Dear Me – Emma Martin

Writing exercises often focus on the initial act of creation: here is the blank page, what will you write on it? But let’s assume that you have a piece of fiction with a start, a middle and an end. What do you do now?


Two things are helpful at this point. Firstly, critical acuity: the ability to see into a piece of fiction, under it, through it; to understand what it is doing, and also how it is doing what is doing. Secondly – this is the tricky bit – the ability to apply this acuity to our own writing. Otherwise, it can be hard to know if a story is finished. Or what to do with it if it is not.

Reading helps develop our critical abilities, of course; but it did strike me, as I made my first forays into writing fiction, that whatever I had been doing with books had left me curiously ignorant of what was required in order to write one. Well-crafted fiction presents itself with a kind of inevitability. It answers its own questions. It paints over its own steps. It pulls its ladder up behind itself, folds its arms tightly across its chest and deflects our tiny arrows.

As we learn the craft of writing, then, there can also be value in reading the work of peers – work that is imperfect, unfinished, still taking shape on the page. What is the impact of the point of view the writer has chosen? What would happen to the work if it began or ended at some different point? If the narrative was condensed or stretched (is this a novel cramped awkwardly into the frame of a short story, or a story that has lost focus and become too novelistic?) Were there points at which the writer seemed to try too hard? Were there particular images that resonated? Did the story touch you? How did the writer achieve that? There are a thousand questions we can ask of a piece of fiction; our first task is to formulate the right ones.

This sharing of work is best done in an environment of trust. When I did the MA at the IIML, prior to each workshop we wrote individual feedback to our classmates in the form of letters. This, we were told, would help us find the right tone: respectful, truthful, intimate. We were instructed always to include something positive (“if you can’t see something positive, read the work again until you see something positive”). At first I thought this was merely a matter of diplomacy, but later concluded it was not. We were being taught look for the energy that is driving a piece of fiction. The possibility in it.

We learnt, too, what to do with feedback on our own work: to hear it well, but hear it in silence. The impact of the story on the reader wasn’t for the writer to debate. We did not need to justify our work to anyone – only (only!) to let ourselves be open to seeing it afresh. Which is not to say that being workshopped did not sometimes feel like having your skin peeled off and being dipped in a salt bath. But I found that I was less flayed by the judgement of others as my confidence as a writer increased. Tellingly, some of the most useful feedback I received mirrored things I knew deep down myself, or was on the cusp of recognising. The aim of the process is not to create a dependence on the opinions of others, but actually quite the reverse. It is to close the circle between giving and receiving feedback, so that – unlike in old-fashioned games of hunt the thimble – we begin to sense for ourselves when we are cold, and when we are warm.

So, the exercise: take a story you have not looked at for several months. Read it and walk around with it in your head for a few days. Read it again. Then write yourself a letter. You are not writing it for an audience: whatever you say is between yourself and yourself. When you have finished, read your story again.

Now rewrite it.

Emma Martin grew up in Dunedin and has lived in Melbourne, Manchester, Edinburgh and London. She lives in Wellington with her partner and two children. In 2012 she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the title story of Two Girls In A Boat, her first collection. The book is launched at Unity Books, Wellington, on 2 May. 

Emma will appear at Bats Theatre, Wellington, in The Exercise Book Live on 14 June.


Word Stabbing with Therese Lloyd

I remember doing this exercise when I was a little girl; back then I didn’t know it was a kind Therese Lloyd 2012of writing exercise of course, I was just having fun with words. But I figure a sense of play is still the essential component of any writing exercise even if I am a grownup now.

So before we begin, just to clarify, this exercise is completely lacking in sophistication; it’s the sort of thing that you can do prone and with one eye half open. But if you want to get something down on that glowering piece of paper (‘the piano crouched in the corner of the room with all its teeth bare’ as Nick Cave says), this’ll do it.


