Ten Ice-Breaking Questions For Writers

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Writing For Pleasure & Publication classes started last week and with several new students in the mix a ‘getting to know you’ exercise important.

Icebreakers

There are lots of Icebreaker Exercises available on the Internet. Questions and games for almost every situation you can imagine – I think I’ve tried them all over the fifteen plus years I’ve been teaching. How do you come up with something original and relevant?

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Like all good writing teachers, (indeed writers), I donned a pirate hat and cobbled together ten questions from a day of research. Writers must be good listeners and observers. They must know themselves and others so they can create believable characters.

From a lesson by Annie Dillard, the great writer of literary nonfiction, Alexander Chee, her student learnt:

You need to turn that attention to yourself. Research yourself… what do you think you can write that you couldn’t write before?… How do I use it in fiction?… I would start next, for me, with what feels real out of what I want to invent. Using your life in fiction doesn’t have to mean only replicating it. That I call the mistake of verisimilitude…

The students could use whatever they gleaned (and it may or may not have been ‘the truth’) to write a mini-bio, a short story, a poem, a newspaper report, magazine column – any piece of writing, any format or genre, from the interviewee and share with the class and at home perhaps write their own bio, or produce another piece of writing triggered by work in class.

Ten Questions

  • If you could live in any sitcom on TV past or present, which one would it be? Why? What character would you be?
  • What do you look for in a friend?
  • Describe the best dessert you have ever had? When was the last time you ate it?
  • It’s Saturday morning. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Is there a routine to this day?
  • If you were to get a tattoo, what would it say or what would the graphic be? And where would you put it on your body?
  • Why do you live where you do? How long have you lived there?
  • If you could have been told one thing that you weren’t told when you were a teenager, what would you like to have heard? Why?
  • If you were to write a book what would it be about? Do you have a title?
  • If you could be any animal in the world for 24 hours, which animal would you be? Why?
  • Name your three favourite smells, why are they your favourite and what is it they evoke, or what memories do they trigger?

Experiment with the information you have learned – after you have written a factual piece is there anything to trigger your imagination that you could turn into a fictional story?

images-1.png1. What sitcom character would I be?

  1. Years ago on the ABC, there was a BBC comedy The Good Life. A couple decided to live off the grid and make their suburban house and garden “green” and environmentally sustainable. The good life equating with the simple life.

The blurb says:

A milestone birthday convinces Tom Good to make a change. He talks his wife, Barbara, into giving up the so-called rat race and joining him in a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. They convert their suburban home into a farm, planting crops in the back garden and bringing in pigs and chickens (including a rooster they name Lenin). The new use of their property comes as something of a shock to their very proper neighbours, Margo and Jerry Leadbetter. A social climber of the first order, Margo can’t bear having chickens roaming the back garden. She’ll have to put up with it, though, since Tom, despite his desire for self-sufficiency, can’t bring himself to kill the chickens.

It aired on TV from 1975-1977

Tom (Richard Briers) turned 40 and in a midlife crisis gave up his job as a designer of the plastic toys that came free with breakfast cereal. (This was really big in the 60s and 70s and as one of six children I can remember having to take turns and arguing over the toys! I guess they were the precursors to the plastic junk given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals!)

His wife, Barbara (Felicity Kendal), goes along with his aim for sustainable living – their house is paid for and one could say the risks in a change of lifestyle were minimal. However, the conflict and comedy occur when Barbara and Tom continual challenge their friends and neighbours Margo (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington) and confront their wasteful ways while, as it happens, they often have to rely on them for help!

The self-sufficient lifestyle involves lawns becoming allotments for food not flowers, chickens, and pigs (Pinky and Perky), a goat, and a rooster named Lenin. They generate their own electricity using the animal waste byproduct methane, attempt making their own clothes, have success with homemade wine, and barter and sell produce to bypass and ignore capitalism’s monetary system!

Needless to say, many of the episodes are hilarious.

