In touch with your senses

13th August 2004 at 01:00
Paul Summers continues our summer series of creative writing challenges

Liar Inc, a company set up by my colleague Ian Dowson and myself, works in diverse settings from primary schools to prisons. We use a form of creative interrogation, heightening the language used to recount the ordinary, cultivating a philosophy for poetic engagement. It's educational but it's essentially a form of creative play.

It's your street, Saturday morning. Imagine you're looking through the viewfinder of a movie camera: describe everything you see and hear. This is a clever camera too, it can smell and feel, so use all your senses. Start with your camera pointing at the sky, then pan down and around in a 360-degree swoop. Aim for 10 visual images, three sounds and a few smells.

Start with the sky. What colour is it? Think of a simile. Be precise. Blue just doesn't do; is it faded denim or sapphire? If it looks like the sea, is it a warm or cold sea? What do the clouds look like? Do they move quickly or slowly? Like what? Where are they heading?

This level of interrogation can be applied to all sensual imagery. If there's a dog on the street, is it a fat dog or a skinny dog? Is it smiling or frowning? Encourage the kids (and yourself) to have faith in the mundane: a ballet-dancing crisp bag pirouetting on a wet pavement can be as poetic as a blossom-laden tree casting confetti. A piece of chewing gum on the pavement squashed into the shape of Australia can be more captivating than a swaying gladioli.

Ditto for smells and sounds. Be creative. Think about smells in combination, nice smellbad smell, is it a stench, a perfume, a cocktail? Challenge their vocabulary. Does a smell hang in the air like a ghost, does it speed by or cling like drizzle? Can you smell coldness? What can you hear? Are there appropriate similes you can use? Are those brakes squealing like a hungry baby? Is that obese sparrow really whistling the Mission Impossible theme tune?

Now populate your landscape. Draw up a descriptive formula or ingredients list for characters. It'll inevitably include physical features (hair, eyes, hands, skin, clothes, movement, voice, smell) and an emotional element (mood, personality, back-story). Use the same rules as above, encouraging simile, metaphor and alliteration. Describe them obsessively, record the little details that captivate you (this is a good opportunity to explain the need for multi-dimensional character, as well as for empathic or non-judgmental engagement). If the person's eyes are sad, why? What's going on in their head?

Keep pushing and probing and the poetic outputs will be worth that barrage of questions and prompts. Then it's just a case of introducing the editing process and a notion of economy of words. Have fun.

Liar Inc, telfax: 0191 296 6787; e-mail: psummers@liarincltd.

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