Four Writing Exercises brought to you by the Letter “R”

In honor of the remaining days of March, here are four writing exercises unlike any other writing exercise I’ve given before (one for each remaining day plus a bonus!). Without further ado…

RANDOMNESS – Use a Book Shelf of Many Things

Go to your bookshelf and do the following:

  • From the lowest shelf, take the third book from the right.
  • Open to a random page
  • Close your eyes and point to a word.  Write the word down.
  • Repeat with the first book on the top shelf.
  • Repeat with the first BLUE (or closest to blue) book that catches your eye.
  • Using the three words, write a scene/poem/meditation, etc.

Our Book Shelf...which also holds many things...

RESEARCH – Conduct an Interview

Based on one of your characters (or yourself), interview someone who is either of the same occupation or the same situation.  Find out at least ten things you didn’t already know.

My friend Angela, for instance, is in charge of the Chickens at our Community Garden. She brought them in and coordinates all the chicken haps.

REPLICATION – Create A Writer’s Mad Lib

This exercise is taken from Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor.  Take a passage from one of your favorite writers and turn the passage into a game of Mad Libs using all the adjectives, nouns, and adverbs.

But in your Mad Lib, try removing ALL adjectives, adverbs, and nouns as a way of experimenting with another writer's prose style

RECITATION – Stage a Reading

For this one, you’ll need a friend or two or seven.  Based on what you’ve been working on this month, arrange an informal live reading. Often, I’ve found the prospect of reading to an audience does several things: 1.) Makes me read my work out loud (= another way into the piece as you revise); 2.) By shifting my perceived audience, I’m often able to see my work in a differently.

Heck, if you've got a microphone, use it!

Day 26: A Writer’s Confession

I have a confession.  I don’t want to write this post.  It is Day 26, and I am tired.  It is Day 26, and it is late.  It is Sunday night (because yes, I schedule these to post in the morning), and I have to wake up early, and most importantly, I don’t feel like it.  But here I am.

Isn’t this what this Writer’s March is about in the end?  Getting your butt in the seat even when you feel it is impossible.  Even when you think you’d rather scrub your floorboards with a toothbrush.  Or pick the cat hair from the couch with a pair of tweezers.  Or write Thank You cards for all the people you’ve forgotten to thank (for every missed thank you of YOUR ENTIRE LIFE).  Because yes.  Even that would be easier than this.  Sitting and writing when you would rather be anywhere else.

But here I am.  Because there you are.  And tomorrow when I go to write, and I remember my novel, I will remember this moment.  And I will remember that this writing thing is hard.  And I will do it anyway.  I will think of John Dufresne, and keep my butt in the seat, staring at the wall all day if I have to.  I will, as Steinbeck advises, write my page for the day, if that’s the route I decided to take.  Because it is MY part in the process.  MY job (as Elizabeth Gilbert tells us).  Or maybe I will print the thing out and type the page or the poem or the story or the novel over and over and over again simply for something to do that is less agonizing than this (Because Jennifer Simpson says that helped her and maybe it will help me, too.).

Remember, there is a reason I’ve called this “A Writer’s March” and not “Writers’ March.”  While we support each other and encourage each other and inspire each other, in the end, it comes down to one butt.  One seat.  One task for each One person.

because why not use a gardening metaphor... you know, plant seeds, water them, etc, etc, you're a writer, take it from there...

And here we are.  Almost at the end.  At moments like these, the best writing advice I can think of is this:

Set a timer for fifteen minutes.  Sit at your desk with your pen and your paper or your computer, if you are the typing type.  Set the timer, and go.  Whatever you do, do not let the pen stop moving.  Even if you have to write, “I have no idea what to write” over and over again, because at some point, you’ll find some thread to follow.

When you feel like you can’t do it, prove yourself wrong.  Write through it.  That way, the next time you feel like it can’t be done, you’ll remember that you didn’t stop.

Day 22: Anti-Workshops & Icebergs

During my first workshop, I cried.  I mean, literally, cried.

Luckily, I was wearing a baseball cap, and I was able to tuck my chin against my chest as I diligently scribbled notes.  We were workshopping a creative nonfiction piece I had written about my father who had passed away not long before.  I remember the word “Sentimental” and the disgusted way they pointed to a passage and discussed, “Nostalgia,” (though I had no idea why either were wrong).  I remember little else.  From that day forward, I thought crying and workshops were inextricably intertwined.

UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall. My first workshop occurred somewhere in there...

In many ways, I’m jealous of UNM’s creative writing major for undergraduates.  Our students are eased into workshops.  The 200-level course is workshop free.  The 300-course is is half and half (designed to teach them how to workshop).  By the time students move to the advanced 400-level course, they know the drill.   They can hang with the best of them, critiquing like hosts of any BRAVO reality television show.  In the textbook I assigned this semester, Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story, there’s even a chapter dedicated to the workshop experience (though it masks itself as a chapter on “Revision.”)  Other than Billy Collins’ poem, “Workshop,” this was the first time I’ve ever read anything about what workshops could and should be (and should not be).  Needless to say, my students were not as excited about this chapter as I was.

I was most intrigued by what La Plante calls the “Anti-workshop” or “Exercise-based approach to deep revision.”  As La Plante writes,

In it, rather than directly telling a student writer what to do to a piece, I suggest exercises to be done “in the margins.”  What this means is that the exercises may result in text that never becomes part of the story directly, but somehow informs the writer’s understanding of the work.

She goes on to give the following example:  say a piece revolves around a mother and a daughter but the relationship is underdeveloped.  While the workshop’s job is to explore the problem and recommend ways to fix it, La Plante advocates for the “Anti-workshop,” where students give exercise recommendations instead of narrow specifications to the writer.  These exercises should work to “EXPLODE open” the work, pushing for an deeper exploration of character.    Instead of saying, “I don’t believe that the mother and the daughter hate each other,” the workshop might offer a suggestion to “write five vignettes of the last five times the mother and daughter disagreed.  Or, conversely, the last five times the mother and daughter agreed on something.”  These “margin exercises” may never make it into the final draft, but they will work to deepen the story.

Ernest Hemingway, in his famous iceberg theory, would probably agree with this approach.  As Hemingway says,

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Translation:  The writer’s work is to know 100% about his/her characters and 100% about his/her story.  Even if only 1/8th of the story appears on the page, if the writer has done his/her work, the reader will be able to fully engage with the entire story.  It also means that if a writer does not know 100% of the story, the story will appear flat and unrealized.

Today, writers, in our workshop-free (and tear-free!) environment, why not try writing in the margins?  You don’t need a workshop to tell you places that you can explore, and most of us know all too well the places we find “problematic.”  Rather than worrying, try writing some marginal vignettes through La Plante’s suggestion (5 times when characters agree; 5 times when characters disagree) or perhaps explore other exercises of your own devising (feel free to share them here!) Whatever you do: don’t worry about being “interesting” or “advancing plot” or “fixing problems.”  Give yourself a break.  Remember that writing used to be fun.  Write and enjoy the explosion.

Day 19: The Dignity of Naming

I’ve been reading Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, and the more I read, the more I am in awe of this book.  Houston is master story teller and though the book is told in vignettes that read like prose poems, it reads like a classic narrative.  I can’t put the thing down, and when I do, I can’t stop thinking about it.  In the first fifteen pages alone, I laughed out loud and then cried.  How the hell did she do that?  Like I said.  I’m in awe.

Today, Houston has me thinking about specificity.  Here’s a sample passage from the book.  Notice the specificity of her details.

The aspens near the pass are holding their breath this week, hints of yellow and crimson, the meadow grasses high after August’s monsoon.  We talk about Myanmar, Cuba, New Orleans.  We talk about stepchildren, wild pants, Italian food, sex.  We snack on the season’s first clementines and raspberry Fig Newmans.  To the west of the mesa the 14ers lay themselves before us, a multicolored kingdom of stone: Handies Peak, Sunshine Peak, Redstone Peak, the Wetterhorn, and Uncompaghre.

Often I think I am too quick to use the general in place of the specific.  I say, “she looked out the windows at the glittering mountains.”  Houston says “the 14ers lay themselves before us…. Handies Peak, Sunshine Peak, Redstone Peak, etc…”  I say, “The wind rustled through the trees.”  Houston says “The aspens near the pass are holding their breath.”  Like I said:  I am in awe.  I read this passage and thought, “How did she do that?”  And then, “Why the hell aren’t I doing the same?”

