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What’s in the bag?

Advice for writers and bloggers

The bag

Here’s a writing activity for you to try whatever you are writing. It’s called ‘the bag’. You can simply use your imagination, or you can find a real bag and fill it with objects to use as a prop. If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas go with the real bag, because using several of the senses helps to enliven the imagination.

I once had a student who wrote a whole novel for NaNoWriMo using this activity as a starting point. I had brought in a prop suitcase to the workshop and filled it with objects. I also had a CD of sound effects – seagulls and the sea breaking up a beach from what I can remember.

Make some lists

List games are great because they let you off the hook. You don’t have to write sentences, or go back and edit, or organise what you’ve written, you simply keep adding items to the list. Time yourself for one minute while you are making these lists. Turn it into a game, and involve other people if you like.

  1. Make a list of bags OR find an actual bag. E.g. lunchbox, briefcase, a carrier bag, a suitcase, a bin bag.
  2. Make a list of what’s in the bag OR fill the bag with random objects. Everyday objects are best for this, although one or two unusual ones are fine too. You can get someone else to fill the bag for you for an added twist.
  3. Make a list of places. Then pick one of these. Visualise it if you can. Use all of your senses to fill in the details. Imagine you are actually there. This could be somewhere familiar to you, somewhere you’ve been when travelling, or it could be a fictional world; a beach, a mountain or a train station, for example.
  4. Make a list of jobs: circus performer, firefighter or dog walker, for example.

Once you’ve got your lists, do one of the following activities, depending on the kind of writing you are doing.

Poets do this:

Take one object out of the bag at a time and imagine you’ve never seen it before. Weigh it in your hands, examine it, use your senses to ‘experience’ this object. Does it have any stories to tell, and experiences associated with it? How does it make you feel? Nostalgic, hopeful, angry?

Put all of the objects back in the bag and dive in again. Pull out 5 of them. Treat this like a lucky dip and take out whatever you happen to touch first. Now write a poem with ten lines and five couplets. Each object gets two lines each. For inspiration, have a look at Maura Dooley’s poem ‘What Every Woman Should Carry’.

In a similar way, you can write a poem about the places you came up with or the jobs you listed. Jot these on small pieces of paper and play ‘lucky dip’ with them pulling random places or jobs out of a bag. Again, write a poem with ten lines, in five couplets.

Nonfiction writers and bloggers do this:

Take three items out of the bag. Write a sentence saying how they connect to one another. If you need help, you can take one more item out of the bag.

For example, say you take out a plastic duck, some loose change and a train ticket. This is what I thought of: “There was once a hotel that promised to get its guests anything they wanted at any time of the day or night, so a travel journalist asked for a rubber duck to play with in his bath at 2am, to see if they would find one.” Once you’ve done 2 or 3 of these, pick one to write about.

It helps to go back to your ‘why’ when you’re doing this and what you want to write about. For example, if your ‘why’ is to earn money as a feature writer by pitching to magazines every day, and your ‘what’ is advice for parents, you might see the duck, the loose change and the train ticket and write: “Parents need to build in time to relax. Or: Why classic toys are the best. Or: Save on days out by exploring the great outdoors. Or: Water birds and how to spot them with your family.” All of these could turn in to pitches.

Fiction writers, playwrights and screenwriters do this:

Invent two fictional characters. Start with two of the jobs from your list. Person one left the bag behind. Choose the type of bag from your first list. Person two found the bag. They found the bag in one of the locations listed.

Write a story from the point of view of EITHER the person who left the bag behind OR the person who found the bag.

OR: go back to your list of jobs. Invent three new fictional characters. These are three people connected to the person who left the bag behind. For example, their boss, school friend or neighbour. Write as if you were each of these people, commenting on person 1’s disappearance.

What next?

Play ‘the bag’ whenever you need a new idea and sitting at your desk isn’t working. Tomorrow I’ll be introducing my 7 Day Writing and Mindfulness Challenge. Skip straight to day one of the challenge here. Until then, happy writing.

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