Ian McMillan: Room to let rip

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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A lot of people say to me that they’d like to have a go at writing a poem or a story but they don’t know where to start; well, I know about the tyranny (and the excitement, let’s be honest) of the blank page, but here’s a little exercise I’ve used many times on my own and in writing groups to kickstart my imagination. Try it. Just go and get a piece of paper and a pen. Take your time: I’ll wait.

Ready? Right, I’d like you to imagine a room from your childhood. It could be a public room, like a space in a school or a church, or it could be a room in a house. Try to describe it. Be as detailed as you like: the wallpaper, the furniture, the lighting. And of course you can make some bits up if you want. I won’t tell anybody because I won’t know.

Then, if you haven’t done so already, think about the door to the room. It might be a heavy old door, or it might be a glass door, or a door with a broken handle. Doors are very important in writing: characters enter through them and run out of them, slamming them. Light filters through the glass. Someone rattles the handle and makes you jump.

Once you’ve described the door, then imagine (or remember) somebody coming to the door. They might knock or they might walk straight in. They might be somebody (like an auntie, say) who comes through the door regularly, or they might be a first-time visitor. Think of things that make them uniquely them: the exploding eyebrows, the tattoo. The great thing about memories is that they can drag other memories up behind them, once you start pulling.

The person who comes to the door says something. What might they say? Try to remember something that this person might have said. They might be pleased to see you or they might not. They might have a catchphrase or a joke.

Then, and this is may be the most complicated part of this little exercise, the person who has come through the door gives you something, and you give them something in return. This could be something real like a present or something intangible like a smile or a kiss.

Then, finally, there’s music in this room: what could it be? Is it on the radio or the television or is somebody singing or whistling? Think about it. Write it down.

Now have a look at what you’ve 
jotted down. Of course it won’t be a finished poem or a story but it’ll be the start of something you could expand. It might have got you thinking about other memories of those people and that place, or it could have set your mind racing, thinking of possibilities for fiction.

There you are. You’ve started to become an author. Don’t let it stop there, however. Everybody has a story to tell, or a poem to write.

See you at the Nobel Prize celebrations!