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Writing Exercises

So far, since starting this blog, I've focused on getting started with writing: reading a lot is probably prerequisite numero uno; then comes finding time (perhaps forcing time is more accurate) to write; and today I'm going to talk about writing exercises.

I guess I like to put a lot of pictures on here, so here's one of a kid with his head in his hands because life sucks.

I've taught writing at a number of institutions and I know that some students feel pretty bleh about writing exercises, and I get it; you kinda just want to do what you want to do. But some people find that writing exercises are the impetus for getting started on something original. The exercise serves only to get them writing in the first place. So, here are some of the best places, online and in print, that I've found for writing exercises.

When I need an exercise quicklike I usually turn to the Poets and Writers website. The prompts here are a bit current-eventsy, in that whoever writes them (new prompts appear pretty regular) tends to use a variety of things that might be going on in the news for inspiration. But it's easy to sort the prompts by genre (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and you can jump back in time easily if you don't want to think about anything too current. Also, it's the Poets and Writers magazine website, so the prompts tend to lead you in a pretty literary direction. For example, the most recent prompt for fiction is to write a story about a repellant character. Only those literary folks would actually encourage you to write about unlikeable people.

There are a ton of other places to get writing prompts online, like Writer's Digest and Reddit, but to me these tend to be a bit too prescriptive and a bit kitschy, like "You and two of your friends are working at a Halloween haunted house. On the first night, hundreds come through the house. You scare them over and over again. . ." and it goes on like that. I actually like this article on Cracked. Clearly, it's meant to be ridiculous, but I think most of these silly ideas work: what's that quote from that one writer who was probably famous? Good writers borrow; great writers steal? Something like that anyway. Turns out that's pretty good advice.

Of course, there are plenty of writing books out there with excellent writing exercises. I've long been a fan of Pamela Painter's and Anne Bernays' What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. The book is filled with exercises from established writers and teachers of creative writing. Usually the exercises are didactic (in good ways) to illustrate important techniques to learn about storytelling, such as reading the opening sentences to your favorite stories and looking to understand how those sentences get you straight to the heart of the character and her conflict immediately so as to draw you in as a reader. They don't dilly about with exposition, etc. Then, you write five opening sentences of your own that try to accomplish the same thing.

For poetry, I like Robin Behn's and Chase Twichell's The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach. Similar to What If? this book contains writing exercises from . . . well, the title kinda says it all. Anyway, there are some good ones here, like coming up with a quick list of words that are significant to you for a variety of reasons, but you can't use adverbs. Then analyze your list of words. Examine each word's variety of definitions, associations, how it pairs with other words, etc. You can do this as a group, too. Then pick five words and write a poem with each line having its own internal meaning. If you're a poet, it's probably a good idea that you have your own private language—words that mean something special to you. Just ask Auden, or Stevens, or Yeats, or Hugo.

It gets a little tougher when it comes to decent books about writing creative nonfiction. I don't know if that's because, for some reason, some people seem to think that this is a new genre (it's not). But there really aren't many good books out there about writing creative nonfiction—or at least I have yet to come across them. There are many excellent books—anthologies, collections, and book-length works—of excellent cnf, and that might be where I'd start, if this is the thing you're into. Read as much cnf as you can. Read investigative journalism and lyric essays and personal narratives and histories and biographies, etc. You'll get lots of ideas about how to write cnf just from reading a bunch of it.

So, rather than talk about someone else's exercise for writing cnf, I'll end this by including instructions for a cnf exercise of my own:

First, you'll start by doing a freewrite. Set the timer on your phone, or whatever, to go off after five minutes. Sit down at your computer or a pad of paper with a pen. When you press start on the timer, start writing. Don't think too much about what you're writing. If you can't think of anything to say, literally write "I can't think of anything to say," and keep writing that until you do have something to say. Don't stop writing until the timer goes off. Shake out your fingers and take a breather.

Second, find something—anything—in that freewrite that sticks out to you for whatever reason at all. It could be a single word, a phrase, a sentence, or a whole section or idea from the freewrite. Now get online and do a bit of research about the thing you picked out, even if that thing is deeply personal. Say, for example, you ended up writing about a terrible breakup you've recently undergone. Do some research on what happens, intellectually, emotionally, chemically, etc., when people go through these experiences. Now, write a paragraph about the things you learned. Feel free to use direct quotes from sources you found, or paraphrase, it doesn't matter. The tone should be a bit more academic or journalistic.

Third, write about an application of the things you learned from your research as it applies to popular culture. Say, using our example of the breakup here, and let's say you're a big fan of that TV show Bones, write about how that show's titular character often, in this annoyingly detached way, talks about what's going on chemically in the mind and body of people who form emotional bonds with one another. Or, you could write about the lyrics of an Adele song; again, whatever comes to mind.

Fourth, return to the original thing that you were first interested in and expand on that from your personal point of view. Going with our breakup example—should you feel brave enough to write about it—expand on what's going on there, or what happened, etc.

Finally, you'll start the process all over again. What you should find after you've done this two or three times, is that there are what I call "logic loops," and they form the basis of a braided lyric essay. You're making these associative leaps between what's going on in your mind/life, to what you're curious about, to how what you're learning is all around you via pop culture, then you veer back to yourself again. This is how I wrote Last Mass—albeit, I did so in a less rigidly structured and formulaic way. But this exercise could potentially get you started on something cool.