Category Archives: Exercises

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.

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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