Flex Those Writing Muscles: Exercise in Random Word Association
by Cheryl Whittaker Views: 1354
Mash’s 8th competition is underway. And with this quarter’s horrible, horrible keywords—taxes, vinegar, carpenter—you may be tearing out your hair already, wondering what on earth you can pull together that’s going to make the shortlist.
It’s true that as our competitions have gone on, we’ve seen a great deal of invention around the keywords. But we want even more! More, you ask? Well, yes—but we’re going to help you give it to us.
Keywords can be really tricky. Two may fit together in a story seamlessly, but that third one can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. Other times, one of them may give you an idea for the best story you’ve ever written… except those other two will not fit into it, no matter how much you push and bend and squeeze them. Thinking outside the box is a must here: one of the criteria we look at when judging stories is how well the keywords have been incorporated into the story.
There is a gulf of difference between a story that is sparked from the keywords and one that’s simply had the keywords dropped into it; and you know it’s going to be the former that makes the Mash judges sit up and take note.
Now, we’ve all heard how it’s necessary to keep your writing muscles in good shape.
So, to get you into the swing of things and submitting for competition 8, here’s a writing exercise to try: Random Word Association. This was an exercise taught on my university’s MA course to get our brains warmed up and doing some of that all-important outside-the-box thinking.
What to do: simply pick a word at random, and type the next thing that comes into your head that’s inspired by that word, and then the next, and then the next. You do need to suspend your conscious thoughts somewhat for this. In fact, taking five minutes to just calm your breathing and clear your head will help you relax into the task.
The only rules: each word or phrase needs to be inspired by the previous one, and needs to come out instantly. Whatever thoughts your mind has when it sees a word, set them free. If you hesitate for more than a second, or find yourself thinking “What does that remind me of?”, stop, and start again from scratch with a new word.
I did this a while back, and I admit I really struggled at first. I tried five times, with varying results. But when I looked back, I saw the lines of my thoughts; I saw my mind—and myself—in a different light; and I saw the potential for creating stories. I’m going to share my exercise with you, to show you how it helped me. My first random word, “croupier”, gave these results:
Croupier. Croup. Mr Croup. Accrue. Accursed. First. Verse. Blessed. Name. Nine. Not.
– and I got stuck almost immediately. A bit stiff, a bit shy, like the first tentative steps out onto the dancefloor at the school disco. So I took a deep breath and tried again with “seven”. This time, I had a much longer run:
Seven. Six. Sheep. Shorn. Seattle. Tower. LOTR. Wizards. Beards. White fluffy clouds. Blue sky. Train lines. Train set. Scalextric. Conservatory. Brown carpet. No carpet. Painted wooden floorboards. Seaside cottage. Shells. Nan. Coral. Tenerife. Palm trees. Dog T’agnan. Juliet. Juliet is Bleeding. Due South. Ray. Ray. Ray. Mort. Polish. Concentration camps. History class. Mrs McGough. Film. UEA. Scott. Canada. Maple Leafs. Hockey shirt. Hockey skates. Dad as a young man. Eyeliner. Lindsay Road. Old ladies. Graveyard. Mum dying first. The transit van. Sitting in the back of the other one with me bro. Bristol. Joe and the dream I had of him. Water fights. Rabbits and guinea pigs. Fights with parents. The top 40 charts. Conifers.
– and there I had to stop, because I went off course and started thinking about the garden of one of our houses instead of writing words down. Anyway, this run showed a lot of very personal memories coming through, even certain thoughts I’d once had that I’d forgotten about. Newly confident, I tried again with “airport”, but didn’t do very well at all:
Airport. Holiday. Biarritz. Crockery. Ryanair. Frank. Strawberry Fields.