Natalie Goldberg, most famous for her book on writing Writing Down the Bones, advocates the importance of naming in a chapter fittingly titled “Be Specific.”  Goldberg writes:

Be specific.  Don’t say fruit. Tell what kind of fruit–“It is a pomegranate.”  Give things the dignity of their names. . . . It is much better to say “the geranium in the window” than “the flower in the window.”  “Geranium”–that one word gives us a much more specific picture.  It penetrates more deeply into the beingness of the flower.  It immediately gives us the scene by the window–red petals, green circular leaves, all straining towards sunlight.

Goldberg goes on to discuss the way, compelled to know the names of everything, she bought a book on plants and proceeded to walk the streets of Boulder, examining “leaf, bark, and seed trying to match them up with their descriptions and names in the book.”

Today, as you write and/or revise, think about the names of things.  Maybe it means buying a book and going for a walk.  Maybe it means learning the history of a specific place in time.  Maybe it means pulling out those family photos and making sure you know who is who.  Whatever it entails, think about narrowing your writing focus by broadening your view of the world around you.  As Goldberg concludes,

Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings.  A writer is all at once everything–an architect, French cook, farmer–and at the same time, a writer is none of these things.

A more specific exercise

Take a passage of your work (a page of prose or a single poem).  Look at places where your writing skirts around the naming.  Underline words that are nameless (flowers, trees, mountains, drinks).  Then make a list of 5 possible names for those things (A drink perhaps becomes this list: a dirty martini, aloe vera juice, Kool Aid, Almond Milk, Blue Bottle Coffee). Investigate the thing (how does it look?  How does it tastes?  Where does it come from?  What does it mean to you?  To others?)  Then, go back and work the specificity into your prose.

Day 15: Cracking Eggs & Writing Fears

The other day, my friend Michelle and I were having coffee at Java Joes, shooting the shit and talking–as we do–about the general nature of life.  Why is it, we wondered, that people get stuck?

We were talking about the nature of stagnation.  The person who stays in the job they hate even though it is sucking down their soul.  The person sleeping in the bedroom that reminds them of death.  The person in the unfulfilling relationship who stays because it is easy and safe.  Instance after instance, person after person, so many examples it is impossible to count.  Every person rutted.  Every person only moderately happy.

“This is my biggest fear,” I said.  And then, remembering my novel, I asked, “How does one get out of it?”

My novel, The View From Here, is told from the point of view of four different characters.  Each character is stuck in her own way.  Coincidentally, I’ve been spending the last two months working on the chapters for a character who is also named Michelle.  This is what I know about Michelle the character: She works a lot.  She travels a lot.  She is having an affair with a younger woman.  She is married to a very honest and good man named Jim.  She is unhappy.  I know that she and Jim will split (sorry for the spoiler), and though I’ve written many many drafts already, I’m still ironing out HOW this splitting will happen.  And so when I asked Michelle, “How do you get out of it?” I was trying to find an answer to the thing I’ve been struggling with for weeks.

Michelle, in true Michelle fashion, diverted the conversation.  She began talking about something else.  I brought her back.  “I mean it,” I say.  “How does this happen?  Do you know anyone who has gotten out?  Who’s changed their life for the better?”

Michelle shrugged.  She sipped coffee.  “Not really,” she said.

Dan Mueller, one of my teachers/mentors at UNM, likes to describe characters as eggs.  In a story, he says, there are many forces exerted upon a character.  Each one adds more and more pressure to that character’s shell until eventually, the pressure is too much, and the character cracks.

These are eggs from my community garden. They have very hard shells...

We may love our characters, but we want them to crack.  We need them to.  Otherwise, we don’t have a story.  Today, writers, try using the pressure of fear.  Let fear push your writing and your characters closer to that necessary edge.  And to get us there, here’s a writing exercise I snagged from Alice La Plante’s The Making of a Story.  I did this one with my English 321 class, and it is, perhaps, my favorite writing exercise ever.  I don’t have the book so this isn’t verbatim, but here is the gist of the exercise:

What’s behind the door of Room 101?

In George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-four, room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most.

