Writing is an exploration – you start from nothing and explore as you go” – E.L. Doctorow
I write this on a chilly Helsinki winter evening (I’m on some work-related travel). Despite the almost constant darkness and the fact that it has been blowing a hooley and lashing horizontal, ice-cold sleet all day, the city has somehow managed to welcome me with twinkling Christmas lights and little wooden market huts selling all sorts of Nordic goodies from hot, spiced wine to crispy chocolate-coated fresh cranberries that burst and fizz with sweet juice when you pop them into your mouth. I have even seen Father Christmas – or should I say Joulupukki – wandering about the market square in front of the cathedral. It was definitely him. He must be making last minute preparations.
This little scene is a world away from the sun-drenched terrace in Santa Maria Navarese, Sardinia, where I wrote my list of fifty things I wanted to do before… who knows what. The list, however, is still very much in my mind and for the past four weeks I’ve been working on item 40 – take a creative writing course. Although I write for a living, the things I write are far from creative. You simply can’t get the creative juices flowing when you’re translating dry, legal text, or writing official reports or minutes of meetings. I’ll admit there are times when it might be tempting to use a little creative license here and there, but wielding the pen with gusto is definitely not part of the job. The idea of writing a “story” – or really just starting with a blank page and no real instructions to speak of – is a vast departure from my comfort zone.
I decided to start gently, with a four-week “creative writing 101” course, run by the Oxford-based Writers’ Workshop. It’s an online course, which tackles some of the basic techniques creative writers need to think about, such as “show not tell” and characterisation. Each week involves a short video message from the tutor, a set of notes about that week’s technique, a warm-up exercise to be done regularly and a couple of homework assignments. The first warm-up exercise was challenge enough for me – sit down in front of a blank page and write until it’s full. Anything. Whatever pops into your head. Write it down. And then, when that page is finished, pick a word from it, and use that word to start the next page. Do this until you have three full pages.
This is the ABSOLUTE antithesis of what I do for a living. And it was incredibly difficult. But at the same time, phenomenally liberating (and just a little rebellious!) There have been times over the past four weeks where I’ve felt quite exhausted. It has been a challenge for the imagination. The homework tasks have ranged from a 300 word piece on a situation in which you felt a negative emotion (anger, jealousy, etc.) to describing a person without using any adjectives or adverbs, and culminating in “write a short story of around 1000 words”. I have read the instructions for each exercise and sat, my brain seeming as blank as the piece of paper on the table in front of me. Yet, eventually, each exercise has been completed, and the feedback received has been, on the whole, extremely positive. If anyone had told me four weeks ago that I was capable of writing a short story, I simply wouldn’t have believed them.
My tutor has deemed me capable of turning my pen to fiction, a thought which I still find intimidating. The course was only a mere four weeks, after all, and they say that a writer needs 10 000 hours of practice before they produce anything worth reading. Whether I will ever really turn my pen to fiction remains to be seen. For now though, I have learnt that (with some guidance) I can compose creatively in a way I had never imagined. And that I enjoy the process. I have learnt that a small idea, based on a moment of real life, can transform itself into something completely new and unknown as the pen makes its way across the page. Characters and plot can develop as if by themselves. I have also learnt that putting a composition out, even into the tiny little world of a closed course forum, is a heart-rending business. You bare your soul. I have also learnt to read with greater appreciation for the writing process. And I’ve acquired a new-found respect for the genre of the short story. That’s quite a lot learnt in the space of four weeks.
I don’t consider a month of dabbling sufficient to cross number 40 off the list, but I’m glad I’ve got the ball rolling. I am now looking for another course, or another means of getting some guidance. My short story is undergoing some minor cosmetic surgery before being sent out into the wider world for some feedback. Meanwhile, I shall share with you a piece of homework from week three. The task was to write 300 words on a walk at dusk. This is loosely based around my journey “home” from the metro to my apartment in the evenings when I was a student in Moscow in the late 1990s.
Passengers spew through sliding doors, before the mechanical serpent slithers onward down the track. A tidal wave of fur-coated, felt-booted bodies scoops me away from the platform and dumps me like a piece of flotsam onto an escalator that takes an eternity to arrive above ground. My feet barely skim the floor as I am carried along – a tiny segment in the giant millipede of exhausted travellers – bracing myself for one last stifling crush as we push towards the exit.
The station spits us out, one by one, like loose teeth, into the indigo evening. I pause a moment, gasp, feeling the sharpness of the sub-zero air fill my chest, then watch my breath as it leaves my mouth in a deep, cloudy sigh before I set off gingerly over the ice. The station square is dotted with the shadows of little old ladies, wrapped like woollen onions in layers of knitted clothing, rooted to low wooden stools where they crouch, selling homemade pickles in higgledy piggledy jars and hot potato pies wrapped in paper. As I trudge past, their inquisitive eyes flit up and down, struggling to get the measure of me. The warm scent of pastry wafts up my nostrils and hits me with a pang of homesickness. No, I am not one of “yours”.
This morning’s fresh white snow is now filthy and frozen, sitting in grey silhouette mounds at the side of the road, enveloping the parked cars. Man’s toys swallowed by Mother Nature. The pathway from the station meanders through the place I now call home: a residential district with a dead soul. A forest of purpose-built high-rise blocks – each the mirror image of the one before – sprawls before me in a kaleidoscope of grey concrete that spills over the horizon into the night. For a moment I pity the architect, creativity banished from him by socialist realism and a five-year plan. Yet pinpricks of light from tiny windows punctuate the boredom, vibrant sparks of life in this frozen waste.