The sun was out today and I took a photo of the view down to the lake…the same view I’ve taken dozens of times before. Yet I keep taking it because every photo is different.
It made me think of creative writing exercises in a group where everyone gets the same prompt and the results are always different. It also reminded me of several creative exercises that riff off the concept of same but different.
Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly, says, “Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”
View out the window
Poet Ingrid Ruthig taught me that same can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.
- Pick a vantage point: maybe the same window or the same bench in a park or the same table in the café where you write. On different occasions, record what you see. Jot down notes or list randomly on a page. Also, take note of the thoughts that come to your mind that may not seem to have any relevance on the scene. Reminds you of… Same colour as… Makes you feel like the time when…
- I try to write down at least 30 different observations each time. I find the first 20 are things that everybody sees. The last 10 are the interesting ones.
- When you’ve done it several times, look for connections or themes or opposites—and see where freefall writing takes you.
The Hunter technique:
Some years ago, I made it into the finals of a slam poetry contest with a poem about naartjies (what Canadians call clementines). It was a poem about my life, but I used the naartjie as a thread to weave different periods in my life together, a technique called the Hunter technique.
In his book Write Your memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story, Allan Hunter describes this technique as a way to rediscover details and memories buried under accumulated life.
- Select an item we wear, use or make, and that recurs in your life: shoes, sewing machine, apple pie, bathrobe, car, eyeglasses, garden…
- List 4 to 6 examples of when you had that item in your life. Where were you? Why did you have it? Who was in your life? Note as many details as possible about the item itself: old/new; given/purchased; physical details, etc. Most importantly remember how you felt about that item during the time you had it.
- Make the connection: Very often the things we own and especially the way we feel about them reflect our emotional state from that time in our lives. Using the objects as a thread we can link different episodes in our lives. Try it…
My husband and I play a game we call Alien Invasion. We imagine that we are trying to describe things that would seem the same to an alien. For example, all the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Recently we had a full moon in February—a snow moon. If you were to describe such a moon, what words would you (or your characters) use?
What colour is snow? You’ve only need to spend an afternoon looking at The Group of Seven paintings to realize that it is everything from grey to pink to purple and yellow.
And how about water? What colour is that? Or the sky? Or hillsides?
Hone your observation and vocabulary skills by playing Alien Invasion: Waiting for a bus? Find 3 different ways to describe the bus shelter. Bored travelling in a car? Ask what colour blue the sky is today. Find words for the feeling in your stomach from watching the world woosh by.
That’s not how I remember it
When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible, one of the things I loved most was the different perspectives the five voices telling the story had on the same events.
Weddings, holiday dinners, business meetings. Any occasion that brings people together will be a sea of different emotions, motivations, memories, attitudes, etc., all reacting to the same event.
If one of your scenes seems flat, switch perspectives for a while (just an exercise; you don’t have to keep it.) Once you know the perspective of others in the scene, you’ll be able to make dialogue more effective, and who knows…the scene may even go in a completely different direction.
On April 17, 2020, a group of very different writers will all gather at the same place, Elmhirst’s Resort for Writescape’s Spring Thaw Retreat. There are only a couple of spots left, so if you were thinking of joining us, visit our website and secure your spot.