Writing from Life

During a recent masterclass with David Almond in London he gave us a number of writing prompts—one after the other in quick succession, thereby eliminating any opportunity to overthink before writing.

With each prompt, we had five minutes to write the first thing that popped into our heads, even if that resulted in pages of "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb." The important thing, he said, was to move away from the computer—to take a pen, and paper, and interact with story on a physical level, the way we did as children, before we learned to be too analytical to be freely creative.

On top of that, he reminded us that writing prompts surround us on a daily basis, and that his own writing career only took off when he began to write from life, even if 'life' veered off into 'magical realism' as his plots developed. By writing about places and people he saw all around him every day his stories had an authenticity they might not have had otherwise.

To say that experiencing David's class changed my approach to writing would be an understatement. After two days of listening to his lilting, Northern-accented voice explain that writing should be a delight - not a chore, but a kind of play - which he proved through the use of prompts both serious and ridiculous, I was in a hypnotic state. Not quite of this world.

Even days later, as I journeyed from Oxford to London, my imagination was still in overdrive as a young woman got on the coach. She soon fell asleep across two seats at a table for four, using her carpet bag as a pillow, her face obscured by a tumble of tight, golden curls.

I imagined she was jet-lagged. American, perhaps. Either a foreign student, or visiting relatives from the old country.

As she fell more deeply into oblivion, her hand slipped from the seat and her arm hung loose beneath the table.

At the next stop a young man took the seat opposite her, his knee inadvertently brushing her hand as he sat down. He shifted position, sitting at an angle to avoid disturbing her. Almost imperceptibly, her arm tensed, then relaxed.

She's pretending not to be awake, I thought. She's observing him through her lashes.

Late spring sun illuminated the young man's blue eyes, the chiseled planes of his face made all the more striking by the mystery of a slightly flattened boxer's nose. The jut of his chin in profile followed the same angle. The lips, well-shaped and sensitive, were firm, even thin. Close-cropped hair. A gladiator's face, full of strength. There was a graze on his cheekbone from a recent fight and his knuckles were bruised, but he possessed that inherent elegance of movement born of being in complete command of his body.

His cell phone vibrated and he took the call, speaking softly. The girl must have heard him, but no movement betrayed it. Perhaps she hoped he would hang up so she could return to sleep. Perhaps she was listening.

The photo I took surreptitiously during the journey :)

He was letting someone know where he was, that he'd taken all the money he could out of his account to help. That he'd be there in just under two hours.

Did she wonder who needed so much help, so urgently, and why? Did she think him a good friend? Or reckless? Or involved in something shady?

He hung up and gazed at the bright, mustard-yellow rake fields flashing by. Then he leaned his head on his hand and tried to sleep.

With the coast clear, she straightened her back, rubbed her eyes, and looked out of the window to see where they were. Her cheeks were flushed with sleep. It took a few seconds for her eyes to focus.

She checked her iPhone, scrolling through emails, her lips quirking in annoyance at one. Definitely American. She had that dimpled, freckled, wholesome blueberry-pancakes-and-maple-syrup prettiness. And she was watching him.

She took in his lean build. The loose jeans. The high-collared Aran sweater, buttons left open at the neck. The white t-shirt beneath it. The pulse in the hollow of his neck. Nails bitten to the quick. Her eyes lingered on his mouth, softened into sensuousness by sleep.

Across the aisle from them an aging female scholar attempted to read notes before she, too, fell asleep, chin nodding against her chest. Almost everyone on the bus was now asleep. Were they just tired? Enchanted? Drugged? Was someone else awake, surprised that the girl was, too?

Bluebells and bracken woods, just coming into leaf, replaced the rake fields. We had almost arrived. The coach slowed, then hissed to a stop.

What do you imagine might happen next?

These are my rough notes, taken on the coach from Oxford to London, but they could very well be the start of a story. In fact, they'll probably evolve into the opening of a Gothic romance set in Wales.

So plan for the unexpected. Make sure you always have a way to take notes, wherever you go. You never know when real life will hand you a writing prompt on a platter, and what a loss it would be to have nothing to write with if that happens!

In fact, why not choose a day to wander amongst the places and people you know best, notebook in hand, alive to opportunity, and see what happens?

LIA KEYES is represented by Laura Rennert, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

A British expat, she's currently finishing a fantasy adventure for young adults. You can find links to her online haunts on her website.

Lia's other musings


I started a short story after listening to an interaction on a train. I definitely need to remember to bring my notebook with me more often, there are so many interesting people out there!

Lia - Wow! What really resonates with me is David's idea that writing should be a joy. And your writing about the two people on the train is so engaging that I want you to go on with it!! There are stories all around us!

This potential couple on the train - one so wholesome,working towards making a living with her mind, and the other so much rougher, dealing with life on a totally different level. It's irresistible to imagine what would happen if chance should cause their lives to collide. But when he answered his phone.. well, that was an unexpected gem, adding a wonderful potential source of conflict to the unlikely romance I was conjuring as we traveled. I do hope you enjoy your own explorations, Laura! Do come back and tell me if you find a gem!

Check out videos of him talking about writing on youtube, Robin. I think you'll like them a lot!

So lovely, Lia. And I do hope I get to read more of this... hope as in DESPERATELY hope. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Poke poke.

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