Yesterday, I attended a writing workshop organised by my university. Jill Dawson, the author of ten novels, and winner of a variety of awards, came in to run a workshop lasting an hour and a half. The title of the workshop was ‘A Sense of Place’.
Jill talked the attenders through how she builds a sense of place, reading from her notes of visiting Patricia Highsmith’s cottage in Suffolk and the subsequent opening of her novel, ‘The Crime Writer’. She demonstrated how every detail of her first impression was important to the first draft, and the final product. The main piece of advice I took from Jill’s workshop:
Put your body in the place you are trying to describe.
This can be taken literally, or metaphorically. Taking a breather from writing the words and thinking your body into a place allows the words to come in a more organic manner. It is something that is easily forgotten in the act of writing. I, for one, tend to get bogged down in describing setting (or indeed anything else) in an interesting, unique way – I focus on it, excessively, and then the description loses all life. What I forget about is the rawness of physical or emotional feeling. In reality, if I take Jill’s advice, I might come up with something like this when thinking of my childhood home:
carpet freshness tiles in the kitchen
and two blue sofas
It doesn’t make any sense, it lacks a narrative or direction, but for me it is the most accurate, concise description I could get of my childhood home. These 12 words hold more the sense of place I was trying to convey than the rest of the A4 page. Picking out these small essential fragments was another thing that Jill endorsed. The ability to recognize the gold dust among the waffle in your own writing is a skill that needs to be learnt.
The other piece of advice I took from Jill Dawson’s talk was avoiding cliché. It sounds simple. It’s something every writer wants to avoid, but sometimes it takes the physical act of ‘throwing out’ all of the words that instantly appear when thinking of an object or place. For example, when writing about a piece of honeycomb, forget: honeycomb, bees, honey, hive, yellow.
Here’s an extract of what I came up with after abandoning those words:
caramel brown architextured
sweet and square
shaped carefully by tiny
And this is the importance of writing workshop. The advice or guidance given could be entirely new, it could be something you’ve heard a million times before. But in that hour or two hour slot, it could make all the difference. Jill Dawson said that the only tool the writer has is language itself. That’s a pretty big tool, which every writer will handle differently. Writing workshops encourage you to pick up language in a way that is different to how you wielded it in your last writing session. And this is the key to honing you craft.