The Unfamiliar Window – a prompt for practice

Since I’m feeling bouncy and full of energy today, despite a spring cold, I decided I’d post another exercise you can use to create your own practice. It’s the sudden sunshine after two weeks of constant rain, I think. The upsurge in vitamin D is obviously making me think anything is possible, including some energetic writing practice.

This one is another observation exercise, to jog us out of our ordinary ways of seeing. I realised how much we automatically filter out when I started taking walks with my son – he sees everything. His brain hasn’t yet started to ignore things he has seen before, things that are commonplace, and therefore he is overloaded with information and excitement just walking down the road. Sometimes it’s not so interesting (how many motorbikes I can find interesting in no way correlates to the number my son finds interesting), but sometimes he points out a flower I wouldn’t have noticed, or a heron stock still on the island in the park, or the dragon nests in the clouds. Invigorating.

Ado? No more:

Exercise: The Unfamiliar Window

  • ¬†Describe the view in detail.

You can do this with a truly unfamiliar window, or one that is familiar, that you think you know inside out. The trick is to look with fresh eyes, and note every significant detail you can: the toys in a back garden, a window left open, people at the bus stop, the leaves (or otherwise) on the trees. Paint a true picture of what you see. Try and keep judgements out of the prose. 300 words.

As for the windows themselves, you can sit in front of them, take a photo, do a quick sketch, or  take some quick notes (this will end up being more of a remembered/imagined version but still useful).

Extension exercise: focus on one detail and expand its story. Now is the time to bring judgements into the prose. 300 words.

5 Books to Kickstart your Creativity

I confess I love creative writing books, and I buy them with all the zeal of the recently converted Amazon Prime subscriber. I continue to buy them even though a good deal of them are repetitive and dull, and inspire me no more than staring into the depths of my laundry basket.

The ones I come back to are the ones that throw me out of my ruts, and they tend to be less specifically about writing, and more about living creatively, however you choose to do it. So here are my favourites:

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The don of all creative kickstarters, Cameron wrote this classic about rediscovering your creative self in 1994, and has sold a Gazillion copies of it since. The book is a 12 week program, with exercises and tasks to help you back towards living a more creative life. It’s not just for writers, but anyone who has had, and lost, a desire to make stuff. (Now available as an online course. I’m not affiliated, just showing you where it is.)

Personally I’ve never got beyond about week 6 (which may be why I still feel blocked) but I’ve carried the tool of morning pages with me through every fallow period (and I know many writers rely on them). The idea is to write three pages a day, preferably in the morning, of whatever you like. No editor, no critic, no stopping. It works. Whatever rubbish I write I feel better for at least having done them.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel. A confession: this is a new purchase for me, and I was attracted by the idea of tackling the anxiety I feel about writing (I took a long break, I had a baby and now am brain dead, I have no ideas left – that sort of thing). Maisel is a psychotherapist who works with creative people from all disciplines, and this book is unlike the others that encourage you to sit down and pick up a pen, or go for walks in the woods. One of the very first exercises involves a potato. It may not be the book for you, but I laughed so much while trying to hold my potato that I have to include it.

The 3a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely. If you’re after writing exercises that push you a little further than ‘be inspired by this image of a camel’ or whatever, then this is the book for you. Kitely teaches Creative Writing at the University of Denver, and takes the approach that we can learn about writing by actually doing writing. The exercises can feel narrow in their scope, but this just encourages creativity, rather than stifling it. It’s Oulipo-like in the approach to using boundaries to encourage free wordplay – just like children, writers play with more freedom if they have a wall to bash against. Highly recommended, as is the sequel The 4a.m. Breakthrough.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Tharp isn’t a writer, she’s a dancer, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book about her creative process, and the tools she’s used in her career as a choreographer. There are practical exercises throughout the book, which focus on developing working habits and encouraging the creative mind to be awake and present, as well as tackling frailities. It ends with a lovely chapter on the necessity of failure, and her admission that she was 58 before she felt like a master of her craft. Very inspiring book.

Most of these books can be used by anyone who wants to live creatively, whether that means making a living out of it, or just following your passions for making art of one kind or another, regardless of monetary reward. I hope you too find some inspiration for your Autumn renewal.