Three Writing Exercises While Waiting for a Train

One of the big challenges that writers face in completing their work is finding the time, particularly if you’re juggling writing with a full time job and/or raising children. The good news is that there are pockets of time we can avail of during our day. In an ideal world, we’d spend hours at a time in a book-lined study with the scent of incense wafting through it.

But the great thing about writing is that you can write anywhere, at any time. The tedious grind of modern life provides more opportunities to write than you can imagine. You can write while waiting for a bus or train, in a bank queue or while you’re waiting for your children to finish their extracurricular activities.

I’ve put together three short exercises that will help you make the most of these pockets of time and get the ideas flowing. It’s amazing how much you can get written in just 10 minutes.

1. A Story Without O

Write a story about any topic without using the letter O, or any other commonly used letter (vowels are a particular challenge). It forces your brain to think of more creative ways of describing things, and because you’re immersed in trying to think of alternative words that it’ll shut up the niggling voice in your brain telling you that this is nonsense.

Speaking of nonsense…

 2. Write Shite

This exercise encourages you to confront every writer’s greatest fear – that their writing is crap. For international readers, shite is an Irish slang word for crap. You write a story that for you is the definition of crap, whether that’s slushy romance, gross out horror, or tales laden with clichés. Put your story away, then come back to it. You’ll discover that there’s at least one worthy line in your story, and therefore, it’s not as crap as you thought.

3. Alphabet Soup

This exercise encourages you to have fun with words and set your imagination free. You write the letters of the alphabet down one side of the page and find words to match those letters. The kicker is that you then attempt to form those words into sentences, as follows.

A Black Cat Drifted. Every Friday, Gertie Hurls Icicles.

And so on until you reach the end of the alphabet.

You’ll end up with fairly wacky sentences, but as long as they’re recognisable as sentences, that’s fine. You’ll have to be particularly creative as you reach x, y and z. Then take the sentence that tickled you most and use it to write a story.

What are your strategies for filling those stray 10 or 15-minute time pockets? Feel free to share them with our readers.

Does an English Degree Make You a Better Writer?

A couple of years ago, I was doing a reading at the Imagine Festival in Waterford, and I was sharing the bill with a former lecturer of mine, which was a slightly dizzying experience. Afterwards, the audience asked us questions, and then he decided to pelt one at me. How had my English degree helped me become a writer?

It was quite a challenge for me to come up with a diplomatic answer to that question, given that this was one of my former English lecturers. Because although my English degree was very interesting and the lecturers were good, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it helped me become a better writer.

The whole point of an English degree is to learn to analyse text. During my English degree at University College Cork, we poked and prodded at texts ranging from the ancient Beowulf to early Banville novels. We learned to read with greater depth and gained an insight into the techniques used by the greatest writers.

Analysis Kills Writing

But it is that very ability to analyse that can get in the way of the urge to write, because writing is all about hunger and instinct, and sometimes when we try to analyse what creates that urge and how that urge is acted upon, we kill that urge. We kill that passion that drove us towards the written word, both reading and writing.

An English degree won’t manufacture that hunger to write. It can help you master technique, but if you don’t have the passion, you’re not going to put pen to paper. An English degree shows you how writing works, but to become a writer, you need to actually write, and you don’t need a degree for that.

Attributes of Writers

What you need is the desire to write, an ability to trust in your instincts and life experience. You could become a writer just as easily grape picking in Australia or punching tickets at a bus station as you can sitting in a stuffy lecture theatre at four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

This doesn’t mean I think my English degree was a waste of time. It helps you to organise your thoughts, so the thought of writing an essay doesn’t seem so overwhelming. This was useful for a career in journalism, which I was aiming for at that time.

Creative Writing Course

It also just so happened that in my third year, UCC was doing an exchange with an American college and that college sent over a creative writing professor for a year. I put my name down for his elective course and it was extremely useful, giving me some basic writing principles which I still use to this day.

The moral of the story is, if you want to gain a broad understanding and appreciation of English literature, by all means do an English degree. But you do not need an English degree to be a writer. Just grab a pen and paper and open your mind.

Did you do an English degree? Did you find it helped you in your quest to become a writer? If you didn’t do one, do you feel you suffered as a result?

Children’s Writing Camp

Just in case you’re wondering where I’ve disappeared to, and I’d feel extremely privileged if you did, I’ve been buried under a mountain of writing, including a children’s creative writing camp that I gave over the Easter holidays. The camp lasted for three days and took place at Southpaw Writing Studios.

I roped Southpaw’s artistic director Martin Fahy into helping me supervise the children and he rose to the task beautifully, particularly since a last minute booking meant that 11 children squeezed around his large table, with its brightly coloured table cloth.All of these children, bar one, had done camps with me before, which gave me quiet satisfaction. They ranged in age from eight to almost 13.

Here’s a flavour of what we did.

Day 1. Senses and Character

On the first day, we journeyed through the senses, describing unfortunate looking oranges and inventing life stories for interesting objects. Then the children created a character and did some method writing, doing actions as if they were their character such as walking or holding a pen, then describing what they did.

Day 2. Setting and Plot

Today was all about creating worlds, as the children created countries and tried to entice us to visit these countries with alluring descriptions. They particularly enjoyed describing celebrity bedrooms, and the others had to guess which celebrity’s bedroom they were describing.

Finally, the children created a Chinese Whispers story. Just like the game, the story would start in one place and finish somewhere completely different.  They divided into groups of three. They started their own story, then continued a story started by the second person in the group and ended the story started by the third person in the group.

Day 3. Writing A Story

It was now time for the children to put their skills to good use and put together a story. Since it was Easter, I figured an egg themed story would be appropriate, and what egg is more famous than Humpty Dumpty. In their story, the children had to figure out what Humpty Dumpty was doing on that wall, how he came to have a great fall and whether all the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men were in fact able to put Humpty together again.

The children went away clutching pieces of paper containing their full length stories, and a cover design for their story, in case it ever becomes a book. Result!