Like flossing and getting the heart pumping with daily vigorous walks, writers are tasked to keep fit with regular exercise, but how often do we really perform these literary calisthenics? How many writers, like myself, are impatient to get to the “real work” once a moment of time and energy clears up? In the busyness to pay bills, do our share of housework, and fulfill our duties as family members, how can we be expected to perform training drills when we have manuscripts to finish? More importantly, how much does the so-called “real work” suffer without the daily stretching of artistic muscles? Shouldn’t writing exercises be considered part of the real work? After all, as I tell my students, writing is about the process, not the product. If truth be told, I should be practicing what I preach.
Perhaps you’re like me and have stacks of writer’s craft books collecting dust and inducing cringes when I happen to glance over them as I reach for more pleasurable texts. Instead of inspiring a more resolved writing practice, those craft books remind me of my undergraduate years when I, the human embodiment of ignorance and impudence, skated through craft classes and hurried through half-assed exercises like a petty thief on a blissful joyride to nowhere. I thought I knew what I needed to know to write. And with my current attitude towards writing exercises, seems I’m doomed to repeat that folly.
Could it be that part of the disdain for writing exercises lies in the infinite variety of practices available to us? The universe keeps spitting out new how-to-write-books. A verifiable divine cup that keeps replenishing itself. Do a simple search for “writing exercises” on the web and you’ll be inundated with professional and would-be writers touting their wares like snake oil. Admittedly, myself included. Writing exercises come in all shapes and sizes. There are inane ones that serve better as the jokes and creative riddles inscribed inside a Laffy Taffy or Bazooka Joe wrapper:
Imagine you’re a hot dog about to be eaten by a family. Who would you prefer to be eaten by? The budding boy of fourteen, a virtual human vacuum? His six-year old sister who tends to reenact seventeenth-century torture sessions with her food? Or the dad, who will easily eat you and two more of your kin before the third inning? Write in first person with a voice as far removed as your own to step out of your comfort zone.
Then there’s the antipodal avant-garde:
Create a cubist story by dissecting it into fragments. Think of as many different ways you can dissect a scene, alphabetically, chronologially, chromatically, through syllables, gender, thoughts, or spatially by feet, inches, or yards. Try to capture minute snapshots of whichever category you choose and build a fragmented whole, piece by piece.
So what exactly are the traits of a good writing exercise? How can we be sure our muscles are exploited for maximum potential? How do we sift through the plethora of writing books as plentiful as Self-Help guides? (And, am I the only one who feels that the two genres often blur into each other? )
The drills I’ve found work for me usually have a clear purpose. The exercise should pinpoint a specific aspect of writing. Of course, it can, and should address multiple craft issues, but I want to have some sense of what I’m aiming for, some target to shoot. Far too many exercises seem like vague jumping points with no clear parameters for an intended outcome. We wouldn’t haphazardly lift barbells up and down would we?
Yet– at the same time, a good writing exercise should afford open-endedness, allowing the writer to find her own way through experimentation. A drill should ignite risk and unbolt a hidden door to creative freedom. (Is this starting to sound like self-help?) Though we may have a target we’re aiming for that target should shift on us. We should be surprised by what comes out of the pen or what our fingers end up typing.
Finally an exercise should be short, a creative spurt of energy lasting no more than two or three pages or 20-30 minutes of exploration. If a writer feels compelled to follow that white rabbit down the hole into a day’s or week’s worth of trekking through wonderland then more power to her and that exercise. She’s cracked open a gold vein.
When you come across a writing exercise that rouses the above and more you’ve got a keeper. Start collecting the ones that shake you up. Keep track of the drills that drop you off to some distant corner in your imagination you’ve never explored. Clip them like recipes. You can organize them by craft issues, or don’t categorize them at all and pull them out randomly. File them away on your laptop and take them with you as you travel. You might be able to whip one out while waiting in line at the DMV and spend the time performing artistic calisthenics instead of staring at the bald spot on the man’s head in front of you.
As you get the hang of daily exercises, you’ll want to start coming up with your own. Make them fun and interesting. Design your drills with the intent to heighten your personal slant and to amplify your voice.
Here’s a recent riff:
Sift through favorite music albums, poems, or commercial jingles and lift snatches of phrases, as a beginning, middle or ending point in a story or scene. If you start from the middle twist your way out like a spiral, revolving around the central phrase. If ending, work your way backwards as Stevie Davies suggests Charlotte Bronte must have with her seminal work, Jane Eyre. