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See them, feel them, say them

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

Most language is invisible to us: we use it to get our message across, but we're rarely interested in the messenger. Children say extraordinary things, then forget them the next minute. I often act as a class's memory, repeating things back to pleasantly mystified pupils. One of the first tasks in teaching creative writing is to make language visible as a source of pleasure. Here is one method.

Write your first name vertically down the left margin of a page, like this:





Think of a word beginning with each letter. It can be any word, but you must like it. (You don't need a particularly important reason for liking it: the point is to focus on language.) Write each word alongside the letter; the sooner you can get your students to write things down rather than shout them out, the stronger their creative focus will become. You'll see I need two words beginning with "l" - do the same for any repeated letter.

Now, did you pick these words because of their sound or their sense? Most students pick according to sense - the message rather than the messenger.

What we want is a language poised between sound and sense, between word and world. So write down another set of words, this time using the opposite criteria: if I picked "babushka" because of sound, I'll now select "Byzantine" for its sense. If I picked "interactive" for its sense, I'll have "iguana" for its sound.

Look at the combinations you've produced - I have "languorous linguini", for instance. Imagine producing a sentence that contains these two words.

In what circumstances would you be languorous with linguini, or is there something languorous about linguini itself?

Learn to build from what you're given. This is the first principle of creativity (which looks rather mathematical): A + B = ?

What that means is: use the words you've picked to push your imagination in a new direction. Write a sentence for each of your letters, and let the language lead you. Don't worry too much about sense. Don't struggle to get the lines to relate to each other - you can always try that later. Here's my last line: "Lilian tried lip-reading, but the lox got in the way."

In the classroom you can use this exercise to enable each student to produce a short self-portrait. By the way, you'll notice my sentence produced a third word beginning with "l". I guarantee this will happen once or twice when your students try this: seize upon it. It means they have just discovered their first structural principle: alliteration.

And discovering something is always better than being taught it.

Next week: The rhyme well Bill Herbert is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. See xen19. 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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