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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