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Both couples are childless and the political events of the 1970s are used as an effective backdrop because as Bob Dylan warned ‘the times they are a’changing’.

I admired what ‘Tom and Barbara’ tried to do;  the show awakened in me, a real interest in the environment and sustainable living in suburbia.

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Barbara described as –

… a normal, middle-class housewife when the series begins. While she sometimes wilts under Tom’s determined and dominant nature, her sharp tongue puts her on an equal footing. She is the heart of the enterprise, while Tom’s engineering brain designs and builds what they need. She yearns for luxuries but her own determination to succeed, with Tom’s single-minded persuasion, keeps her going.

She was feminine but feisty, practical and independent, compassionate and kind, a loyal friend and well-read and witty, but most of all she had a great sense of humour. What’s not to like?

In many ways, The Good Life was prescient, if not revolutionary – over the years I’ve embraced the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. I helped make mud bricks for my brother’s Mt Evelyn house, I grow veggies, have solar panels and a water tank. I believe in limiting my footprint on the earth – thank you to Barbara, my inspiration!

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2. What do I look for in a friend?

Many qualities such as – loyalty, honesty, trustworthiness, understanding, compassion, reliability, discretion, support, a good listener, a sense of fun and Monty Pythonesque sense of humour.

I have been and still am blessed with dear friends – special people I love dearly.

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3. What is my favourite dessert and when was the last time I ate it?

My taste in food has changed over the years although my penchant for sweets probably hasn’t. Like most women, I’ll own up to being a chocoholic – hormones the excuse!

My most recent encounter of dining out was at Mordy HQ and always, if Sticky Date Pudding is on the Seniors Menu, it gets my vote. This dessert, all the more delicious because I never make it at home. The same goes for my second choice – cheesecake – there’s something yummy about cooked cheesecake.

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When I reflect, there are two instances when dessert has stood out and in both cases, the delights were one-off occasions so memorable they’re worth writing about.

On our first cruise as a family, we went to the South Pacific on P&O’s Fair Princess in 1997. One special evening, the dining crew marched in bearing Bombe Alaska. The lights were dimmed, the line of waiters glowed. A magnificent line of red and gold-speckled waistcoats on mainly Indonesian and Filipino waiters, their white shirt sleeves stark on stretched arms holding trays aflame.

The delicious dessert of meringue, fluffy sponge and lemon sorbet folded through vanilla ice-cream, studded with juicy raspberries is doused in brandy and set alight just before serving!

A tasty spectacle indeed. Checking the available recipes on the web it seems various fruits and other ingredients and methods can be substituted but they all agree the ‘bonfire’ at the end is what makes it great!

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The other dessert that lives in memory is a meal in London, in a French restaurant, in 1973. My girlfriend, Nobuko worked as a Japanese Air Stewardess for British Airways and we caught up in London. The two pilots on her flight took us out to dinner and the waiter cooked the Crêpes Suzette in front of us at our table. Again this became a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle entailing flames as Grand Marnier and cognac were heated to lift the basic pancake recipe into the realms of the sublime!!

4. Saturday mornings, I usually have no timetable to obey.

No classes to teach, no set time to be anywhere. Luxury. A relaxing breakfast which may extend into a pyjama day if I don’t have to be anywhere or no visitors are expected. In the days when The Age newspaper was delivered, I would have done the crossword but now I might spend time online, check Facebook or maybe curl up in a chair and read, wander the garden, sit at the computer and write.  Occasionally, I may even do housework!

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5. If I ever got a tattoo…

A highly unlikely event, but I’d have a tiny butterfly above my right breast. This would represent transformation because I’ve had to rethink body image since a mastectomy and I must admit I miss my cleavage.

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6. I’ve lived in Mordialloc since 1984

I live in the first, and only house, I’ve ever owned. John and I chose Mordialloc because we both loved the sea. It was easy to fall in love with 21 Albert Street – an old Edwardian weatherboard with character features, including leadlights at the front door.

