who have had a positive effect on your life – who have supported you, or inspired you to do better or to cope with a problem.
These may be people you know, friends or family, or people you admire and want to be like – singers, actors, footballers, whatever. You don’t need to have met them for them to be important to you.
Your job is to write a short caption beneath each portrait, summing up their effect on you. It could be something like: “He made me see you can win through a difficult situation” or “She’s an independent woman and I want to be like her.”
Do as many or as few as you can in the time. One is okay. But again, don’t agonise over it. You may want to make a short list of candidates first or just plunge straight in.
Afterwards, people will be asked if there are any they feel comfortable reading aloud to the group but no one will be forced to read out anything. What’s more important is that you have been thinking over the positive influences in your life.
TEN THINGS I LIKE
This is like a positive version of the TV show Room 101. Make a list of ten things you like, however silly they may seem. It could be food, something visual or whatever. Ask for volunteers to read their lists aloud but no one should be forced to.
• Sunlight through the kitchen window.
• Homer Simpson drooling.
• Mashed potatoes.
See how many people agree with the lists read out!
TEN THINGS I DISLIKE
Now make a list of ten things you dislike. This is more like Room 101. Try to keep it light-hearted – nothing that you know would upset other people if read out. Some examples:
• Anne Robinson’s phoney wink at the end of programmes.
• When the TV announcer says: “Another chance to see…” when what he means is: “another repeat.”
• No choice of bakeries anywhere (Greggs or nothing).
Ask for volunteers to read stuff aloud but be aware of other people’s feelings.
MAKE-BELIEVE TABLOID STORY
Have a look at some of the sillier tabloid stories. What kind of stories most appeal to the readers? Can your group put them into categories?
Get the group to underline or circle at least three details that appeal to them. It might be terrible puns or a catchy headline. Note that usually the opening paragraph sums up the story to get readers involved and make them want to read on.
Now, with a partner, your group members have to make up a story which is even sillier than the ones they have read – something to make even the editor of The Sport think twice before publishing it (but no obscenity or swearing). They don’t need to worry about being sued, so they can make up lies about a celebrity or some bizarre event that has happened to a normal person.
Don’t worry, they’re not writing the whole story. All they have to do is invent a headline and write the first paragraph, which should be about 40 – 50 words. This should provide the basic details of the story. See if they are willing to read them aloud!
Get the group to pretend they are sitting under a large tree with their back against the trunk. On the other side a storyteller – a man whose job is going from town to town telling stories to people - is resting against the trunk. Get each group member to take a sheet of paper and number 1 to 5. Write down 5 things they’d like to hear stories about.
Get them to read them aloud to the rest of the group. Did lots of people come up with the same things? Are there kinds of stories that we all need to hear? Maybe one or more could actually try to write or improvise one of these stories.
Give each group member 5 blank postcards. On the address side, get them to write the names of 5 people who have been important to them – maybe ones they haven’t kept in touch with.
They now have two minutes to write a message for each card. Send greetings to their friends, letting each person know what they think of them. Remember they only have the space on the blank side of the card and two minutes to write it so don’t allow them too much time thinking about it.
When they’ve finished they can send the cards for real if they want.
THINGS YOU LOVE
When things get too stressful, this can be a really good exercise. Give your group a bit of time – this is only going to be a list, so if they find writing sentences, etc too difficult this will be easier.
All they have to do is make a list of 100 things that they, personally, love – whatever they might be. It’s a way of reminding themselves that even when they’re in the middle of a terrible situation the things they liked before then will still be there for them afterwards. Music is a big consolation for most people, for example. Or a favourite film, or a favourite comedian.
Here’s part of a list that shows they can choose just about anything: if they like it, then it makes their list.
3. The scent of pine
5. Cheese cake
6. Santa Claus
8. Take That
Encourage them to keep their list handy, in their wallet or whatever. When stress strikes, they should have a look at it. Even if these things seem really trivial they’re not: they’re the things that help them get through the day. They have a special meaning.
