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Prepare to take a fresh look

Bill Herbert continues our summer series of creative writing challenges. Enjoy them at home and save for next term

The image is one of our basic ways of thinking creatively. It lies at the root of much of our language. For instance, the word "nostril" comes from "nose" and "thirl", an old word for window. Have you wiped your nose-window recently?

It's behind lots of ordinary phrases (the foot of the page), and cliches (the horns of a dilemma). It's a way of looking at the world by comparing something unfamiliar to something familiar. What's unfamiliar about nostrils? That leads us to the point of such comparisons: images explain the world to us in words. Windows let in air, and so do nostrils.

Think of an object you like. Big or small, indoors or out, belonging to you or someone else. Picture it clearly in your mind's eye. Now think of an object you resemble in some way. That's much more difficult - it's like the difference between a word you like the meaning of and one you like for its sound: you have to think differently.

Come up with a reason why you are like this object and write it down like this: "I am like a... because ..."

Children often find this exercise easier than adults, but if you are stumped, there is a solution. Write down your initials. Mine are BH. The first initial starts an adjective, and the second begins a noun. So I become a Busy Hornet. Now come up with a reason why this might be so.

I've said that creativity is about generating the unpredictable, then finding a pattern. Here's one. Think of a sequence of times: morning, lunchtime, evening; or Monday to Friday; or spring to winter. Now fill in the pattern, producing a separate image for each time. Mine would start:

"In the morning I am like a busy hornet: the radio smokes me out of bed."

Patterns like these help us to organise our thoughts, rhymes and images into poems. But the main device that enables this to happen is the line.

When I ask children why a poem doesn't go all the way to the end of the page, they look suspicious, because they think the answer's complicated. I tell them the line is there to hold something. It can be a rhyme, an image, a rhythm or a fantastic word such as "minestrone". The line is there so this important thing doesn't get lost in the mass of prose in the way much of what they say gets lost in air. The line makes things visible.

Look back over what you've been working on, and try dividing it into lines.

From next week, other poets will show you their ways to work with words, starting with Linda France on the senses.

Bill Herbert is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. See He publishes poetry in English and Scots as WN Herbert. His latest collection is The Big Bumper Book of Troy (Bloodaxe);

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