Category Archives: Exercises

[exercise] Conference Survival 101: Found Fiction in Boring Presentations


As the speaker at the front of the room drones through her PowerPoint presentation, you furiously take notes. Those seated near you are impressed. At the break, over coffee and stale pastries, they point you out to their friends: he must have written down every word she said.  Not far from the truth, but instead of taking notes you were discovering free verse. Here’s how.

Listen for an instant, then write down what the speaker just said, as much as you remember, word for word. You may write five words, maybe ten. That’s the first line of your poem. Now open your ears, listen for another instant, write that down, and so on. Don’t try to memorize or retain what is being said, just listen, jot, listen, jot. Get each phrase you write verbatim. When you can no longer remember the exact words you heard, it’s time to stop and listen for the next line of your poem. Do not edit.

Here’s an example that I recorded at a wetlands conference, during a presentation by the manager of a state wildlife area.

They have both tractors and these / individuals travel so kind of keep that in mind / In 2011, the left hand / inundated important things/ windrows of hay are left out / these so just be aware and / fires created / by that equipment itself / at least I think it has / to various types of forbs / just to name a few out there / The major emphasis of the Killsnake plat / short-eared owls out there / and turkey vultures through time / the cutting out there doesn’t mean they can / get out there over the last 10 of 15 years./ Species what I used to do out there / on Killsnake itself and so the property / is changing with the times.

“Killsnake” is the name of the property, poetic in itself. The repeated occurrence of “out there” was habitual to the speaker, a phrase he sprinkled throughout the last part of the presentation, in the same way some people repeatedly interject “you know.” A bit annoying, but the repetition also emphasized the otherness of this place, far removed from a conference room in a big city.

Much of it is gibberish, but occasional lines pairings work together. For instance:

In 2011 the left hand / Inundated important things.  
Short eared owls / And turkey vultures through time.

Surprisingly, the fragments usually retain the major themes of the talk. As jumbled as the Killsnake jottings are, you can still sense the transition between two sections of the talk:  the first one about activities undertaken at Killsnake, and the second about animals observed on the property.

Aside from the obvious reason, to combat boredom, I do this because I’m fascinated by the way the duration of my memory — 10-20 syllables — and the natural rhythm of language work together to create snippets of what can be read as free verse.  The natural extension of this exercise is to mess with it, changing or adding a word here, switching the order of two phrases there, to discover or create a meaningful piece.

And here’s a completed poem based on this exercise. Enjoy!

On the Killsnake Plat

They have tractors and these /
Travel. Keep that in mind. /
In 2011, windrows of hay
Were left in the field, unbaled,
Inundated by the flood.
Where were the tractors?
In 2012, sparks from tractors
Burned the hay up. Fires created
By the equipment itself ,
At least I think it was.
Hay is an important thing.
Keep that in mind.

They hay the meadows
To raise the cash to
Restore the wetlands
Out there,
To various types of forbs,
Sedges, rushes, to name a few.
I’ve seen short-eared owls and,
Through time, turkey vultures,
Out there.

Cutting hay doesn’t mean
The emphasis is cash
Out there.
Keep that in mind.
The next 10 or 15 years,
The more they restore, the less they’ll hay
Out there.
Species, not property,
the Killsnake itself, is
Changing with the times
Out there.
Keep that in mind.
Just be aware.

Dedicated to the Killsnake State Wildlife Area, Chilton, Wisconsin

Joe Artz is an archaeologist and fiction writer. His stories have appeared in print in the Wapsipinicon Almanac and PromptPress. He posts short fiction at He and his wife, Cherie, have unleashed two daughters on an unsuspecting world.

[writing prompt] the misconceived history story :: Marisela Navarro


In the Misconceived History story in “A Public Denial” by Allan Gurganus (published in the anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories) the narrator attempts to restore his deceased grandfather’s dignity by challenging rumors that his grandfather’s death was the result of his own foolhardiness.

The story opens with this line:

Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, my grandfather did not die driving a Toyota across his pond.

The story resembles a persuasive essay; the narrator uses transition words such as “despite,” “while,” “admittedly,” and “evidently” to compose his argument. What I love about the story is how Gurganus uses no emotion to tell it, just the facts, yet it still carries an emotional impact. For a story that spans only two pages, I find this remarkable. Continue reading

memory as redemption

Civil War bullet, 1898

Tobias Wolff’s story “Bullet in the Brain” ends with a particularly vivid and evocative memory, the last one that the main character, Anders, has before his death.  This memory “works” so well because we can read it as a moment of redemption for Anders, a literary critic, who throughout the story has been brash, entitled, obnoxious, and critical, and who is, by the story’s end, redeemed through his pure memory of a moment in which the simple music of language awed him.  He recalls a moment of innocence and untarnished wonder and, in doing so, achieves some small measure of salvation.

Continue reading

Psychological Tests as Writing Exercises

Psychological tests are very weird and typically rely on verbal interpretation, two attributes that comprise a good writing exercise.

Rarely do products of writing exercises become anything substantial. Perhaps a line, an idea that can be expanded, but on the whole they are what they are: exercises. Practice. Necessary when you’re not performing, creating, inspiring yourself. At their best, these psychological tests as writing exercises get your brain going crazy, which allows you to do something new, which is what you want, isn’t it? Continue reading


Kyle Minor has the writing prompt to end all writing prompts over at HTMLGiant, a list of criteria and questions called The Story Generatorwhich is activated with the roll of some dice.

This is a fantastic thing that I’m stealing and using in my classes and maybe even for myself for that thing called “fun with writing.” It would even be fun to have students make their own story generators, changing some of the parameters themselves.
My favorite elements in The Story Generator include: Continue reading

Emblems of Anti-Hope

One technique I’ve found useful in revising is coming up with one word that my story is about in an effort to find a center. For instance, say I finally realize that the story I’ve been trying to wrangle for months is about “hope.” Great. Then I ask myself, Does the main character lose hope or gain hope? (Normally, they will abandon all hope in my stories.) Then, I have some sort of idea that the story begins with a scene that demonstrates hope, then contains more scenes with emblems or messages of “anti-hope,” and finally ends with a loss of hope. Thinking in really simple terms like this helps me see where I’m going more clearly. “How does this scene communicate ‘anti-hope’?” I can ask myself. “Is the half-eaten donut an emblem of anti-hope?” You get the idea. Continue reading


John Gardner, though deceased and personally unknown to me, is a cool dude. He has two somewhat well known books — the novel, Grendel, and the book on writing, The Art of Fiction. I happen to own a first edition of his excellent and out-of-print novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, which I have yet to have a conversation about, because no one’s heard of it, let alone read it. For the most part, people will know The Art of Fiction, a book from which I hi-jack an exercise for my classes. Continue reading

Get There Late, Leave Early

One thing I find frustrating in others’ and my own stories is forestalling. I’m impatient as a reader. And I always aim to enter my fictions as late into the story as possible and get the hell out of them as quickly as I can. My time is short. Your time is short. You probably just want me to get to my revision exercise already.

In class, I’m always seeing students “write themselves into their story.” What this means is that the student-writer sat at the keyboard, stared at the digital white bull, and thought: “Oh my god. What on earth am I going to write about?” And so they begin typing away. A character is introduced. A setting. Some other characters, etc. Then, eventually, we come to a dilemma for the character, a point where the character can actually make a decision, take shape, move the plot, reveal emotion, start engaging the reader. They eventually hit their stride, and the story takes off. Usually, this occurs on page five of a seven-page story. Most of the previous four pages is the student-writer writing their way into their actual story, their thing to say and do. Continue reading