– I blanked. Because it’s really, really tough. But not to be defeated, I tried yet again, with “apricot”:
Apricot. Jam. Madeleines. Amelie. Nino. Love. Fantasy. Paris. Finding it for myself. Fashion. Hannah. Feeling bossy over her all the time. My own conflict between registers. Autism. Help. Wondering. Never knowing. Knotting. Bedsheets. Window. Mosquitoes. Netting. Badminton. Sport Pixie. John. Patch. Norwich. That old crypt place (not that one, the other one). CCP. Conference dinners. The last one in the posh place with Elizabeth the caterer. The trip on the boat – where did we go? Steve. That email. People and their weird attractions. Denise. Naughty. Weight gain. Protection. Safety. Behaviour. Isolation. Fear. Paralysis. Antisocial. Forgetting how to interact with people. Dyspraxia. Resurfacing. The Fat Cat. The bicycle shop. Student life. Not fully ever being the student I wish now I’d been.
– and had success, producing again a lot of very personal thoughts, until I realized I was thinking too consciously again (that last sentence I’ve left in as an example of such thinking).
Now, I know that many of my words and phrases won’t mean much to you, because they’re so personal. And sometimes the links won’t be clear (I can tell you, for example, that “Ryanair” follows “crockery” because I only had carry-on luggage which prevented me from purchasing some beautiful but heavy plates at a night-time market in Biarritz). But overall they do show the journey of association—and they produce personal surprises, too. These little paragraphs of associated words transcend decades, cross countries, and skip lightly over things that would often be painfully honest, and sometimes otherwise forgotten.
Then I switched things up a bit. With the first Mash Competition in mind, I tried one last time, with “tennis ball”:
Tennis ball. Rounders. Baseball. Dr Longball. Ray. Ray. Ray. CKR. Dreams. Unreality. Fantasy. That bearded dragon thing in that movie I haven’t seen and everyone else has. Watching Bugsy Malone. Arguing over silly things. Crying. Tears. Ripping. Skin from fingers. My Everest. Self-control. Worried. Forgetfulness. Short-term memory. Sudoku. Writing. Typing. ASDF. Mum. Sewing. Polka dot dresses. Sarah. Princess Di haircut. Grey mornings. Beating heat afternoons. Playing along the stream, the canal, the fields, the black eye island, the work site. Losing track of time. Losing Pip. That girl’s Scottish mum. Avon lady. Edward Scissorhands. Sweeney Todd. Musicals. London. Wanting books about the underbelly. Read. Devour. Not enough time. Find more time. Bookshelves. Ruthless. Keepsakes. Letters. Words. A box of things. Morbid. Rats. Sherlock Holmes. Mum’s keyrings. My collections. Mental state. Bathroom refurbishment. Summertime. Hay. Ice pops. Playground. Sycamore seeds. Mama Cass. Singing. Voice.
I took a break, went to make myself a cup of tea, and, quite unexpectedly, Bergamot was born.
So, go get warmed up for writing your “taxes, vinegar, carpenter” story. Grab a pen, or switch on your computer, and get ready. Ignore the Mash competition’s keywords for now; pick some random words from the dictionary or from billboards you see on your way home, and see what your mind comes up with. Write or type as fast as you can for as long as you can before you feel you have to stop.
Once you’re warmed up, you can approach the Mash keywords, but try sidling up to them first rather than running at them head-on. For example, instead of “carpenter”, try “tree” or “plane”; in place of “vinegar”, use “salad” or “window cleaner”; and for “taxes”, start off with “poverty” or “injustice”. Only then will you be fully prepared to step into the random word association ring with the keywords themselves. But once you do, you’ll be amazed at the stories that will pop out of your stream of perhaps not-so-randomly associated words.
Finally, when pulling your story together, remember that the Mash judges take into account how well it’s told: how the plot is laid out, how the story arc develops, and how well the characters fit into the story. From the apparent nonsense that may come out of your random word association exercises, a logical, well-constructed story needs to be teased out.
Give it a try. I can guarantee that what comes out will surprise you.
Our Chief Editor, Cheryl, has been with MASH since day one. Her poetry has appeared in Riot Angel magazine, and one of her short stories was published in This Is It. Cheryl’s creative streak also reaches to art, craft and photography, and her favourite way to combine all these passions is in art journaling and mixed media. You can view Cheryl’s work by visiting her website: www.cswhittaker.com