THINGS I AM PROUD OF
I use this exercise a lot with my groups. It’s great way for them to see good in themselves. We spend so much time thinking of things we ought to do and haven’t done that we sometimes forget to congratulate ourselves for the things we have done.
So this exercise is about taking time to think about the good things your group members have done (there will be some, even if they don’t think so). Make a list of 10 things they are proud of, from the small to the large (more if they want). Or do as many as they can in the time. Here’s an example:
1. Starting a new training course
2. Saving up enough money to visit friend’s in London
3. Giving up alcohol
4. Remembering my best friend’s birthday
5. Putting myself through college
6. My cooking
7. No longer being afraid of dogs
8. My relationship with my parents
9. The design I did for a local newsletter.
10. Losing ten pounds in weight.
Encourage them to read over what they’ve written. Maybe there’ll be some they want to share with the group. But looking over the list might also tell them something about the kind of person they are, and what matters most to them.
And it might also give them an idea of things they could write about in more detail later. (For example, can they put into the words all the excitement and memories they feel about a particular song or a particular place?) See if there’s at least one thing on each person’s list that they’d be interested in developing as a fuller description, maybe taking up a complete A4 side.
Get the group to individually make a list of 10 objects that have some kind of importance for them. This could be an old toy, a broken down washing machine, a poster, and a mirror, whatever.
Now get them to write two or three sentences for each one, just giving an idea of how they look and the kind of memories, feelings they bring out. If they’ve had the object a long time it obviously helps bring out stuff to write. But what they write doesn’t need to be hugely detailed. Here are some examples of what they could say:
• The mirror in my bedroom. I cracked the top right corner when I was fourteen and it’s never been repaired. I remember checking for spots in it before my first real party. It’s seen me grow up. Somehow I don’t want to replace it, though it’s falling to bits.
By the end of this exercise they might find themselves keen to take one of the things they chose and write it up in more detail. Which object made them think “There’s so much more to say about this?” Get them to imagine themselves like a fly crawling over its surface. Describe every single detail of it – every crack, every stain, every bump.
Then treat all their memories connected to it in the same way – make somebody who knew nothing about the object feel why it’s really important and personal.
There doesn’t have to be a punchline or a twist at the end. Writing doesn’t have to be about putting stuff in a story. Just describing something in detail can be a good piece of writing.
This kind of writing is like drawing quickly, even the kind of absent-minded doodling when our mind is on something else.
Get each group member to make a quick list of topics, not worrying whether they know anything about them or not, then start writing about them and see where it goes.
It could be total nonsense or lies – this exercise is really about the fun of putting stuff down on paper. Some topics could be as random as:
• My grandparents
• A ghost story
• A dance recital
• The First World War
So it could be real, could be made up. Choose one topic. What would you write about it? Why would you write about it? Spend 5-10 minutes writing about it. Think of it as a game. It doesn’t have to be deep or sensible or practical.
LETTER FROM YOUR OLDER SELF
Get your group members to imagine they are 80 years old (I’m presuming they’re not already!). Whatever their dreams or hopes are now, they have been able to achieve them.
Get them to write a letter to themselves as they are today. Describe the difficult things they have faced in their long life as well as the successes. What advice or encouragement can they pass on to their younger self?
Encourage them to be understanding: a letter beginning “You make me vomit, you hopeless waste of space!” isn’t exactly going to make them feel positive about themselves!
Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to daydream too much about what we would like to do in an ideal world. This exercise can be good for getting your group to focus on what they want to achieve, and make them feel better about the future.
There’s something about writing things down that means you’re more likely to do something about anything that’s worrying you. So this exercise is very simple. All your group has to do is make a list of the things they wish would happen in their life.
