Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises’ Category


The Creative Habit

December 9, 2008

tharpAmong the award recipients at this past weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors was dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, maybe most widely known for her work with the Tony Award-winning musical Movin’ Out. I’ll admit that I’ve never seen her work on stage, but I very much admire her book The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life, which earned critical acclaim and became a national bestseller back in 2003. While the premise is basically encapsulated in the title, Tharp explains it clearly early on in the book:

After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves — write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desks until noon — but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.

Tharp returns to explore and expound on this theme throughout the book, drawing not only on her own life but also on the careers of other artists, writers, musicians and more. Additionally, the book offers up a wide range of exercises with an equally wide range of goals: stretching creative muscles, building awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses, working toward that creative habit.

One of the central exercises encourage you to write your “creative autobiography” by answering a series of 33 questions that plumb your past experiences, your future ambitions, and your most closely held values. Another exercise involves exploring the world around you and then exploring your own relationship with that world. I’ll reprint that one here, especially since it seems particularly directed at writers. 

You Can Observe A Lot By Watching

Yogi Berra said that, and it’s true. Go outside and observe a street scene. Pick out a man and a woman together and write down everything they do until you get to twenty items. The man may touch the woman’s arm. Write it down. She may run her hand through her hair. Write it down. She may shake her head. He may lean in toward her. She may pull away or lean in toward him. She may put her hands in her pockets or search for something in her purse. He may turn his head to watch another woman walking by. Write it all down. it shouldn’t take you very long to acquire twenty items.

If you study the list, it should be hard to apply your imagination to it and come up with a story about the couples. Are they friends, would-be lovers, brother and sister, work colleagues, adulterers, neighbors who run into each other on the street…? The details on your list provide plenty of material for a short story, but that’s not the goal of this exercise.

Now do it again. Pick out another couple. This time note only the things that happen between them that you find interesting, that please you aesthetically or emotionally. I guarantee that it will take you a lot longer to compile a list of twenty items this way. You might need all day. That’s what happens when you apply judgement to your powers of observation. You become selective. You edit. You filter the world through your particular prism.

Now study the two lists. What appealed to you in the second, more selective list? Was it the moments of friction between the couple or the moments of tenderness? Was it the physical gestures or their gazes away from each other? The varying distance between them? The way they shifted their feet, or leaned up against a wall, or took off their glasses, or scratched their chins?

What caught your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What you included and what you left off speak volumes about how you see the world. If you do this exercise enough times, patterns will emerge. The world will not be revealed to you. You will be revealed.

That done, I’m off to my own daily routine, revising yet another chapter in that novel-eternally-in-progress, hoping to turn it (soon!) into a novel, period.

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Revisions Everywhere (Two Exercises)

November 10, 2008

I would say it’s that time of the semester, but I’m encountering “revisions” everywhere — and all the bad feelings that come along with that part of the process. (And yes, I know lots of people are also doing NaNoWriMo, but you folks will get to revisions soon enough.) My fiancée Tara has recently finished the latest revision of her novel, Black Diamond City, and is fretting over whether it’s good enough. My friend Kyle has asked me to look at a piece he’s tinkering with before he submits it to a literary contest, and he’s struggling with a “why bother?” attitude. Two of the most perceptive, most creative students in my fiction workshop are second-guessing recent drafts of their stories; both are trying to burn down and start over to one degree or another (which is a useful thing for any writer to do occasionally, I think: Revision can mean, literally, re-envisioning a project entirely). And I am myself rereading a complete draft of my own novel, trying to figure out what needs to be fixed and finished before I can call it done (or done for now, at least).

All this in mind, I thought it was time to post another exercise or two. This time, I’m turning to the queen mama of creative writing textbooks, Janet Burroway — drawing on two of her books for small writing assignments, one more local in its focus, one more global.

