I Never …

As a writing experiment, use the prompt I never … to write a list-based piece exploring the inner and outer lives for a main character, starting every sentence with the phrase I never. Write for ten minutes, making this a free write, keeping the pen moving and seeing what comes up; if you find yourself halting or drying up, just write I never … again and let a fresh association surface for your character. Try to include specific and concrete references: project inner feelings on to physical objects, introduce particular settings, make detailed references to other characters, create complications.

I do recommend writing by hand for that organic connection between pen and paper and body and soul. But too sometimes a keyboard works better for some writers – comes naturally. And sometimes we get cramps in our hands, or our writing is slower than our thoughts – though too there’s no harm in slowing down occasionally. Explore, perhaps, and do whatever works for you.

In this instance, think about the choice of the word never, which is often used in contexts related to regret or loss or lack or failings or yearnings on the part of character: super plot drivers. You could even make the nevers a list of blatant denials (lies). What surfaces often goes to the heart of your character’s plottings.

Also: the list form has distinctive effects.

It comes easy, and has a cadence and a rhythm.

It enjoys the simple forward-moving power of the right-branching syntax of everyday speech; variations in the patterning of the sentence can add emphasis and curiosity.

The repetition has a powerful insistence that digs deep into your character’s basic drives, subconsciously drawing on instinct instead of depending on overly thought-out writing.

The list is a straightforward form to write, too – once you run out of something to say about a particular never, you can start a new sentence and find something else. Lean into the scaffolding you have created.

I have posted elsewhere about the particular charge of the list as a form: Variations on the Form of I Remember.

You can also use similar power prompts such as

  • I remember
  • I don’t remember …
  • I want …
  • I don’t want …
  • I know …
  • I must …
  • I should …
  • I need …
  • I will …
  • I can …
  • If I …
  • When I …

Repeat variations of this exercise for your character on different occasions. Maybe try these for ten minutes every day for a week. Let this character’s urges and insistences inhabit you for the whole week. Then, making this a practice, in following weeks repeat these exercises for other characters. See what surfaces. Then take this material into your story.

This is a useful exercise to carry out as part of your planning or alongside your drafting, or perhaps if you are getting stuck in your writing. It’s helpful with plotting – I used this in a couple of plotting workshops for The Literary Consultancy this week. Such simple prompts can really help with the sorts of primal work that writing often needs, that digging for fossils that Stephen King describes in On Writing. I also think about Anna Burns talking about her instinctive writing process and discussing it in this interview.

I always love to hear about those ways into writing that come natural, come easy (well, I should qualify that: we do have to do the work of showing up, which isn’t always easy). Prompts such as these often raise things that nudge our characters into the sorts of situations that make for good plots.

Meanwhile, on an entirely other note: pictures of tulips, above, as it’s already time to think about which ones to order for delivery in the autumn … I think that is Ballerina with, I think, Queen of the Night?

Friday Writing Experiment No. 54: Write! A Manifesto


I first encountered writers writing manifestos in a serious and active way when I was doing my MFA at Naropa. During earlier literary studies, I had come across avant-garde artists writing declarative statements of intent – I’m thinking in particular of the Surrealist Manifesto.

At Naropa, writers bring to life the practice of the manifesto in a manner that really seems present and urgent. Anne Waldman in particular encourages the writing of manifestos in her teaching and activism. Her prose collection Vow To Poetry, subtitled Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos, is a manifesto in itself, defining her commitment to poetry, while Fast Speaking Woman is a magnificent declaration of intent in poetry form (see a video clip of Anne fast speaking here). Of it Anne says:

I wanted to assert the sense of my mind, my imagination being able to travel as artist, maker, inventor. To see beyond boundaries.

A manifesto contains passion and drive and purpose, all wrapped up in the efficiency of a list (something I explored in another writing experiment, Lists, Lovely Lists).

Start looking, and you find manifestos in many places:

* This Critic’s Manifesto by Daniel Mendelsohn is as much an exploration-essay, but it amounts to a powerful distillation of the writer’s experiences, commitments, and desires in writing.

* David Shields’s Reality Hunger (subtitled A Manifesto) is a fantastic book-length cry for new forms in writing.

* Matt Haig, a king of lists, has written what amount to be some of the most heartfelt, funny and purposeful manifestos, e.g., How To Be A WriterTen Reasons Not To Be A Writer, and Ten Reasons Why It Is Okay To Read YA. Look for others on his site.

* I also came across some poets’ manifestos on Google.

* And then there are famous broadsides such as the Vorticists’ Blast and Charles Olson’s Projective Verse.

* Greta Thunberg, No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference

* 100 Artists’ Manifestos, edited by Alex Danchev (Penguin Classics)

* Why Are We ‘Artists’? 100 World Art Manifestos, selected by Jessica Lack (Penguin Classics)

* Michael Chabon, What’s The Point?

