The river flows where the river flows

Tips and news about writing, and writing in education.

In this exercise, you imagine that you are a river flowing through space and time — passing places, people, events. And as you pass these objects, you imagine the circumstances beyond what you actually see, so you make things up about the things you’ve already made up. Life is like a river.

Time passes as we pass things in time. We see, hear, feel, touch, taste objects as we pass them, or as they pass us in life. We retain only glimpses, moments, droplets of the whole; and those droplets evaporate quickly so you need to hold them in your mind’s eye and explore the sensations that surround that experience.

Try it.

Try it with your students.

The technique

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes
  • Imagine you are the river flowing through space and time. As you flow you pass places, people, events.
  • Make a quick list of these things — somewhere between 6 and 10 is a good list
  • The places, people, events, objects do not have to relate to each other — they are random
  • Once you have your list, write a short vignette of each, spending perhaps five minutes on each. The writing should be persistent, non-stopping, non-reflective at first.
  • At a later time, revisit your vignettes for ideas and scenes that you could develop further, or combine.

This is mine from 20th June, 2017.

As you can see, I didn’t manage to write on all nine items. But I can always come back to them. This exercise is an excellent way to get an idea on the page.

My list of what I pass as a river:

  1. A fair ground
  2. mother and child
  3. dog paddling at the banks
  4. tractor in the paddock
  5. man pissing at a tree
  6. tree falling
  7. boy riding a bike
  8. a boat tied up at a jetty
  9. the jetty puts into the river

My vignettes

The fair ground is noisy and bustling, kids are running from sideshows with sticks of fairy floss, and clambering on rides that lift them high above the ground and drop them as fast as gravity can muster. They arrive at the bottom with screams and shouts, and feelings of churned stomachs and head for the ghost train where they are whirled and wheeled through a dark series of tunnels and sudden turns that shake them to the core. Scared within the safety of scared.

I’m a river, I’m used to sharp turns and falls that plummet with all the force of gravity. But do you hear me cry out? No. The mother and child walking along the banks are laughing, and singing. She is growing up to be the woman her mother thinks she might become, but that rarely happens. Mothers have to let go in order to allow the seed to grow.

They pass the dog by the side of the river. He’s paddling, up to his forelegs, his snout dips in and under, seeing the fish swirling past, but he can’t catch them. A stick floats by, on my surface — I gather sticks and send them down the stream, when they pass under a bridge a funny little bear counts them in a silly game called Pooh Sticks. This dog just grabs it, wags his tail. Thinks he has the whole world in his mouth and leaps from the water, trailing spray and drops behind as he bounds up the bank with his treasure in search of the next distraction.

The field is tranquil, peaceful, it has been ploughed and is full of little furrows that catch the water before channelling it to me, refreshing me, bringing me new nutrients that feed the algae that saps my strength. The tractor moving across the paddock is clouding the air with phosphate, spewing it out into the air so that it settles on the ground in fine granules that can then get soaked up by the earth, enriching it, giving it power to grow a new crop. What the earth chooses not to use, it sends to me, leaches it under the ground, washes it off the top, until my waters dissolve it and feed the algae that sits on my surface and rots my water, kills my fish.

The man pissing against the tree lets his stream fall against the trunk and watches it trickle down, and puddle at the roots of the tree. It is natural to let your waste go, but for too long humankind have used me as the receptacle of that waste, the one to take it away and transport it to the greater waters of the ocean, where it is diluted into minute, uncountable particles that will never be recognised for what it once was. But, not all human waste travels so far, some gets locked up in the estuaries, some washes onto the banks, some piles up in stinking, choking pools to poison, not just me, but all who might use me for other purposes, such as swimming and bathing, and drinking.

As I pass the fallen tree, a huge, monster of a tree, fallen across my way, damming my passage and forcing my waters higher in order to pass, I wonder at the way of nature. Was it a lightning strike, or simply unstable soil in which the mighty had taken root. Perhaps a wind, sudden and concentrated, caught by the leaves and whipping them into a sail and pushing, and pushing, and pushing, until finally the ground could bear no more. Or was it something much smaller, the gnawing insect that chews out the tree from the inside, taking its life, bit by bit until finally there is nothing left to support its great weight.

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