• Chose a collection of poems by a single poet (no anthologies)

• Open the book at any page

• Close your eyes

• With one hand, index finger pointed, make grand-ish gesticulations* in the air

• Then with your eyes still closed bring that finger down onto the open page

• Open your eyes … there is a word under that finger! Write down the word

• Repeat this twenty times, each time opening the book at any page

• Once you have your twenty words start writing a poem that uses all of those words as the structural foundation

Things to note:

If your finger hits a blank space on the page or an article, conjunction or preposition just chose the nearest interesting looking word (whatever you deem that to be) or flick open the book and repeat the process. Try to be as loose as possible though and don’t be put off by a word that you find ugly or out of your ken, and similarly don’t seek a word that you think might ‘fit’.

You can use the words in any order and as many times as you like and you can change the tense to fit.

The great thing about this exercise is once you start composing your poem you can shoot off in any direction you like, in fact, the more open you are to the possibilities the better; after-all, at this stage these are just twenty lone words with no meaning attached to them.

Although we’ve probably all done exercises like this at some point, what’s fun about this one is that you can still get the satisfaction of having written a poem but without dredging your soul for themes or images—the subject tends to emerge as you go along.

The other good thing about this exercise is the marvelous happy accidents that can occur. From Paterson by William Carlos Williams amongst the list of twenty words I picked was this little cluster; ‘old, unoccupied, clouds’, how lovely!

While it’s not essential that you use a single poet’s collection, I encourage it because it’s a novel way to get a sense of a specific poet’s lexicon. Doing this exercise with Wallace Stevens for example may yield a lot of shape, pink, voice, high, concentric etc, with Lyn Heijinian, burlap, bounded, realized, brick etc.

Have fun and remember, no one’s watching.

*not strictly necessary but lends a certain mysticism to the exercise; writers are part magician after-all.

Therese Lloyd’s poems have appeared in a number of print and online publications including Sport, Landfall, Hue & Cry, the AUP series New Zealand Poets in Performance, Jacket2 and Turbine. In 2007 she was awarded the Schaeffer Fellowship to spend a year attending the acclaimed Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Several cities later, she now lives in Paekakariki with her husband. Her debut collection Other Animals is published in March.

How to Silence the Fear

When I get struck by the Fear (you know – the fear that when you’re not writing, you’re wasting time; the fear that when you are writing, you’re wasting time), I need to do something practical, something physical, to fend it off. It’s similar to putting my contact lenses before making toast instead of pawing blindly through the kitchen. So I use the Pomodoro Technique [PDF], which I came across through Oliver Burkeman’s excellent Guardian series This Column Will Change Your Life. It’s the most unmiraculous way of tricking yourself into doing stuff. as a Bill Manhire simulacrum wrote here: “I am not an innovator, I will take my tricks from anywhere.” And the Pomodoro Technique is really just a slightly silly trick.

All you do is pick a task – any task, but in our case, writing, any writing – and set a timer for 25 minutes. It has to be 25 minutes. (The guy who came up with this idea in the 80s, an Italian named Francesco Cirillo, uses a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato, hence “pomodoro”.) Anyway, write until the timer rings. Stop for five minutes. Five minutes, no more, no less. Then repeat three more times. After that, you can have a longer break. Stretch, scratch, bring in the washing, or, my favourite, do a bit of vacant staring.

And, well – that’s it. This simple structuring of time creates the illusion of obligation. You must do the time. And the kitchen timer provides objective validation that you’ve done it. As Burkeman says, it’s almost embarrassing how easy it is to fool yourself. (Cirillo himself says that the first time he tried it was both helpful and humiliating.) “The ticking clock takes an internal desire to get something done and fools some part of the brain into thinking it’s external, that the clock must be obeyed,” says Burkeman. “Even the hokey language – Cirillo calls each 25-minute period a ‘pomodoro’ – helps, by making the time blocks seem like ‘things’, out in the world.” This appeals to me because before any piece of work becomes a poem, a story, a novel – at first, always, it is just a thing.

The other option, I guess, is to stop fluffing around with tomatoes and Just Do It. But setting yourself a small, specific task – something that involves the use of your limbs – is an oddly powerful way to silence the Fear. It is more manageable than making bloodless plans to “finish an essay, finish that editing job, write an application for money, write three poems”. We are so good at tricking ourselves out of doing things, we can respond with trickery to get ourselves to do them.