I do admit to finding some manifestos opaque, dull, or pompous, especially (sorry!) some of those by poets and self-described experimental writers and artists, and particularly (double sorry!) a lot of those by self-described experimental poets. I guess laying out your intent like that can open yourself to excess, abstraction, and cliché. It’s something to be mindful of, and to avoid or maybe to write with awareness of, writing through and out the other side until your writing is tangible and fresh again. But, too, I guess a bit of pomp is fair game when you’re giving free rein to your intent – and writers really should allow themselves this, unhindered, from time to time.

I also find that a manifesto is a useful tool during revision. It can be a super tool for clarifying where you are during your drafting, and I often ask writers I’m working with to write a manifesto – it helps me to understand what they are looking for, but more than that it often helps writers take stock, frequently at a point where they’re drifting or losing focus or getting stuck. Sometimes our intent shifts as a project evolves, and we need to keep tabs on that too.

Writing – and later referring back to and updating – a manifesto can also be a powerful way to restore flagging confidence at moments of doubt, or when you are shirking the task of fully owning your project.

So: for this week’s writing experiment, write yourself a manifesto. It could be a mission statement outlining your long-term intent as a writer, or it could be a five-year plan, or it could be a manifesto for a specific piece of writing, perhaps as part of your revision. It might be specific to a genre you’re working in. It could involve artistic and aesthetic principles as well as commercial goals, and it might (should?) also invite political consequence. Go on, be a revolutionary through your writing. Change the world. Even let yourself be pompous – this is one of those occasions where a bit of bombast will do you no harm.

Make that declaration. Set some boundaries, then see beyond them.


Updated November 2019 (Greta!)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 20: Lists, Lovely Lists


I love lists. I have whole spiels on lists in literature. ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg. Sections of the Old Testament (all that begetting). Christopher Smart’s ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’. The lists in Moby-Dick. Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Anne Waldman’s ‘Fast-Speaking Woman’. Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’. Contents lists. Lists of illustrations. Indexes; how I loved to copyedit indexes when I worked in-house. When I was about thirteen, I was rarely happier than when I was geekily flicking through The Book of Lists (both volumes).

Lists have life, lists have colour, lists point in many directions nearly all at once. Lists don’t overexplain, or editorialise, or whine (at least the good ones don’t); lists just are. Lists accrete. Their items are not connected by cause and effect, but just sit beside one another with paratactic superpowers. Sometimes life’s like that: wonderfully random, surprising.

I recently read a couple of good articles on lists in literature: ’10 Lists That Read Like Poems’ in Flavorwire (which itself is a site somewhat devoted to the form) and ‘Literary Lists: Proof of Our Existence’ in the Guardian. They mention Umberto Eco, whose beautifully illustrated The Infinity of Lists sits on my shelf. In it he itemises lists both practical and poetic, miraculous and non-normal, and with some fantastic imagery states a case for the presence of lists in visual as well as written arts, and also for the list as a form that aspires to the infinite:

There is, however, another mode of artistic representation, i.e., when we do not know the boundaries of what we wish to portray, when we do not know how many things we are talking about and presume their number to be, if not infinite, then at least astronomically large.

This week, write a list. Or lots of lists. A list a day. Here are some more inspirations or models:

* Anne’s Porter’s ‘List of Praises’

* A list of gratitudes (thanks to Bhanu Kapil for that idea)

* What I will and won’t miss (inspired by Nora Ephron; I love the way in which the tone shifts from the terse itemisation of things she won’t miss to the more open and affectionate style in the list of things that will be missed; and we miss you too, Nora)

* A list of friends (elaborated or not)

* A list of questions without answers (thanks to Jack Collom for that one)

* An ‘I Remember’ on a specific subject, e.g., first times, last times, friends, enemies, people you’ve worked with (that one’s fun), holidays or vacations, places you’ve been, things you’ve eaten, Christmas presents

* A manifesto of reasons (for x, or y maybe – to change the law, to not go to school, to follow advice, to be cheerful)

* An ‘I Remember’ for a character in a novel

* A shopping list for a character

* A bucket list of things a character wants to do before he or she dies

* A list of ingredients

* A menu of desires (seeing your desires through food imagery)

* A pillow book of adorable things

* A list of prayers for weak or fabulous (or whatever else) beings (inspired by ‘Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Beings’ by Toby Martinez de las Rivas)

* A classification system for your library

* A bestiary of imagined animals

* The things you carried

* A catalogue of new things, and/or an archive of old things

Gosh, this list-making is addictive. I could go on. One day I’ll teach a whole class on lists. But for now I’ll post this, early in the week for a change. That keen. Maybe some of you have snow days, and need something to do.

As ever: be concrete, and specific. Though some abstractions can work well, as William T. Vollmann’s ‘List of Social Changes that Would Assist the Flourishing of Literary Beauty’ proves very neatly.