  • First, take a character you are working with (or use yourself if you are writing Creative Nonfiction or Poetry), and imagine the character walking into his or her version of Room 101.  What does he/she see?  The key here is to stay specific.  Do not use abstractions (loneliness, anger, lust, etc).  Instead, render through concrete significant details (think of your five senses here.  We want to hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it, and see it).  Write for 10 minutes.
  • Then, for the next ten minutes, render a scene (or poem) in which the character encounters something that reminds him or her of this fear.  DO NOT mention the fear.

Good luck!

Afternoon Prompt for Day 11: Bingo! Who knew?

In honor of long, lingering Sunday posts, here’s a fun writing prompt from Challenger Bob Sabatini:

Bingo! Who knew? (ahem, terrible title is mine, not bob’s…)

Get a bingo wheel (or don’t, but the bingo wheel is more fun) and an egg timer. Write on several strips of paper random nouns, lines of dialogue, and other things which are in no way related to what you are currently working on.

Set the timer and begin writing. Write a simple blow-by-blow description of your current project. Do not worry about the theme, what you’re trying to accomplish, where you’re hung up or anything else—just write a sketch of your character and what (s)he is doing. “Joe Blow was walking to the store when he tripped on a banana peel… and so on.” When the timer goes off, pull a slip of paper out of the bingo wheel and reset the timer. Whatever is on that slip of paper, you have to incorporate into the next sentence you write as quickly and seamlessly as you can. Do this until you have used at least 4 of the slips.

Hopefully, you have a work of utter garbage on the desk in front of you—and you have also freed yourself of any notions you may have had about what your story “needs” to be.

Got a prompt? Please Share It and Keep Writer’s March Fresh…

Day 10: An Open Letter to Our Poets

Dear A Writer’s March Poets:

I recognize that we’ve been pretty prose heavy lately on this blog, please accept this formal apology and these 5 writing exercises as a peace offering:

Exercise #1 from Lantern Review (A prompt contest!)

From someone named “Sami”:  Giving people hand mirrors and asking them to spend 3-5 minutes just looking at themselves in it. After that time, having people write about what they see there, what is there that didn’t use to be or what is there that only you can see?

Exercise #2 from Writing Forward

Write a Tribute poem to An Inanimate Object.  As Melissa Donovan says, “You can write a silly poem about how much you admire your toaster or you can write a serious piece declaring the magnificence of an inanimate object with more meaning (something like a book, perhaps?).

Exercise #3 from The Journal

List ten items that you would buy at an auction, or tag sale. Write a poem including those items. You may chose to title your poem, “Things Found At An Auction”. Variation, have someone else create a list for you.

Exercise #4 from Writer’s Digest

Write a Risk Poem.  Writer’s digest defines this as “a poem in which either the narrator, a character, or whatever takes a risk, or in which risk is involved. For those who like board games, yes, you can finally write that game about Risk that you’ve always wanted to do.”

Exercise #5 from Creative Writing Now

Write a poem about something that happened to someone you know. Write about it as if it had happened to you.

Happy writing!
Sam & The Writer’s March Crew

A Writing Prompt on Lost Objects for Day 6


the jacket...but then again, I could have simply lost it...

I can hardly think about my favorite jacket without remembering (still bitterly), the roommate who threw it away in anger.  When I see a balloon floating into the sky, I think of an old friend who threatened to attach his wedding band to one end of a string and let the helium guide it away.  Sometimes I wonder if I fell in love with Randi after reading an essay she wrote for Marisa’s class (years ago) about the objects that she had lost (as a way of rendering the passing of time and the loss of her house).  And so between my own memories and Marisa’s post, I bring you this writing prompt:

If you haven’t written about an object yet (or even if you have), try its afterimage: the object(s) you have lost.

A Writing Prompt for Day 4: Live Readings

Keeping in line with today’s post, today’s writing prompt comes from Jennifer Simpson.  I like this writing exercise because it asks you to converge with the outer writing world by going to (and/or participating in) an open mic for poetry or prose.

Jenn’s Writing Prompt paired with a Live Reading:

While at an open mic/reading, jot down interesting words.  Maybe they are words you’ve forgotten about, or words that just strike your fancy; gather about 20 of them…  THEN work them into a prose piece or a poem.

If you can’t leave your house, I suggest listening to a story and doing the same.  Though you don’t get the people/writer interactions, you can get the audio version of many stories online for free.  Here’s a few that I like: