I met this sweet exercise in a summer workshop Rachel Yoder taught at the Midwest Writing Center. It reminded me of an exercise I did in my MFA program, using Milan Kundera’s structure from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I appreciated the freedom of leaping from one topic to the next, of not having to worry about how it all tied together or made sense. These leaps in logic opened up new possibilities that my orderly mind would never make.
Although it wasn’t timed, I felt the pressure of hitting all the prompts in the time we were given in the workshop, so I couldn’t dwell or think too much—I just had to move. As a result, the first draft felt like a thrilling trail run: first I was in the forest, then I was on a ledge overlooking Lake Superior, then I was on a rocky climb, and each part was unique to itself, yet all part of the same trail. I gained momentum as I began to see how each piece was connected on a visceral level, sprinting with glee. Continue reading
This summer, while preparing to teach a class on the collage essay at the Collins’ Writers Conference in Davenport, I emailed author and teacher Amy Butcher to see if she had any great exercises she enjoyed when teaching about fragmentation, association, and imagination. If you know Amy, you know that of course she did, and what she sent was this amazing little exercise which she had adapted from poet Jim Simmerman’s “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” exercise, which first appeared in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach (HarperCollins, 1992). Continue reading
I’ve never been much of a girly girl. I rarely wear makeup or get my nails done. Most days I forget to brush my hair. Waxing any body part seems like a torture designed for others braver than I am.
Even so, I appreciate girly things, like clothes. I love clothes. When I was a young, single entertainment lawyer, I didn’t spend money on expensive vacations or cars. I spent it on clothes, and shoes. God, the shoes. Back then, I used to budget for the Barney’s Warehouse Sale, held for a week in an airport hangar. Everyone in the entertainment industry–lawyers like me, agents, development execs, assistants, production people–lined up to flip through racks of designer suits, tuxedos, evening dresses, coats and purses and jewelry and belts. I once found an Isaac Mizrahi evening gown marked down from $3,000 to $300. It was backless, sleeveless, classic. That same shopping trip, I also bought deliciously sensible Oxford shoes and a raw silk chocolate-brown Calvin Klein pants suit. The suit was boxy and mannish and gorgeous. I loved it even more than the dress. I wore it more. It made me rejoice in the more “masculine” side of myself that felt comfortable showing up to weekend brunches scrub-faced and wearing clogs with ripped jeans. The side that loved to sweat, that would weight train for two hours at dawn and take a spinning class at noon. Continue reading
To some writers–including me–plot can seem like the dirtiest, most despicable of four letter words. Writers of this ilk have been known to run screaming from a room when we hear the word. “Make something happen?” we call, quaking in our hiding spots. “Why would we do that? Stories come from character, not plot. Stories should be about someone, not something.”
This, I’ve learned, is a huge, smelly load of horse shit.
Plot is important. Stories need plots. Every story. Every. Single. One.
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. Continue reading
A student of mine had taken a class from Kate Braverman who, according to her recollection and my flawed memory, brought in a bouquet of autumn leaves, handed them out to students, and had them write about what the color evoked. Continue reading
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
I used to teach in a continuing education program at the University of Iowa that offered classes of all sorts to retirees. An exercise I liked to present to my students was one I found over at this blog that had to do with writing the perfect sentence. Here’s the little excerpt I would hand out in class to read and discuss: Continue reading
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.
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