The Writing Experiment
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The Writing Experiment

Strategies for innovative creative writing

Hazel Smith

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eBook - ePub

The Writing Experiment

Strategies for innovative creative writing

Hazel Smith

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About This Book

'A systematic and engaging approach to creative writing' - Carla Harryman, Wayne State University By suggesting that students who are not born poets can yet learn to become good ones, Smith performs a very important service.' - Professor Susan M. Schultz, University of Hawaii This is an impressive book, because it covers areas of creative writing practice and theory that have not been covered in published form It links radical practice with radical (but better-known) theory, and will appeal to anyone looking for a different approach ' - Robert Sheppard, Edge Hill College of Higher Education, UK The Writing Experiment demystifies the process of creative writing, showing that successful work does not arise from talent or inspiration alone. Hazel Smith breaks down writing into incremental stages, revealing processes that are often unconscious or unacknowledged, and shows how they can become part of a systematic writing strategy.The book encourages writers to take an explorative and experimental approach to their work. It relates practical strategies for writing to major twentieth century literary and cultural movements, including postmodernism.Suitable for both beginners and experienced writers, The Writing Experiment covers many genres including fiction, poetry, writing for performance and new media. Each chapter is illustrated with extensive examples of both student work and published writing, and challenging exercises offer writers at all levels opportunities to develop their skills.

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PART 1 Introductory strategies

CHAPTER ONE Playing with language, running with referents

In the Introduction I emphasised that you do not have to have an idea to start writing, but can generate ideas by manipulating words. So this chapter initially encourages you to play with language, without necessarily having any particular idea or theme firmly in mind. When you play with language you are engaging with language-based strategies. The fundamental premise on which such strategies are based is that words suggest other words. Start with one word—any word—and it will lead you to many others, until you have formed a whole text. These methods invite you to explore the sounds and meanings of words as a way of finding ideas, rather than starting to write from a preconceived idea. If you soak up these approaches, you need never suffer from writer’s block, because words will serve as automatic triggers for writing.
A very important idea in literary theory, on which language-based strategies are constructed, is that language creates the world rather than the other way round. Reality is not simply ‘out there’ independent of words and unchanged by them. Rather, the way we use language makes the world how it is. Playing with language allows us to construct our own world, and question some of the ways in which reality is normally perceived.
In talking about language-based strategies, I am distinguishing them from referent-based strategies. Referent-based strategies help you to ‘run’ with a particular subject, theme or idea you have in mind, and to build a text upon it. In the second half of this chapter we will take the mirror as a referent, and see how far we can run with it.
Language-based and referent-based strategies are the two most fundamental approaches to writing. All writing engages with one of them, and most writing includes a combination. Here we explore them separately to show how each can be a powerful tool in your writing.
  1. Play with language and build up three short texts using the following techniques in turn:
    • a) word association
    • b) phrase manipulation
    • c) combining words from a word pool.You can add words such as ‘is’ or ‘of’ to combine the words into short phrases.Try to make your combinations unusual and striking.
  2. Write a short creative text using one of the following referents: the mirror, the map or the machine.


Language-based strategies encourage you to think in ways which are nonlinear, and to make unconscious connections. They coax the associative modes of thinking which are pivotal to creative endeavour. These exercises are fun to do, they play games with language, but they can also produce challenging and unusual texts.
It is essential to have some language-based strategies at your disposal, and all good writers do. Language-based strategies tend to be very fundamental; if you start with language you are immediately concentrating on the medium in which you have to express yourself. As you play with words, new lines of thought may begin to reveal themselves. If you start with an idea it still has to be converted into language, and that is the difficult part—because you can have the most amazing idea in the world, but it is not always easy to find the right words to express it or fully convey its complexity.
Language-based strategies sharpen your sensitivity to language and help you to be discriminating, imaginative and unconventional in the way you use it. Inexperienced writers sometimes fall back on clichés like ‘his heart throbbed’ or ‘her eyes were full of tears’: these exercises will help you avoid them. So even if you end up writing in a way which is very different from the style induced by these exercises, you will find them a useful technical resource.
Language-based strategies exploit the relation between the signifier and the signified. According to the linguist, Ferdinand Saussure, the signifier is the material form of the word—its visual and aural dimension, the way it looks and sounds—and the signified is the concept, the meaning. In normal conversation we tend to concentrate on the signified rather than the signifier, but your writing, particularly poetry, can be enhanced if you stress the signifier as much as the signified. (For more explanation and detail about Saussure’s ideas see Structuralism and Semiotics (Hawkes 1977), Saussure (Culler 1976), Critical Practice (Belsey 2002) and The Theory Toolbox (Nealon & Giroux 2003).
These exercises encourage you to take account of the sounds of the words. In them sound is used as a generative process (a way of making one word suggest another). The objective of the exercises, however, is not to encourage you to write traditional rhymed verse. This type of writing now seems somewhat anachronistic because it was mainly predominant in pre-twentieth century poetry, though it is retained in some popular forms such as rap. Rather, playing with language helps you to explore other ways of using sound. And since rhyming verse is a technique with which you are probably already familiar, I suggest that you avoid it completely for the moment, in order to widen your scope and steer your creativity in other directions.