Get each group member to take a sheet of A4. Number from 1 to 25. Then, without stopping and thinking too much about it, have them very quickly complete the phrase “I wish” 25 times. They’ll find that their wishes will range from the small to the big, from the personal to stuff concerned with their ideas about the job they want, etc. For example:
1. I wish my hair were longer.
2. I wish my sister lived closer.
3. I wish I had a guitar tutor.
4. I wish I ran every day.
5. I wish I had more money.
6. I wish I was happier.
7. I wish I could impress interviewers.
8. I wish I could get up half an hour earlier every day.
9. I wish it was summer.
A SENSE OF PLACE (30 mins)
This is a version of a workshop done by the writer Lin Coghlan. The idea is to take your group step by step through different stages of a piece of writing and by the end they should have something that is reasonably long and works quite well. The good thing is that instead of being left alone for 45 minutes or whatever and told “Write something good,” every few minutes they’ll be given the next instruction so all they have to do is follow each new instruction and not worry too much about what they’re writing. Writing is always a game; sometimes it ends in a mess and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s okay – they can still learn something from trying it out.
Part 1 (5 mins)
Describe a place. It has to be a real place that they know, and it has to be outside in the open air.
Encourage them to be as specific as they can – so not just “a park” but stuff like: “Near the entrance of the park beside Smith Street, where the overflowing litter bin and the notice with graffiti is. There’s green paint peeling off the railings, and empty drink cans lying about.”
And get them to say when they imagine this place: a summer evening? A frosty winter’s morning? What about sounds – are there any? Can we hear anything in the background even if there’s nothing up close?
Part 2 (3 mins)
Now they know the place, they’re going to put a person in it. So someone has come to this place for a reason. It could be to meet someone, could be just to pass time, whatever. But they have to describe the person and the reason for his/her being there.
First of all, describe their appearance. What would a stranger make of them? Clean? Neat? Fashionable? Untidy? Odd-looking? Do they take a pride in their appearance? What about the way they’re behaving? From their body language, do they seem anxious? Troubled-looking? Afraid? Happy? How do they walk? Is it quickly, eagerly? Or slowly, as though they don’t want to get wherever they have to go? (Why not?)
Part 3 (3 mins)
Now they are going to describe a second person. This person should be different in some way from the first. But go through the same thing: their appearance, expression on their face, the way they walk.
This person has also come to this place for a reason. Maybe to meet the first person, maybe not. There could be any number of reasons – encourage them to let their imaginations go. (Is this place important to him/her in some way? Does it have memories?)
Part 4 (3 mins)
Now here’s the fun bit. These two people are going to meet – whether it’s deliberately or accidentally – in the place they’ve described. Do they suddenly see each other or is one person hiding, watching the other?
Taking the first person they described, sum up how they feel at the moment they first see the second person is there. Has this meeting been expected or not? Is it a pleasant surprise or something fairly horrible? Why? At this point, get them to say what they think might be going to happen between these two people.
Part 5 (3 mins)
Now, taking the second person, again, go through the same thing. They can speak their thoughts if they want (“I feel that …”) or just describe them (“She feels …”).
And do the same thing with them as they did for the first person: is the meeting expected? Or a nice (or nasty?) surprise? What’s their strongest reaction on seeing the other person? Anger? Fear? (Do they know them?)
Part 6 (3 mins)
Now get them to imagine they are watching these two people on a film with the sound turned down. So they can see the two people but not hear what they’re saying. The film’s got lots of close ups so they can see the expressions on their faces as well as more general body language. Think about the basics: are they standing close to each other? Is one trying to move away? Is there any touching?
The meeting lasts for a total of three minutes before one of them walks away. Does the behaviour between the two people change in that time – maybe it starts off friendly but becomes aggressive? Or two shy people who become friendlier? A lot could depend on whether they’ve decided these people already know each other or not. Or they could be connected even if they’ve never met before – eg a blackmailer meets their victim for the first time.
Part 7 (10 mins)
Okay, here’s the final bit. They’ve thought about the place, the people, they’ve even thought about their body language. Now they’re going to write the script of what they say to each other in this three minute meeting! And remember, one of them walks away at the end so there must be a reason for that (not necessarily a bad one). So they don’t need to worry about stage directions, because they should all be there in the last bit they wrote.
So. They know the people by now. They know roughly what’s happened between them. So don’t agonise over what they say, just go for it. Aim to do about a side of dialogue. And when they’ve finished this bit, it’s over!
Visit Gary Bedingfield Training Services website at www.garybedingfield.co.uk