BURR.740X.cvr mechThe first of these comes from Burroway’s more recent textbook, Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, a book which deals with several genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. As much as exploring craft, this text encourages creativity and experimentation, and I highly recommend it for use in an intro creative writing class. Here’s an exercise in dealing with “underdevelopment” in a draft. “Try this,” Burroway writes:

In the first, second or third draft of a manuscript there are likely to be necessary lines, images, or passages that you have skipped or left skeletal. Make notes in your margins wherever you feel your piece is underdeveloped. Then go back and quickly freewrite each missing piece. At this point, just paste the freewrites in. Then read over the manuscript (long shot) to get a feel for how these additions change, add, or distort. Are some unnecessary after all? Do some need still further expanding? Should this or that one be reduced to a sentence or image? Do some suggest a new direction?

(In this same text, Burroway also offers suggestions for dealing with drafts which are too long, including a variety of experiments from cutting “half of every line of dialogue” to fusing “two scenes into one.” Look that one up too.)

burroway mechanical-NDThe second exercise comes from her classic book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft— in my opinion the Bible of fiction workshops. This one is from the sixth edition, only because I can’t find the latest on my shelf right now. (The seventh edition, I should note, is co-authored with Elizabeth Stuckey-French.) Burroway addresses her exercise to short story writers, but I believe it holds up as well for much longer narratives too:

Following your story workshop, but before starting the next draft, write a “contributor’s note” similar to those in the back of the Best American Short Stories and O’Henry series volumes. In a paragraph, describe how the story first occurred to you. What intrigued you about it? How did the story evolve? Which of your plans changed, and why? What do you hope that readers will think the story is “about”? Read these contributors’ notes aloud in class. Do they help you articulate the dramatic and thematic elements you wish to address in the revision process?

Happy writing — um, I mean revising — to all!

— Art Taylor

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A Nonfiction Writing Exercise

October 29, 2008

Writers Porter Shreve and Bich Minh Nguyen (husband and wife) have each found success individually: Shreve is the author of three novels, most recently When the White House Was Ours, and Nguyen authored the award-winning memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In addition to their individual publications, the couple has also co-edited three anthologies, including a text that I’ve used often in teaching one of my own workshops at George Mason: Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye. The book looks at several types of nonfiction writing, broadly breaking them up into personal essays (the “I” — focussing on memory, reflection, etc.) and literary journalistic works (the “Eye” — looking outward at the world around us). The collection includes some of the top names in creative nonfiction: Susan Orlean, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Phillip Lopate, John McPhee, James Alan McPherson, Jonathan Raban, David Sedaris, Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Joan Didion, Lee Gutkind, and on and on. It also includes a nice selection of “writing prompts,” from which today’s exercise is taken: 

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Biography of a Dress” begins with a photograph, and the progress of her essay is an exercise in memory. She meditates on the story behind the picture, imbuing a two-dimensional object with full and textured meaning. This prompt requires that you find an old picture of yourself and proceed to reconstruct the time in which the picture was taken. Choosing the right photograph is critical here. Perhaps it was taken at a turning point — perhaps on your parents’ last vacation before their divorce or just before you moved from one place to another. The moment should be meaningful and evocative of a specific time. Keeping in mind the necessity of writing with the senses, travel back to that room or environment by recalling the objects, sights, and associations there. Who else is in the picture? Who took it? What was the occasion? What memories or ideas does the photograph trigger?

Long before I read this exercise, I wrote a short nonfiction story about a photograph of my mother. Too long to post here (I think), but I learned something important from writing that story —both about my mother and about my writing — which makes me particularly keen on encouraging this prompt now.

— Art Taylor

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Naming, Part II

October 22, 2008

Eleanor Davis, aspiring actress, slightly modified her first name the moment she set foot on campus at Brown: “Eleonora,” she told people, in her Virginia Tidewater accent, “with an ‘o’ in the middle and an ‘a’ at the end — à la the late great Duse,” with a slight look upward as she said the name, a barely perceptible flutter of the eyelids, and a dismissive snort if anyone asked who the late great “Duse” was (her new friends admired this haughtiness at first, but they wearied of it during fall of sophomore year). Eleanor’s father ran a successful cineplex in Norfolk, but whenever she was asked about her parents, she said they were “in theater” (short “a” in the pronunciation, of course); this lie precipitated that sophomore-year fall from grace, when Mom and Dad showed up for Parents’ Weekend and one of Eleanor’s acquaintances, envious of the attention the young actress had received, pressed her father a little too hard about that avant-garde production of Euripides’ Bacchae he’d supposedly mounted at an alpine resort several years before. “Closest I’ve gotten to Switzerland is a packet of Swiss Miss,” he laughed, to Eleanor’s ultimate (and permanent) mortification.

— Art Taylor


Another Fun Writing Exercise: Naming!

October 21, 2008

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, a common text for creative writing workshops, is another book that my fiancée Tara and I have turned to for some “stretching” exercises before writing or to help jump-start the creative process. One super-quick assignment is “Naming Your Characters,” with the editors urging that “the names you choose to give your characters should suggest certain traits, social and ethnic background, geography, and even things that have yet to occur in your story.” The exercise itself asks you to name five characters based on the description provided. Tara and I created our names separately, then compared notes. Here’s what we came up with:

“Petty, white-collar thief who robs his boss over several years”

Tara’s name: Spencer Ratson. My name: Drake Stetson.


“An envious, bitter woman who makes her sister miserable by systematically trying to undercut her pleasure and self-confidence”

Tara’s name: Cissy Gluck. My name: Delores Humphries. 


“A sweet young man too shy to speak to an attractive woman he sees everyday at work”

Tara’s name: Bernard Shush. My name: Ernest “Ernie” Walston.


“The owner of a fast-food restaurant who comes on to his young female employees”

Tara’s name: Arnie Cadogin. My name: Norman Fiddler.


“A grandmother who just won the lottery”

Tara’s name: Estelle Gladstone. My name: Eunice Grant.


Down in Atlanta recently, we were talking about the exercise with another writer friend, Brandon, and his girlfriend, Katie, and they contributed names of their own. And since then, Tara and Brandon have been upping the ante (and doubling the creative process) — making up their own character descriptions and challenging the other to match wits with a suitable name. Here’s what they’ve done.

Brandon’s challenge: “A 63-year-old divorcee from the outskirts of New York who is a nosy neighbor, but who is also looking out for your best interest (given that new, too-good-to-be-true guy that you’ve been dating).”

Tara’s name: Mavis Nosegay. 


Tara’s challenge: “A middle-aged hairdresser with seven cats and a preference for Nutella. (You can name the cats, too, if you’re feeling ambitious.)”

Brandon’s response: “Christopher (he tries to go by “Crys”) Sharpe.  The cats:  Stephen, Louie, Albert, Turbo, Cy-Kill, Leader-1, and Mitzy.  The first three are named after ex-boyfriends, the middle three are after his kitschy childhood fascination with the GoBots, and the last one is named after his mother, with whom he has lengthy phone conversations every Thursday evening.  Mitzy is the half-retarded one who eats the carpet.”


Brandon’s challenge: “A young History PhD scrabbling for tenure who has an old girlfriend come out of the woodwork and claim she’s pregnant with his child.”

Tara’s response: “Richard Oakley Atchey (his “friends” call him Assey). The old girlfriend is Samara Thomas and she wants to name the baby Hawaii because that’s where it was conceived during a drunken night at the Asian Pacific Historic Leaders conference, during which Assey reluctantly decided to sleep with Samara because she was the only conference attendee there who could appreciate his affinity for Tanaka Giichi.”


At this point, Brandon and Tara began copying other folks to join the fun. The latest (and as-yet-unanswered) description came from Tara:

An actress attending an Ivy League school who lies about her family’s wealth to try to fit in with a group of students she thinks will get her places.

I’m gonna try to find a name for that one today (and in the spirit of trying to build up some interactivity on this blog, names are welcome here too).

— Art Taylor


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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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