I like writing exercises, both in a class and at home in my own work. There’s something about being forced away from your usual patterns that can produce some surprising and excellent results. Of course, not always: and I remind people that it’s just an exercise…just messing around, just having fun. If it doesn’t work, toss it out. But that combination of feeling relaxed while feeling under pressure in a class with a teacher saying, “Start now,” is pretty potent.
Here are three exercises that I especially like:
1. Describe a lake as seen by a man (or woman) who has just commited murder. Do not mention the murder.
(This is a classic, from John Gardner’s wonderful craft book, The Art of Fiction.)
2. Choose a character you’re working with and come up with a list of props this character might have, things they might carry and/or use (i.e. cane with a carved parrot head handle). Then add one item that doesn’t quite fit. Write about how and why this odd item has entered their life.
(This is adapted from Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, a book that’s a treasure trove of writing exercises.)
3. Write about the worst thing you ever did.
(This is from an exercise that legendary writing teacher Gordon Lish used to give his students; Amy Hempel’s story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” was written from this exercise. Read the story here: http://www.fictionaut.com/stories/amy-hempel/in-the-cemetery-where-al-jolson-is-buried .)
Care to share one of your own favorites? Send it to me, and I’ll share it on the blog: firstname.lastname@example.org