Friday, July 1, 2022

One of My Favorite Writing Exercises--and a Few Reasons to Try It This Week

I'm a sucker for great writing exercises. Many years ago I came across What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. I gave myself a summer task to work through the book, trying each exercise--more than once if I wanted. I dated the page I tried it and gave my thumbs up or down.

Most of the exercises worked well. What I mean: they gave me new insights into characters, ideas for plot, more concrete images for setting, a flavor of backstory that was needed. They did their job at illuminating my writing process and improving what I had on the page.

I began using writing prompts (exercises) to warm up each day. They took about 20 minutes, but they took me from my ordinary life into my fiction so successfully. Because I had an assignment, so to speak, I bypassed any stalling out. I wrote without boundaries during the exercise and entered my WIP (work in progress) more effortlessly. Like some kind of magic or medicine I needed.

Since then, I've kept a notebook of favorite writing exercises.

Often, I find them in classes. I take online (on demand) classes regularly, just to keep the edge and freshness. I look for generative classes, which usually include exercises or prompts.

My favorite exercise came from a teacher at the Loft Literary Center long ago. Her name is Alison McGhee, and she's the author of many wonderful novels. Her exercise was simple. She wrote three lists on the whiteboard: list one was people, list two was different ages (such as 13 year old, 2 year old), and list three was different objects.

She asked us to choose one from each list and write a scene.

I loved it. It led to the pivotal theme for my recently re-released novel, Qualities of Light.

Over the years, I've expanded Alison's idea into a favorite writing exercise. I don't have a whiteboard handy, so I either keep my lists on my desktop or on index cards--three piles. I use the exercise for memoir, essays, short stories, and longer fiction. The lists can be of any kind. Right now, my lists include:

types of transportation

I only use three of the lists, but I like to mix them up. It keeps the writing unexpected.

For instance, if I choose place as one of my lists, I might set a timer for 20 minutes and write a scene that takes place in:
a bus stop shelter in downtown Minneapolis
O'Hare's airport security
a streetside cafe in Gordes, France
a laundromat in Gillette, Wyoming
a riverside picnic area

If writing memoir, I'll use place that I know and tie it to a memory.

If one of my lists is objects, it might include:
silver coin
piece of sea glass
cell phone that doesn't work

If I only have that 20 minutes, I might just write from one list, but if I can, I try for three. It's much more interesting--and invigorating!

If your writing's in a stall-out, start your next sit-down time with this favorite exercise. Make up your own version and have fun with it. Be prepared to be surprised.

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