Further reading
Larry Fagin, The List Poem
A List of the Greatest Lists in Literature (from the Atlantic)

Friday Writing Experiment No. 3: Variations on the Form of ‘I Remember’

We all love ‘I Remember’ exercises. Based on the poem by Joe Brainard, and popularised by the likes of Jack Collom, these pieces of writing simply start each line with the words ‘I remember’ then evoke some memory. Some lines selected from Joe:

I remember jumping into piles of leaves and the dust, or whatever it is, that rises.
I remember raking leaves but I don’t remember burning leaves. I don’t remember what we ‘did’ with them.
I remember ‘Indian Summer’. And for years not knowing what it meant, except that I figured it had something to do with Indians.
I remember exactly how I visualised the Pilgrims and the Indians having the first Thanksgiving dinner together. (Very jolly!)
I remember Jack Frost. Pumpkin pie. Gourds. And very blue skies.
I remember Halloween.
I remember using getting dressed up as a hobo or a ghost. One year I was a skeleton.
I remember one house that always gave you a dime and several houses that gave you five-cent candy bars.
I remember after Halloween my brother and me spreading all out loot out and doing some trading.
I remember always at the bottom of the bag lots of dirty pieces of candy corn.
I remember the smell (not very good) of burning pumpkin meat inside jack-o’-lanterns.
I remember orange and black jellybeans at Halloween. And pastel-colored ones for Easter.
I remember ‘hard’ Christmas candy. Especially the ones with flower designs. I remember not liking the ones with jelly in the middle very much.

And do watch this trailer too.

This is a form that has been adapted by other writers: see, for example, Georges Perec’s own I Remember, and Zeina Abirached’s graphic memoir I Remember Beirut.

I Remembers rank among my favourite forms of writing, because:

1. the writing tends to be natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered – writing from the heart, writing from the gut.

2. the writing tends to be concrete, vivid, specific, e.g., the house that gave you a dime, and elsewhere in Brainard’s poem very light faded blue jeans, ice cubes in the aquarium, giving Aunt Ruby stationery or scarves for special occasions.

3. the writing usually shows rather than tells: the contents of Brainard’s version – references to movie stars and songs, the clothes, food, hardship and simple pleasures – conjure up a whole time and place, for example.

4. they are economical – each line or section stops when it has to stop, and then on to the next …

5. I love lists (if you couldn’t tell).

6. the form is regarded as both poem and/or prose and/or either/neither, and I love writing that plays with or maybe ignores categories, and simply enjoys being good writing.

7. the process of free association often takes us to places we never expected – what arises arises. In the extract above I love how we linger in specific memories of Halloween and then zip quickly via Easter to Christmas, where we will linger a page or two before moving on again – and returning elsewhere. There are many such threads and patterns through the book.

8. the writing is uncensored, authentic. For example, I note in the example above the reference to the Pilgrims and Indians celebrating a jolly Thanksgiving. Now: I don’t think it’s stretching things very far to say that that recollection is of a romanticised association! And we could of course parse that, and discuss what it means, e.g., in terms of postcolonial theory. But the actual writing here is simply being honest – it’s about recalling a perception, a time and place – and it is being true to that. (Even if it’s not true to the historical record, and we hope there will have been scope for future reconstruction!) Elsewhere in the poem we get gender- and race-based descriptions that are products of that time, and there is an awful lot of sexually graphic and extremely fruity content. It means I’m always careful about selecting extracts for classes! But again: this has a truth.

9. the simplest things are often the best

10. repeating myself – the writing is natural and easy, unforced and uncluttered

There is of course a risk that this sort of writing unearths deep, sad memories. Maybe that’s not a risk. Maybe we need to confront those memories from time to time? But maybe, unless that is its purpose, we also need to set limits around that sort of writing (or have a therapist to hand). I often suggest that writers focus on, e.g., happy memories. The tone in the writing often ends up being quite soft and nostalgic, anyway.

So: this week, do an ‘I Remember’. But also introduce some twists, or focuses. For example:

* Remember your schooldays, a holiday, Christmas, a wedding, a love affair

* Remember your first times

* Remember your blessings (count them, even)

* Remember your failures (but maybe limit them … and only if you next:)

* Remember your successes (unlimited, and remembered after your failures – let’s end on a high, please)

* Draw (and write) your own graphic I Remember in comic strip format.

* And maybe do ‘I remember’ for characters in your fictions? This can involve a slight shift in the writing, and perhaps a bit more thought than some of the more natural, I-centred versions, but it can also be a good way to graft some of your fictional content on to your natural, easy, remembering voice

* I don’t remember (good for surfacing secrets and lies and subtexts and regrets and all that other good story stuff)

* And invent your own rememberings too! (Give us some prompts and ideas too, if you like.)

You can probably write forever this way. You might want to set some limits (time; focuses). Or you might not.

Enjoy! These pieces really are some of the most fun in writing.

(And all credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.)

Update, January/February 2020: Here are others I’ve subsequently written (also see some more by others in the comments): I Remember the LibraryI Remember YorkI Remember Bobbie Louise Hawkins. I also added links for the books by Perec and Abirached, and altered the opening quotation to give a fuller illustration of the workings of Joe’s text. If you know of other examples, please add in a comment below.