7-word focus

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This exercise is the kind of thing that can be done anywhere — and is possibly best done in places you don’t usually frequent. The example below is taken from my current novel-in-progress.

It is a scene where the central character finds himself cooling his heals in a police interview room, and to pass the time, he turns to this exercise.

It has a lot in common with the free writing exercise.

I’ll let Art Lazaar explain:

There’s a little writing exercise I like to do whenever I’m stuck waiting for someone. For years, I’ve carried a notebook with blank pages, each of which fits about a hundred and twenty words of my quick scrawl. I favour the pages blank because it gives a sense of freedom, and capturing momentary observations requires freedom. When I’m stuck, I’m not free; but there is no reason my words should not be. I like my Lamy fountain pen for this; it has grace, its ink flows like melting ice cream. I begin by noting down a single observation in just seven words: a complete thought, a full sentence captured quickly, with a definite end point.

I’m sat at a table, alone, erect.

The middle word begins the next observation: again, just seven words.

A chair beneath my arse, cold, hard.

And then another line, again, starting with the middle word.

My arse itches from crusty cold sweat.
From cheek to cheek I rock, relieved.
Cheek of these people, left me here.

As my output sped up, the observations became more random, but always triggered by what I could sense from the place. I tapped into feelings, sounds, images, tastes and smells as well as visceral responses. A conversation with myself in rapid seven word bursts.

People without soul, without a bare backbone.
Without: where they see through the glass.
See me waiting, impatience in my eyes.
Impatience, when they are interviewing in here.
Are they good cop, bad cop routine?
Cop this, and one lash for truth.
One way glass, they see me through.
They see what I see, only me.
I smell aftershave through these wall cracks.
Through a nightmare of pounding, interview me.
Of course, I’m a guest, not interviewed.
A crack, the door opens, her face.
Door slams, her face drained, she leaves,
Face it, this is not the time.
Is not the time, the time again?
Time fell apart when she saw me.
When I heard Oh, it’s you! Click!

I worked quickly, not taking the pen from the page, and not stopping until the page was full. When it was, I started playing with what was on it, seeking out two- or three-word combinations that are unusual. Unusual in their sounds, their linkages, how they combine, the images they evoke. I read backwards from the end and, on the adjacent page, noted down any combinations I deemed worthy of attention. Those of special significance will find their way into my phrase book, a growing collection I call upon when a cold, crusty itch needs to be scratched, and I don’t know where to scratch. Often the answer is found in those pages.

In the time between Boulter closing the door on me and her return to the room, I discovered a whole collection of possibles that could lead to poetic coincidences, metaphors or just plain absurd images. I had quite a collection gathered.Apart fell time; Smell I me; Routine cop?Is that Boulter? Surely not, she’s anything but routine. She’d freshened up, no longer a face drained, no aftershave smell — but still, her impatience eyes me through the wall cracks of a pounding nightmare.

I closed my notebook, pocketed my pen, and smiled at her by way of greeting.

‘Boulter …’”


This, of course is early work, I wrote it last week. Art Lazaar is a poet who teaches Creative Writing, but he also finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation nobody wants to care about, which is why he’s in a police interview room.

The exercise is rich, though, and offers a number of training routines.

The discipline initially calls for seven words to make a complete thought: a sentence.

The focus should be also on trying to capture concrete details as they are observed and minimising adjectives and adverbs.

As is demonstrated above, the reading technique reveals interesting phrases, randomly occurring (I’ve underlined the ones Art selected), but I especially like the metaphor of impatience eyeing me through the wall cracks of a pounding nightmare. It might end up being modified somewhat in its final form, but without the exercise itself, it would have never come to be.

Other things you can do with this is look at the strings of first words that came from the middle word of each prior sentence. For example, the last four read backwards produces, ‘When time is face.’ I could do something with that.

Try it.

Try it with your students.

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