Ashleigh Young’s first collection of poetry, Magnificent Moon, will be launched at Unity Books, Wellington, this Thursday at 6pm. Ashleigh grew up in Te Kuiti and Wellington and has recently returned from two years in London where she was an editor at the Institute of Ismaili Studies. Her poems and essays have appeared in many print and online literary magazines, including Best New Zealand PoemsBooknotesHue & Cry,MetroSport and Turbine. She won the Adam Foundation Prize in 2009 for her manuscript essay collection Can You Tolerate This?, and her essay ‘Wolf Man’ won the Landfall Essay Competition the same year. She blogs at

Photograph and poem – Kerry Hines

 Choose a photograph to work with – one which is unfamiliar to you, and which interests you and piques your curiosity in some way. There are no constraints on what kind of photograph you choose, but it must have been taken before you were born, and must have no direct personal associations for you – so you can’t, for example, choose something from a family album.

Look closely at the photograph for at least 5-10 minutes. Consider what you know and don’t know about the image, and what it is that attracts you to it. Stay curious, and be attentive. Hypothesise, speculate, notice. Set the photograph aside for a few days, then repeat this process. Feel free to make notes and to search out contextualising information about the photograph, but in addition to looking, not instead of it.

Then write a poem in response to the photograph that builds on (but does not make explicit) this experience of it. Your aim should be to write a poem that would surprise and interest the photograph, rather than telling it what it already knows. In particular:

  • avoid describing or paraphrasing the photograph, or otherwise trying to translate it into words;

  • steer clear of any reference to photographs or photography in the poem;

  • take care to avoid clichés and easy conclusions about the past.

Kerry Hines was the IIML’s first PhD student, and was recently awarded her doctorate for her thesis After the fact: poems, photographs, and regenerating histories. Kerry will present work from her project at the last Writers on Mondays session for the year at 12.15pm, Monday 8 October at the City Gallery, Wellington (note venue).

Working with an archive of nineteenth-centure photographs, Kerry Hines has written a compelling collection of poems that bring together text and image, fact and imagination; raising the question of how we look at and imagine our history. Kerry will discuss the archive and its creator, outline the origins and development of the work, and present a selection of the poems and photographs which form part of her creative writing PhD thesis. Chaired by Roger Blackley.

Snowstorm – Ken Duncum

Ken Duncum
I do this at the first class of every year. It’s a good ice-breaker in itself, and leads to homework which is then the first writing read in class.
I cut up lots of strips of paper – and label three boxes CHARACTERS, LOCATIONS, CONVERSATIONS.
I then dump 200 strips of paper on the table and tell my (10) class members to write an invented character on each strip and put it in the CHARACTER box while saying it out loud.
Characters are briefly named rather than described at length – e.g. lovestruck teenager, seasick pirate, the last woman in the world . . .
When 200 characters have been invented, declaimed aloud and stowed in their box, I dump another 100 strips on the table and we set about inventing locations in the same way – heaven, a treehouse, a sleazy bar . . .
When that’s done, it’s on to ‘things a conversation could be about’. These might be subjects like ‘the existence of God’ or ‘the price of fish’, or could be snippets of lines such as ‘Why don’t you love me?’ or ‘That’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen’ (though that last one probably wouldn’t fit on a strip).
Once that’s done, I give the contents of each box a stir, then each writer has to pick (without looking) two characters out of the CHARACTER box, a location from the LOCATION box and a conversation topic out of the CONVERSATION box.
They read out what they’ve got – e.g. a lovestruck teenager and the last woman in the world in a treehouse talking about that’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen.

Homework is then to write that scene as a script – could be film or theatre – of about three minutes’ duration (no longer) and bring copies for everyone to the next week’s class.
The following week we read them out loud in class.
It’s a good way to start that process because it’s an arbitrary (and kind of silly) exercise, rather than a piece of writing dear to the writer’s heart. Very often the inventiveness of how the writer tackles their task is truly admirable – and sometimes writers have gone on to develop their short homework script into something ‘real’.


Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.

Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be at the next Writers on Mondays with the Masters scriptwriting students at Circa Theatre, September 24th 12.15pm, introducing the latest crop of emerging talent. Full WOM programme details here.

True Stories as told by Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins, photo by Greta Wilkins

I use this exercise in the first few weeks of the MA workshop. By this time we might have done a few exercises which centre around autobiographical writing. This one frees us from the burden of confession and asks us to enter and create other lives. Newspaper photographs, which are often stagey and awkward, can be great prompts for story. Once you have a face and a few facts, it’s addictive to start reading and writing against the grain. Lawrence Patchett’s wonderful stories about 19th Century NZ are a form of this kind of approach – alternate histories made from real sources.

The other reason I like using the exercise is to remind people about the great Mavis Gallant. Her Collected Stories is almost 900 pages and essential. ‘The Moslem Wife’ is a favourite but once you have that one in your system, there’s nothing to do but push on.

True Stories
‘A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction.’
– Mavis Gallant, Paris Review, Winter 1999
Choose a photograph from the newspaper and write a piece of fiction that imagines the lie behind the official truth.

Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.

In 2013 Damien became the Director of the IIML, having taught in the Masters programme since 2004. He’s the author of numerous books, including six novels. His latest novel Max Gate is published this October.

Using Another Person’s Words in Poetry

Sarah Jane Barnett

I notice that writers do it all the time. Sometimes it will be song lyrics, or a quote by a famous person. I also do it all the time. Other people have such interesting things to say.

A few years ago, after finding a website that featured the last words and criminal reports of death row inmates, I wrote a series of poems about executions in Texas. In some of the poems I quoted the inmate’s last words. What a tricky business. While writing I asked myself some questions. Should I edit the inmates last words? Did my poems exploit the inmates? Was this a form of plagiarism? More recently I’ve used other real words such as a saying from my mother, a report on bird attacks, and lines from a book on geography. These are the tips that I would give to someone who wants to use someone else’s words in a poem.

1. Chop and Change

 My biggest decision when using another person’s words is whether or not they need to be verbatim, or if I can chop and change them to suit the poem. For instance, I felt comfortable changing the location and season of an online report of a bird attacks. Who would care? With the death row poems, it was a little different. It felt unethical to change the inmate’s last words—spoken at possibly one of the most vulnerable moments of their life—for the sake of sound or rhythm. So before writing, decide where that line is for you.

2. Give It To Me Straight

 When using another person’s words, especially if they’re verbatim, I feel it’s necessary to make sure a reader can tell they’re not mine, but not in a footnote kind of way. Actually I did try out the footnote idea, but it made the poem feel a bit stiff. The best ways that I have seen are:

  • italicise the other person’s words
  • attribute the words in the notes section at the end of the book
  • use spacing or line breaks on the page to indicate a change in voice
  • use a different tense to indicate a change in voice
  • make it into dialogue and attribute it that way

For instance, in my death row poem Dennis Dowthitt, I tabbed Dowthitt’s words into three columns so they stand out as being different from the rest of the poem (and also make them sound a little crazy). As his last words are in the first person, I wrote the rest of the poem in the third person so a reader could tell where my voice ended and his began.

3. Last Words

 My last word on using another person’s words is to make sure you have permission. This is a really boring tip. But if you suddenly become sold all over the world (the dream!), and happen to have a quote by The Beatles in your poem, you might find yourself in court. Or if you use a funny thing your mother tends to say, and then publish a book, you might get a brusque “I never said that!”


Sarah Jane Barnett’s first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was launched by Hue & Cry Press in August 2012. You can find out more about it on the Hue & Cry Press website. Sarah has a Masters from the IIML, and is currently completing a PhD at Massey University in the field of ecopoetics. You can listen to some of the current MA students from the IIML Writing for the Page workshops read next Monday, September 10th at Te Papa, to get a preview of the latest crop of emerging talent. Full WOM programme details here.