Crossing the threshold for the first time, I sensed its history but also a benign and calming spirit living within the walls. It became a much-loved home – the girls know no other and in 2002, John died here, in his own bed.

So many precious memories that I’ll leave behind when I too am ‘carried out in a box’.

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Albert Street 1984

7. What knowledge or advice would I have liked to hear as a teenager?

Born into a Scottish Presbyterian family in the 1950s with a strong Protestant work ethic and not yet influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement, I wish I’d heard that thinking of yourself does not necessarily mean you are selfish.

Guilt, strict sexual mores, and the Protestant work ethic all influences hard to shake! Add the workload expected of mothers when I got married and still out-dated ideas of ‘good wives’ sacrifice and personal denial almost to martyrdom status seemed built into the DNA!

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8. If I write a book about myself…

I’d build on the thousands of words I have already written about my journey to recover from breast cancer. I walked part of the Larapinta Trail not long after I finished chemotherapy to prove to myself life may be different but I still had physical health and strength. It will be called I Feel the Wind in my Hair

9. If I could be any animal for 24 hours

I’d swap places with Aurora,  the family dog. She is loved unconditionally, is totally spoiled with absolutely no responsibilities – nearing thirteen years of age she sometimes forgets to bark fiercely at passersby…

… and she takes the giant part of the Queen-sized bed.

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10. My three favourite smells

Favourites hard to pick because there are many evocative smells I love. However, fresh bread baking sets my olfactory glands working overtime (as does roasting meat) because it reminds me of Mum in the kitchen baking her soda bread, pancakes, scones, Sunday dinner. Yum!

Then there’s the smell of freshly laundered sheets. Whether it is the lemon-scented washing powder and clothes conditioner or just the wonderful fresh air impregnated in cotton, the experience of slipping between fresh sheets absolute heaven.

The other smell is unmistakeable eucalyptus – a pungent reminder of the native trees in my garden and also Vicks Vaporub. The medicinal ointment a reminder of the times during childhood when I’ve been nurtured because of a cold, or when I nursed my daughters.

Another vivid memory is touring Angel Island, a former immigration detention centre and now a state park in San Francisco Bay. Careering around the island on a scenic train and smelling the remnants of a eucalyptus forest planted by an Australian made me homesick!

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Variety Is the Spice of Life

The students interviewed and then introduced each other with sitcom characters ranging from Downtown Abbey’s feminist Isobel and traditionalist Maggie, naughty Brooke in Bold & The Beautiful, Hot Lips Houlihan in MASH, Seinfeld, a reporter or news reader on a current affair show, Julie from Happy Days, the Goldbergs’ neighbour who plays too loud music, the narrator of Wonder Years, Rachel in Friends and Elana in The Vampire Diaries.

Everyone on the same page when it came to qualities expected from friends: loyalty, sense of humour, discretion, non-judgemental, has empathy, trustworthy, good listener, caring, reliable, warm and loving, shows sincerity, respect, has similar interests, reliable and adventurous.

The favourite desserts revealed sweet tooths: plenty of chocoholics, especially dark chocolate, gooey brownies but also date scones. A strong desire for English Trifle with ‘all the trimmings’ (a missed gift from a friend sadly deceased), homemade apple pie and cream, fresh tropical fruit and cream, chocolate mousse, a chocolate-flavoured sundae from ‘Maccas’, homemade pavlova piled high with fruit and cream, and chocolate fondue.

Most people indulged their dessert desires recently because of Christmas but one unlucky writer is now lactose intolerant so fondues no more!

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Cats and dogs top the list for animals to be: students wanted to see the world from a dog’s perspective for 24 hours and understand how they interpret human emotions and moods, being a cat would be interesting, or a lion and be leader of the pack, perhaps having the fecundity of a rabbit; a tiny dog is loved and spoiled, dogs have fun, cats get to explore places and are well fed, they’re astute and can work out humans. Someone wanted to be a lioness because they are courageous, proud, and protective.

