Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises’ Category

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The Anxiety of (Assigning) Influence

October 7, 2008

I’m rereading John Hart’s books now for an essay I’m writing for the North Carolina Literary Review, and I’ve also been reading and rereading some old Ross Macdonald novels this year, those just for fun. As I was writing the essay on Hart, I began building what I thought were some original and interesting connections between the two — building off the idea about how a genre develops, how new authors reflect on and incorporate what’s come before, how literature is a tradition with the past influencing the present and the future…. 

So far I’ve come up with several things wrong with this — including, on the one hand, the fact that other people already made that connection with Ross Macdonald (critic Sarah Weinman mentioned it casually and effortlessly in an email exchange, as if it were old news), and on the other, John Hart’s own statement in an online interview that he hasn’t read anything by Macdonald, so really how much influence could there be? 

In the fiction workshops that I teach at Mason, I once had my students do an exercise as part of the revision process. Basically, building off of a couple of ideas I mention above, I ask each of the students to choose a favorite author — one whose works are of the kind and quality that the student him- or herself would like to write — and then try to articulate what’s compelling or interesting about that author: style, content, theme… the way the author describes a character’s face, the way the author handles dialogue, the way the author crafts a sentence… whatever has drawn the student to this writer in the first place. After that, they are each asked to choose a passage from their respective author’s works and analyze it more closely for nuances of style and technique — something that the student might take from this chosen writer and incorporate into his or her own writing —  and then to turn to their own writings and actually incorporate it: try to describe the face of their own characters with the same accuracy or get the same snap in their own dialogue or push an exploration of an idea in that favorite writer’s work in a new direction in their own. (I model the whole thing by showing what I did with the opening passages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral.)

By and large, the students hate this. It saps the joy out of reading! they tell me — and worse, saps the joy out of their own writing, which they see as driven more by unfettered creativity and an imagination let loose to play than by the idea of self-conscious craftsmanship, of reading as an integral and necessary part of our writing lives. 

While I don’t think I’m entirely wrong, I haven’t done the exercise since… and I’m really beginning to wonder about how to frame the whole Macdonald-Hart comparison I’m working on.
—Art Taylor

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Exercising Twice in the Same Week?

September 17, 2008

After borrowing a couple of exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s latest for my last post, I trotted out another great writing exercise for the fiction workshop I taught Monday night. (That’s not me in the picture, incidentally; I stole this illustration from the website for the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.)

This exercise comes courtesy of Peter Klappert, former professor of poetry and creative non-fiction (autobiography) at Mason, and one of the professors from whom I learned the most, despite his not even teaching in my chosen genre. (It’s not Peter in the picture either, btw. Really, this came from somewhere in the Bush administration.)

This seems a simple exercise, but it’s also a great one in many ways — whatever your level of skill. I’m including it here almost exactly as Peter presented it in his own assignments, and with two excerpts from students in his class, who granted him permission to use their work in conjunction with this exercise (and I hope that such permission may be transferrable somehow, since I’m already risking some pretty stiff Republican wrath by borrowing illustrations from their websites).

All kidding aside: Now that Peter’s not teaching, this great exercise deserves better than to retire with him.

Write two descriptions of yourself, IN THE THIRD PERSON, doing something. You may describe anything at all — a physical activity such as cooking or washing or making love, or a mental activity such as thinking or daydreaming. You may use the same activity in both descriptions or different activities — but DO draw on the same period in your life for each description. Please do NOT rely heavily on dialogue.

By the END of each description, the reader should know or be capable of an informed guess about:

  1. Your approximate age
  2. Your approximate physical description (enough to BEGIN to form an image of you)
  3. How you spend a large part of your time at this point in your life
  4. The occupation of one parent (and being a homemaker IS an occupation)
  5. The season of the year
  6. The region of the country to at least the specificity of state
  7. A position held by you or some member of your family on a controversial social or political issue
  8. A favorite movie, book, TV program or musical performer of you or some member of your family
  9. A favorite color, beverage or food of some member of your family

Neither description should be more than 1 or 1.5 double-spaced pages (so three pages max TOTAL). Although neither needs to be a complete story, both should make sense as fragments.

Sounds easy? Just wait. Here’s the catch.

In the first description (the “direct” description), you may state all facts directly. Don’t just make a list, however, or be minimalistic; instead write the fullest, richest, most vivid “direct” version that you can. It can be done in one sentence, but I wouldn’t recommend it: “When Ichabod was an artichoke-colored little bookworm of seven, he spent his afternoons at the Library of Congress comparing editions of Sade’s Philosophe dans le boudoir while his mother, thinly dressed in Chinese red in the icy January drizzle, was out corrupting the sex-crazed evangelists and repressed Republicans who cruise the streets behind the U.S. Capitol.”

In the second description (the “indirect” description), you may NOT NOT NOT refer directly to any of the required information. The facts must emerge by implication, by however you do what you are doing and by slant references.

