Starting something ‘from scratches’? Not ‘from scratch’? For a split second, the sentence jarred. But its author, Iwona Fluda of Creative Switzerland (see her post, where she kindly mentions my writing retreats – thank you, Iwona!), had not made a mistake: perfectly aware of the correct idiomatic expression, she was being joyously playful with language.

That freedom to take apart idioms and clichés, to view them with new eyes, may come easier to non-native speakers of a language. Foreign students of English soon discover that ‘a pretty kettle of fish’ isn’t, actually, a good thing (no, not even if you love fish); that people can ‘fly off the handle’ (really? how?); and that you can ‘go Dutch’, whatever your nationality. You see what I’m getting at: taken literally, expressions we use every day can be a source of amusement, bemusement, discoveries, reflection… The same is true of single words: in my first novel, the protagonist deconstructs ‘nostalgia’, so that for him it means not the yearning to return home, but pain at that prospect.

The world around us offers countless sparks for our creativity. They’re everywhere: in landscapes, objects, fellow passengers on a train, overheard conversations in a café, a piece of music… And they’re ‘inside’ language(s), too, as Iwona highlighted. The trick is in spotting all these creative prompts hiding in plain sight, and transforming them into fruitful writing material. We can train our capacity to do that.

Flüeli-Ranft, Switzerland

But how? An effective way is to attend creative-writing workshops. In the ones I teach, I combine prompts with the transmission of specific skills, so that participants may continue practising and perfecting them autonomously afterwards. For example, I’ll show you how to extract ideas for a story from a small object, in the context of how to create a three-dimensional character; or how to develop an engaging plot structure from a photo. You can free up your creativity and cover key elements of writing (characterisation, sense of place, etc.) on the retreat I’m running from 9 to 15 October 2022. Click here if you’d like to find out more about the venue, schedule, etc.

If you’re curious about what writing retreats are, what to look for, and how they might benefit you, here’s an article I wrote for Resources.

Any questions? Just get in touch via this short contact form or email me on mvaleriavw [at] outlook [dot] com. 

Image credits:

‘Journaling over Coffee’ by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Language as a writing prompt

  1. You are so write about the idea and language connections often made by someone who is not a native speaker of a particular language. I’ve actually written an article (soon to be published) that touches on this. Your retreat sounds truly wonderful and I wish I could attend it. I just can’t this October, I’m sorry. Switzerland is a little too far for me, and a little too expensive if you add the fare (the actual retreat sounds very reasonably priced, though, given what you offer!). I know it’s easier for you, though. I wonder if you would consider hosting a retreat in Belgium or France, to make it more accessible for UK residents?


  2. Hi, Katia! Thanks for the lovely comments! Really looking forward to reading your article when it’s published. I loved your post on the Russian language and was only sorry when it ended – your voice so engaging, the tone heartfelt, your family history intricately connected with 20th-century developments… If you ever decide to write a memoir, I’ll be an enthusiastic reader!
    Regarding retreats, yes, I would consider doing them in France or Belgium, to make them more accessible to UK residents. As you correctly say, the current one in Switzerland is actually very reasonably priced, considering the hotel where it takes place, the restaurant meals and the intensive workshops schedule. Travel from the UK for October has become more expensive now we’re close to the retreat date, but can actually be very cheap when booked with more notice, as there are so many flights from the UK to Zurich and (always better value) Basel. The next retreat will be taking place in a chalet, enabling it to be lower-priced compared to a hotel, without compromising comfort.


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