This is a short, fun exercise particularly good for a warm-up in a workshop or writing group setting, to lift energy, create laughter and get the little grey cells going. I use it if I’m working with a group who are a little bit shy, or to clear the air after an intensive spate of writing. It also has a hidden value which I’ll talk about later.
It’s inspired by the fabulous game from Radio 4′s ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue,’ idiosyncratically named ‘Cheddar Gorge.’ Two contestants take it in turns to compose a letter word by word and then draft the reply.
So that’s what you do with the group – go round the circle word by word. The key is to keep it snappy – avoid long deliberations if possible, although minds can and often will go blank! Just try and keep the pace up.
The last time I did this exercise was at this year’s Summer School, where the participants were all anxiously awaiting their A-level results in preparation for going to University. Understandably, many of them were worried about funding their studies, so I asked them to compose a letter in the character of someone proposing to their bank manager asking for a loan. I started off with ‘Dear…’ and the person to my left, said ‘Mr…’ and on we went. We did a few circuits and amid much laughter and moments of complete bafflement we got to the end of the letter. Then we did the reply.
‘Dear. You. (pause) No. (cue laughter) Yours. Sincerely. Mr. Smith.’
So, it’s great fun, and is valuable just on the level of boosting energy, but for those of you who are looking for a bit of Added Value, there is potentially more to this exercise.
One of the books I’ve used a lot in teaching is Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird,’ which is a deceptively substantial book in terms of the processes it explores – I say deceptively, because the author, who writes personally and with direct address to the reader, sounds permanently on a knife-edge of creative (and personal!) crisis. It’s very funny, warm, and wise and works particularly well with new writers such as first-year undergraduates, and it also creates a less academic read than the magnificent books by Janet Burroway ‘Imaginative Writing’ and ‘Writing Fiction.’
When we look at poetry in workshops, there are often two responses. One is abject fear – Students get the glassy-eyed look that in ‘Watership’ Down BigWig calls ‘going tharn.’ Or they launch into it iambic pentameters and rhyming couplets with an unshakeable iron-grip. So how do you bypass both the fear and the reliance on external structure in order to break through to a place of quiet insight, calmness and love of language?
You write word by word! (Or ‘bird by bird’ as Lamott describes it, through a story from her childhood when trying to write an essay on birds and not knowing where to start.) And what image does a bird conjure up for us? It’s something beautiful, feather light, keen, with a warm heart beating rapidly inside it. That’s what we want each of our chosen words to be like. So we pick words one by one, look for the darting mavericks, the regal eagles, the soaring gulls, the dirt scratchers and so on.
It’s an approach also explored in ‘The Poet’s Companion’ by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio. Poetry, they say, is not prose that has been chopped up, it is ‘a line by line, brick by brick construction.’
So here’s the application to our chain letters game: If you’re sitting round a table and you have no idea where the sentence will be when it gets to you, and you have no control over where it goes next, all you can do is come up with the best word for the job at that particular moment. How liberating for the poem-phobes! Anyone can come up with one word! And how liberating for the couplet-grippers: here they cannot impose a structure, so again, they must focus on the best word for the job at that particular moment.
Now, clearly, at the start of all this I was saying that I framed the game as a letter, but of course that idea can be carried through to another exercise, where the writers now work in pairs and create a poem, word-by-word, line by line… And there is the bridge to a poem.
Mollie Baxter 2010
You are welcome to use these exercises in your writing group or class. I just ask that you acknowledge the source i.e. verbally and on the handout if you use one. I’d also love it if you would let me know how it went!
Do feel free to post any responses or extracts of writing that you have written, but bear in mind that I am unable to give any feedback in this forum. Please see details on my freelance teaching or one-to-one mentoring. Thanks for reading!