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The topics chosen to write about varied: a book to help young people understand mental illness, My Melbourne – a book about Aussie life from the 1930s onwards, an autobiography called A Life of Changes, a memoir, family history, autobiography, So She Did, detective stories for children including a clever, funny dog, an autobiography with lots of pop culture references Big Brother in the Suburbs – aka 1984, book of travel experiences, Lauren’s Storybook, Eli’s Story

People lived in a variety of settings:  family homes, with parents, daughters, alone, near public transport, near the sea, in retirement villages, some were long term residents, others recent arrivals. There were houses, apartments and units, gardens and nearby parks or foreshore, ordinary views or scenic views.

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The exercise was a great ice-breaker and getting to know you exercise.

It encouraged observation, listening skills, perception, and attention to detail. At home, there will be plenty of reflection, perhaps research, and maybe the start of longer stories, a poem or novel and/or character sketches.

Information on real life people has been shared, realistic settings and a reminder to include the senses, particularly the sense of smell when writing.

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The sense of smell a powerful memory booster and the range of evocative smells included: gourmet cheese and chocolate, flowers like rosemary, scented candles, Estee Lauder perfume, the smell of husband/lover, the rose Black Beauty, food cooking, roast meat especially rabbit, which was eaten a lot after the war, Paco Rabanne aftershave, Chanel Number 5, yellow roses, lavender, Daphne, roast chicken, sausages cooking, Dad’s deodorant, new packaging when stuff ordered from E-Bay, garlic in food, paprika, lavender oil, boyfriend’s aftershave, family dog, jasmine scented candle…

I’m looking forward to listening to the homework – these are exercises anyone can do, you don’t need a partner – interview yourself!

Please feel free to share anything you’re inspired to write because as Annie Dillard’s student noted –

You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it.

 Remember we are pirates, so let’s share the treasures unearthed…

2 thoughts on “Ten Ice-Breaking Questions For Writers

  1. Dear Mairi,
    Your latest blog brought back happy memories of travelling by ship to Australia in ’71.
    The meals, as you say, were wonderful. Excellent company, well appointed tables and waited on hand, foot and finger – what more could you expect.
    We honestly didn’t expect more but it arrived one evening in the hushed flurry of waiters as they began to queue at the entrance (from kitchen) to dining room. Merry-making and murmuring ceased as all diners gazed in that direction. Lights lowered and a procession of waiters holding plates of Baked Alaska began to enter the room. Diners, most of them (like me) more used to rice pudding – maybe with a spoonful of jam as an extra treat – were absolutely delighted at the exotic sight of flames surrounding each dessert. Spontaneous applause just as suddenly weakened and died as a waiter halfway into the room stumbled, recovered without spilling the contents of the plate, then noticed his uniform front was on fire and dropped the plate as he used his hands to try and beat out the flames.
    The head waiter came immediately to his aid. Shoving the other waiters out of his way he began to punch the unfortunate waiter over his head. When that didn’t work he began to kick him, forcing him back in the direction of the kitchen.
    Waiters, still holding their plates of Baked Alaska, took this to mean the end of the show, reformed and crocodiled their way into the room and to the tables of shocked diners but it seemed as if all appetite for Baked Alaska was gone. Ate a biscuit at bedtime.
    big hugs, Maureen xx

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    1. Dear Maureen – WOW! A memory never to be forgotten indeed – written more eloquently and detailed than my hurried effort. (You’ve given the reader hints of the life you were leaving behind as well as life aboard ship.) The incident packs an incredible punch (excuse the awful pun) in so many ways. The treatment of waiting staff could fill a book no doubt like the many stories of life at sea there were hierarchies just as blatant as Upstairs Downstairs! ‘Crocodiled’ a great description of the way they had to weave in and out of the tables in the dining hall. Thanks for enriching my memory:)

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