The word association exercise (Exercise 1a) is a commonly used strategy, but my version of the exercise is different from others in the emphasis it puts on sound as well as sense. This exercise has many functions. First, it sensitises you to language, making you aware of its plasticity: the way language is like clay in your hands. Second, it can be used to develop strings of ideas. Writers often use word association to trigger thoughts on a particular topic, and it is a good way to dredge up unconscious connections through language. Third, it can result, with some care and manoeuvring, in an experimental text which is stimulating to read in itself. Such texts are often powerful because they are polysemic: that is, they have many different meanings and these fly out in several directions at once. In the following examples I break down the process of word association into several stages.
So let’s take a word and see how we can spawn others from it by association. Our purpose here is to eventually produce a large block of words—half a page or more—combining different types of association. Examples of this kind of writing can be seen in Examples 1.6 to 1.10, but we will start with a breakdown of the process into preliminary strategies. You may want to try all these strategies in turn, either starting with the same word I have used or thinking up one of your own.
First, we will see what happens when we take one word and forge others from it which are similar to it in sound. In doing this I am playing with the signifier. In order to make it clear how all the words relate to that first word, I will repeat it each time.

Example 1.1: Association by sound (playing with the signifier)

green ghost truth token
green grate truth ruthless
green grist truth truck
green guard truth rucksack
green grain truth roof
green real truth suit
green read truth soup
green needle truth ute
green scene truth time
green knee truth tool
green agreeable truth tower
green aggravate truth uterus
green oversee
green industry
Here I have improvised pairs of words in which the second word always bears a sonic relationship to the first. To do so, I have employed strategies such as alliteration, assonance or half rhymes. The second word may be quite distant initially in meaning, but the meanings of the two words become related through sound. In this way connections between words can be produced by sound that would never occur by a primarily semantic route. As you can see, some of these combinations suggest unusual images, for example that truth is token or a soup.
Now let’s see how I can produce word association by meaning:

Example 1.2: Association by meaning (playing with the signified)

green blue truth falsehood
green sick truth real
green grow truth fiction
green inexperienced truth language
Here I have generated each second word in the pair by meaning (even though a combination like ‘truth falsehood’ works by antithesis). And you will notice how I am exploiting the different senses of the word ‘green’: the way we associate it with colour, or with naivety, or environmentalism. Let’s look now at two other strategies, dissociation and leapfrogging:

Example 1.3: Dissociation

green falsehood truth nest
green milk truth lamp
green impulse truth petal
green puddle truth bird
In this example I have generated words largely by dissociation, by writing down a second word which seemed to have no immediate connection with the first. But it is surprising how once you place unrelated words side by side a connection between them can suddenly be forged. You can see that there is some mileage in the notion of ‘a nest of truths’, or ‘a bird of truth’, or a ‘green impulse’.

Example 1.4: Leapfrogging

  • greenpeace
  • peace talk
  • talkback
  • backdrop
In this group I am doing what I call leapfrogging: that is, making the end of one word the beginning of the next, and through this process building up new words.
So in all the above examples I am playing with the relationship between sound and sense, sometimes homing in more on the sound, sometimes more on the sense. I am also, in these examples, trying to divide the sound from the sense but, of course, the two often go hand in hand. If you say ‘green grow’ you arrive at a combination of words which is linked by sound, but also intimately connected by sense.
In the next example I have used a multisyllabic word. This gives more scope than a word of just one syllable. I have also employed a mixture of strategies here for generating the second word. Decide for yourself what strategies are at work here:

Example 1.5: Mixed strategies

energy synergy
energy generate
energy genesis
energy emphasis
energy gene
energy dynamism
energy exercise
energy electricity
energy aerobics
energy pen
energy light
Let’s go further now: instead of confining ourselves to the first word we will keep breeding new words all the time by different forms of association or dissociation. For example, if we start with the word ‘truth’, instead of retreating back to it each time we can strike out with a whole stream of other words:

Example 1.6: Moving away from the first word

truth ruthless mucus mindplay playback falsehood hoodwink wisecrack crackdown whitewash cycle circle syntax tax free freedom phantom furtive fistful fightback backdown
You can see here how I have used a mixture of association, dissociation and leapfrogging to produce this passage. When you create such a text, you can keep...

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