How to start Writing. photo by Pat Boran

How to Start Writing


An excerpt from Pat Boran’s popular writers’ handbook, The Portable Creative Writing Workshop, full of games, exercises and creative approaches to kick-starting and maintaining a writing habit for those trying to figure out how to start writing.

‘WRITING IS EASY,’ for American journalist and biographer Gene Fowler. ‘All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.’ But maybe that’s not the only way, at least not all the time. In this first section, we’re going to start, as anyone should before playing what may well prove to be strenuous games, by warming up. In the second and third sections we’ll look at aspects of poetry and fiction in detail; for now we’ll try to leave those categories to one side and instead just work at producing ‘pieces of writing’. For some of us, a number of these may well develop into poems, or stories, but what we’re really interested in here is freeing up the process, stretching ourselves a little, limbering up. And the less we think about categories like ‘poem’ and ‘story’, the fewer preconceived ideas of what they might be we’ll end up carrying with us.

That’s the theory anyway. The reader who wants to get the most from this book will go slowly through the first section before moving on to either or both of the other two, and ideally things in this first section will be returned to every now and again. Many of these games (or exercises, if you really insist) only begin to pay off if they are practised on a regular basis.


All learning activities work as follows: you begin knowing little or nothing, you move on to a recognition of the rules, then to the conscious learning of the rules (or rules of thumb), and soon after, with a bit of luck, you’re there. At first the rules seem constricting, even arbitrary. Who made these damned rules anyway? Then you start to notice that some of the rules work, and you get a little excited. Until you realise that there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of rules. This is a difficult period, the period where the musician must over and over practice her scales or the gymnast must swing for hours on the parallel bars. This is the part where all our logic and concentration come into play, and the part where most of us get bogged down and beyond which we fail to advance.

How to start writing, The Portable Creative Writing Workshop. Dedalus Press, 2013
The Portable Creative Writing Workshop. Dedalus Press, 2013

However, if this period is given due attention, it may well be followed by a period during which the rules are gradually absorbed, and we re-experiences the freedom we knew before awareness of the rules proved so much of a distraction. We are playing again, with the obvious difference that we are now more aware of what it is we have taken on.

Take the example of the person who decides to learn to drive. The first few efforts in the driving seat are hopeless, maybe even terrifying. With enormous conscious effort the beginner driver tries to perfect the timing and manipulation of peddles, gears and brakes, lights, horn and indicators, not to mention steering wheel! (Accelerator, Brake, Clutch… He’s gone all the way back again to his ABC.) So he drives like that, like someone struggling with a metal contraption designed to get him along the road. He might even hit the odd thing now and again: the footpath, the corner of the gate, a parking cone. And then one day, he finds himself miles from his home. He has driven there. And he has done it with little or no conscious effort.

Now, somewhere between his early over-consciousness and his later no-consciousness at all there’s a good driver. In his The Use of Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono has the following to say on this relationship between play and learning:

‘During play ideas suggest themselves and then breed further ideas. The ideas do not follow one another in a logical progression, but if the mind makes no attempt to direct ideas and is curious enough to pursue them there will always be enough ideas – often there will be too many. The ideas may not prove useful immediately, but have a habit of turning up later. Even if no specific idea turns up, the general familiarity with a situation which is provided by playing around can prove a most useful background for the development of further ideas.’

For creative writing, as for most other things, practice is the only way to stay in form and very often, even from games and distractions such as those that follow, the great elusive idea you’ve been searching out for years may rear its head. All the ideas in the world won’t make a poem or story. Very often, the only way to make either is to be writing when the idea comes. As one of my favourite poets, Robert Frost, said, ‘A poem is an idea caught in the act of dawning.’ And in many ways, the joys of creative writing are the accidents that happen when you are as prepared for them as you can be.


‘I agree to like you. Let’s forget that argument we had earlier where you stole my girlfriend.’ A conversation that begins like this is unlikely to stay healthy for very long. Similarly, statements of intent about art or music or poetry are of little real use. Unless, of course, they are quickly followed up with some kind of experience. Obviously a good experience induces in us a desire to undergo further periods of the experience, while a negative one has the opposite effect.

A pleasurable experience is necessary if we’re to keep up our interest, if we’re to reawaken our own sense of experimentation. And the best way to guarantee a pleasurable experience is to allow ourselves in advance to fail, to screw up, to make a mess of things. I’m not a great guitar player, but if I don’t allow myself to make mistakes how can I ever improve? So I screw up, and enjoy screwing up in a way, and sometimes even get something right by accident. But a funny thing about that kind of accident is it only ever happens when I am playing guitar. When I think about it, or talk about it, guess what, nothing happens. I have to be actually doing it to learn. I learn to do, and do in order to learn.

The same is true of writing. If we want to learn something about the process and about ourselves, we actually have to write. While most of the games in this book have a pretty definite purpose, for many of us the material we produce will not seem to match our expectations or what we imagine are the author’s expectations. This simply doesn’t matter. If this book should impart any one piece of wisdom (where it comes from originally) it is that there is no one correct way to go about writing, and that instead we all find our own way, or fail to do so. The games described in this book are simply suggestions as to how we might kick-start various aspects of the process.


Write what you know. That’s the advice most would-be writers are given. But sometimes, particularly when you’re hunting for a new idea, or feeling that you’ve run into a wall on an old one, it’s better to write what you don’t know, and not as difficult an undertaking as it might at first sound. If, as Oscar Wilde suggested, ‘All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling’, and maybe even all bad writing, we’ll try instead for what WH Auden called ‘the clear expression of mixed feelings’. We’ll try to make things clear and concrete and appealing to the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing), even if we don’t yet know quite what we mean.