Here are a couple of excerpts from examples of “indirect descriptions” that Peter provided to the class: I’m not retyping enough to give you the full list of ingredients, but I think you’ll get the drift. The first is by Margaret Patterson:

The captain was letting her use the Company Commander’s office. At first she had the wild notion to do it in the CO’s chair, but opted for the orange plastic-covered couch. It had more room. Standing by the couch, she unbuttoned her BDU jacket, pulled her t-shirt out of her pants, reached under and undid her bra, letting her left breast fall free. It was hard and gorged with milk. She sat down and crossed one leg over her knee, her shiny black boots reflecting the light. Then she cuddled Bryan in her lap and let him find her breast. Lord! If her father could see this, he would swallow his teeth. ‘Only three kinds of women enlist in the Army and don’t tell me you are any one of them! If you really want to go, finish college and be an officer.’ He insisted on a good four-year college, where she would be able to meet eligible, future professionals. After a lot of begging, and a talk with the major, he finally agreed that she could try to ROTC after her sophomore year at that small, private, Lutheran college she attended. But she hated it there and didn’t finish out her freshman year. She enlisted after he died. Christ! He must be rolling in his grave…

 

AND here’s another excerpt, this one from Gwen McVay:

She twists her dangling watch around and checks the time: fifty-five minutes until algebra, lots of time. She climbs onto the narrow window ledge, a tight squeeze, even for her, with her back against cinderblocks and her sneakers wedged against the sill. From her backpack, she takes a folder: she riffles through and chooses a few sheets of rough, expensive department letterhead, which she turns over. Laying one hand flat on the corner of the paper, she looks out the window and begins to sketch the outline of the Allegheny foothills with the stub of a #2. Shading quickly, she fills in the monadnocks with orange and brown-colored pencils, choosing an already well-worn dark green to add pines among the shag of oaks. She works steadily but fidgets, chewing her ponytail or picking black fuzz from her sweater….

Up to the challenge? Try it yourself.

 

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Jump-starting the Writing Day (or Night)

September 15, 2008

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann, and it’s a quote that now peppers blogs and other sites across the web. One of the most difficult things about writing is often just getting started each day, whether you’re facing a blank page (or blank screen) or faced with an endlessly-piling sheaf of pages, thousands of words to be sorted, arranged, fixed — in that most awful and dreaded of terms: revised. 

It’s become almost a hackneyed question posed to successful writers: How do you write? What’s your routine? pencil, pen, computer? morning, night? standing, sitting, leaned back in the bathtub? Still, I understand the impetus behind the question — this sense that the right circumstances might be most conducive to what is, for many of us, a painful process. And those writers’ answers can sometimes be illuminating and helpful: At a Writer’s Center event not long ago, Ann Hagedorn said that she played the same music each time she sat down to write — a new piece for each new book she embarked on — and that eventually the melodies playing out became synonymous with the process of her mind gearing up to write, triggering her to get to work. (I’ve adopted this myself: In her case, it was some piece of classical music; for my own novel-in-progress, it’s Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth.) 

When my friend Kyle gets ready for a rare day of his own writing (see Saturday’s post), he always reads first, he tells me — reads something, as I understand it, that will immerse him quickly in language, in the way another writer has thought and written, but not enough that he subconsciously adopts another’s style. Once he’s read a little, then he turns to his own work and his own words. It’s a warm-up of sorts.

Another good warm-up is a writing exercise — one perhaps entirely separate from the novel or other project itself. My fiancée, Tara, and I sometimes embark on one of these simultaneously, just as a way of limbering up the mind and the fingers. Plenty of books out there offer advice and guidance to aspiring writers — I’ve got a backlog of them both from classes I took in grad school and from classes I’ve been teaching myself in more recent years — and Tara and I have found that these are fun ways to get the creative juices flowing quickly OR (even better) to remind us that writing can actually be FUN. I want to share one new source for these exercises here.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, has recently published another book on writing — her first on the subject in 20 years. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir offers up mini-essays and a vast array of exercises to help aspiring writers “pick up the pen, and kick some ass.” Some of these are little more than prompts for 10-minutes free-writes (or even shorter, three-minute “sprints”), but Goldberg prefaces them with thoughtful and provocative meditations on writing (and on life) that might provide inspiration for memoirists, novelists, short story writers and more. Here’s the one we tried recently:

“What was outside your bedroom window? Go for ten.”

Simple and straightforward — maybe even a little dull — but the short paragraphs that we compared at the end of those ten minutes showed us thinking in vastly different directions and opened up ideas for other stories.  

Here’s another, just chosen here at random (the way Tara and I usually choose these) but clearly a little more complex and a little more challenging:

Often we are pulled between two places. They can be where you were brought up versus where you live now; a country place versus a city place; the sea versus the plains. What are the two places the pull at you? (Of course, there might be more, but for right now distill it to two.) Often they are projections of our inner psyche.

Go. Ten minutes. Tell us about them. Give us the pull, the conflict, the desire. Write.

Not a bad exercise to get folks writing or thinking like writers or even just thinking. I’ll try to post some more soon, from other books, but glad to give a quick plug to Goldberg’s latest here.

Finally, speaking of navigating different aspects of your past and your persona, this morning’s Washington Post has an interesting and even intimate appreciation of David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself last week. The story, by Monica Hesse, whose father taught with Wallace at Illinois State University, offers a brief but revealing look at the man behind the work and one of the towns in which he lived.

 

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