Last Sunday, I taught a workshop at the Writer’s Center that focused on writing exercises. As with the recent collage workshop I conducted, I was fortunate enough to get an excellent group of students who tackled every challenge I threw their way with good humor and skill. I followed along with some of the exercises as I could, and got some useful insights into the characters I’m hoping to write about in my new historical novel.
I found some of the exercises in a new book that I highly recommend: Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. (Thanks, Rachel, for suggesting it to me!) The book offers a wide range of creative and provocative exercises that transcend the “busywork” aspect that some writing exercises can suffer from.
There was an adaptation from the book in the recent issue of Poets & Writers. Since I couldn’t find the article itself online, I thought I’d pass along two of the exercises I found especially useful in this class:
1. The first one relates to character development, and I adapted it from Lee Martin’s chapter, “Subversive Details and Characterization.” Think about a character that you’re working with, and make a list of “props” that are associated with the character—i.e. things they touch, carry, hold, own. I suggest mentally committing to a long list—say, 25 things or so—because if what happened to me is representative, it was the early things that were the most obvious (i.e. my historical young lady had gloves and a snowy white handkerchief…duh). It wasn’t until I moved through the obvious choices that I discovered the more interesting things she might have: a book of poetry with a newspaper clipping used as a bookmark. Well, that’s getting somewhere! Newspaper clipping about what?
Once you have your list, review it and then think of one prop this same character has that doesn’t seem to fit into this list. Then start thinking about (and/or writing) the story of how the character ended up with that item. (In the book, the exercise continues, but this is where we stopped.)
I asked the people in the class to share out loud one item of the “regular list” and then the misfit item, and it was remarkable how just hearing these two items suggested the quick outlines of a pleasantly complicated character and, most definitely, a possible conflict that could successfully be developed into a story or essay.
2. The second exercise that I thought was especially effective was the last one, which we did after having spent 4 ½ hours working together and getting to know one another. I found this tucked away in the “daily warm-ups” in the back of the book, but honestly, I thought it was more transformative and powerful than a warm-up. After talking a bit about being brave in our work, and how readers are touched by stories/essays that have a strong emotional truth at their core, I told the class that we would not be sharing out loud any of the results of the following exercise (that was important): this was a private exercise, just for them. Then I asked them to write a list of the stories from their own lives that they would write if they were guaranteed that certain people would never read those stories.
Honestly, before I even finished talking, people had their pens scratching away on paper; it was like a floodgate had been released.
What I found interesting about my own list is that there were some huge, scary topics that I probably would be loathe to address even with a thousand veils of fiction obscuring them. But also on my list—and I wrote down everything that occurred to me, moving quickly without pausing to reflect—also on my list were a number of smaller incidents that seem horrifyingly embarrassing or shocking to me, but which would make a good story or essay, and which probably wouldn’t be a big deal to write about. I mean, am I really afraid to write about that thing that happened in 11th grade sociology class? Other incidents I could see myself addressing fictionally.
So, my follow-up suggestion to the class—and, of course, to myself—was to save this list and someday—maybe not tomorrow, maybe not until you’re 90 years old—but someday, write about some of these topics. If it was a relief simply to see the words privately on this piece of paper, what might it be like to see these things transformed into art and set free into the world?