My first meeting with the poet, novelist and publisher John F Deane was on a writing course back in 1986 where he was one of the visiting tutors. The thing I most remember about his workshop was when, after reading a series of quiet and very moving elegies to his late wife, he answered a question on how he finds the quietness within himself to write by saying (and I paraphrase): ‘Sometimes I turn the sound on the television all the way up so I can’t think.’ If what we’re trying to do when we write poems is discover something within ourselves, it might be that our best chance of doing so comes when we are absorbed or distracted by something else. Once our guards are down, the raw material that may be emotion or insight or imagination or image often finds its way to the surface.

But how do we do this, and how do we know it works? Well, let’s answer the second question first. We know it works because we know lots of writers have approached writing in this way at one time or another. WB Yeats is among the most famous examples. What opium and drink were to Coleridge and Dylan Thomas respectively, the occult, automatic writing and divination were to Yeats. But what makes Yeats so interesting for us is that, while he played with ouija boards and automatic writing, he also knew the importance of form. ‘Irish poets, learn your trade. / Sing whatever is well made,’ he advised. He also answered the question of how he made his own poems by claiming he was looking for the next rhyme, a process at once automatic and craft-based.

And we know that it is not only writers who have taken the idea of automatic writing seriously; so too have those who would like to control the way writers think and work. Though it hardly rates as great literature (which is a word you won’t find too often in this book), the words of the throwaway pop song Louie Louie, generated in this manner, occasioned a secret FBI investigation when the ultra-right wing Edgar J Hoover decided the song might be an attack on American morals. In other words, automatic writing is a powerful force, and one that has been accorded both respect and fear throughout history. Speaking in tongues, for instance, is a version of it and, depending on where and when you lived historically, the practice might either have seen you hailed as a prophet or condemned to death as a witch.

But automatic writing / speaking in tongues is not just an artistic adventure. Lovers engage in a form of it when they use pet names and expressions for each other; children engage in it all the time. The exhausted, the drunk, the emotionally challenged, all have recourse to it.

Now that we know what it is, how do we get started?

Take a pen and paper, or switch on your computer, and, setting yourself a time limit of no more than five minutes, write the first thing, and any subsequent thing that comes into your head. Imagine you’re drunk, imagine you’re dreaming, imagine you’re insane. The point is to write as fast as you can so that you don’t start to think or worry about what it is you’re writing. For once, you are interest- ed in quantity rather than quality. You simply want to write as much as you can, as fast as you can, in the allocated five minutes. And like John F Deane, if you like you can always turn up the television or the radio to full volume, or you can go and sit in the middle of a noisy cafe. For the next five minutes you are opening the flood- gates and doing your best simply to write down what comes out.

We’ll be returning to versions of the automatic game throughout this book (the poetry section features an extended version of the game intended to steer us towards something like the material for a poem). For the moment, however, just concentrate on letting go, on getting used to the feel of writing without direction, on surprising yourself. Play this game a number of times until you feel relatively comfortable with it, until it becomes a kind of second nature. Then we’ll look at a subtly different version that can produce very different results.


Guided Automatic Writing differs from Automatic Writing in that before we begin to write we pre-select an opening phrase with which to commence. The disadvantage of this approach is that this opening phrase, no matter how innocuous it may seem, inevitably steers our automatic flow in a particular direction, which might not always be what we want. The advantage, on the other hand, is that it is sometimes a help to have somewhere to begin, especially if we are in the earlier stages of automatic writing and still tend to worry about whether or not we will come up with anything ‘useful’.

The American poet Deena Metzger in her wonderful book on creative writing, Writing for your Life, suggests beginning with a phrase like ‘He appeared…’ and continuing the automatic writing from there. A phrase like this can be very useful indeed to kick- start the process, and Metzger’s is especially helpful for the way in which it embraces action (appeared) and mystery (He? Who is ‘he’?) Like all good openings it catches our attention and at the same time prompts us to ask questions. And, of course, ‘she appeared’ or ‘they appeared’ or even ‘it appeared’ do something similar, though perhaps without the same religious overtones.
When choosing an opening phrase, then, it’s important to choose something that is not static but that leads into something more to come. One good way of finding opening phrases like this – and remember we are using the phrases only to get started, after which we can delete or modify them as we please – is to look at the openings of other stories or poems or even newspaper articles. Somebody said that all poems are responses to other poems. In the same way every time we write we are responding at some level to other writing or language, so by choosing an opening phrase we get to cut straight to the centre of this response process. (For this reason, it is often very helpful to have a dictionary of quotations to hand, as somewhere in it there are bound to be a few words or sentences which will immediately spark off some kind of response in us. But more of this anon.)
The final thing to say here is that it’s important not to worry too much about what comes as a response to the opening. If we find a sad poem or story that begins ‘He appeared…’, for the purposes of this exercise at least there is no pressure to continue either in the same mood or on the same topic. In fact, ideally, once we have written down this opening phrase we should be trying to let the floodgates of language open up so that we are too busy writing down whatever comes to worry about what it means or how faithful or unfaithful we may be to the original. As with the earlier version of automatic writing, the point is to generate raw material, quantity not quality, and worrying about things like faithfulness at this stage is really just your Inner Critic saying, ‘This is no good. I told you this was going to be no good’, or whatever his stock put-downs are.

Take a phrase from a poem or story or newspaper article, preferably one which includes elements of action and/or mystery, and use it as the launch pad from which to begin automatic writing for 5 minutes.

An extract from THE PORTABLE CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOP (a how-to, why-not, what-next guide for writers who prefer doing to endlessly talking about it and using up their best ideas in the process). Available from Dedalus Press and all good booksellers

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