Creative Writing At The Chiswick Book Festival

A review by Sophie Swithinbank


Sarah Leipciger


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Sarah Leipciger, author of the recently published novel The Mountain Can Wait, usually teaches creative writing in prisons across the country. Although her audience at the Chiswick Book Festival was slightly different to her usual audience, she still managed to engage with the group and allow people to access their creativity in a variety of ways.

The session had not been advertised as a writing workshop, so when Sarah announced that it was, there was a significant feeling of apprehension amongst the group. One audience member hurriedly fled the room in terror at the thought of being forced to write, mumbling something about having come to the wrong room. Everyone else stayed, intrigued by Sarah and her thoughtful enthusiasm for writing. She opened the session with a free-write, which she conducted very well. It was swift and the instructions were direct so no one had time to think about the judge the quality of their writing. Sarah chose five words, seemingly at random, although some people found links between them. The words were; plummet, trickster, chaos, divine and confused.

Participants had ninety seconds to write anything they could about each word. This was a successful warm-up as participants began to access their natural creativity. The words stirred emotions, jogged memories, formed links and raised questions. One participant who read his piece aloud linked all five of his paragraphs into a narrative based on a leaf he’d seen floating past the window, reminding everyone that writing is possible even if you’ve only got half a glimpse of an idea. After willing participants had shared their pieces, Sarah moved the group onto the shoe exercise. Each person had to choose someone else’s shoes to write about. The purpose of this was to focus on how objects can contribute to the telling of a story. Objects are anything you need them to be. They are catalysts for conversations, they are obstacles, they are tools of reveal, they are weapons, they are gifts. The exercise began with an objective and detailed description of the shoe. Easy. And then we moved on to the backstory of the shoe’s existence. A little trickier. And finally, the story itself, the peak of the exercise. The story could be as closely related to the shoe as each participant wanted. It was inspiring that some people achieved almost fully rounded mini stories in the six minutes devoted to the task. Forced, timed writing is definitely a healthy task for all budding writers.

The workshop ended with endings. Sarah produced a list of last sentences from a range of novels. The task was to choose a last line and use it as the opening line of a new story. Amongst the options were, ‘I am haunted by humans.’

‘She looks into her hands and wonders what they’ll do next. See how they twitch and they want.’

‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.’

This task was, I believe, daunting for many of the writers in the room. The difficulty lies in starting where someone else has left off. The quote above, ‘she looks into her hands…’ has a very unusual tone. It is not easy to begin a story in present tense with such a poetic and abstract sentiment. I doubt very many people were able to use this line, but this is just a speculation as there was not time to hear each other’s beginnings. This task had great intentions – of pushing writers beyond the comfort zone of their own writing style, but was perhaps a little too adventurous for a one-hour writing workshop.

The Chiswick Book Festival is about writers and writing, so this workshop had the correct values at its centre. Sarah made writers of all the participants, even those who hadn’t planned to tap into their creativity on this unsuspecting Saturday afternoon. The whole session had a glorious and refreshing lack of self-consciousness as Sarah guided creative minds to places one didn’t even know existed.

Sarah Leipciger was born in Peterborough, Canada. She spent her teenage years in Toronto, later moving to Vancouver Island to study Creative Writing and English literature at the University of Victoria.

Buy The Mountain Can Wait at

Follow Sarah on Twitter @SarahLeipcigar

Sophie Swithinbank

September 22, 2015

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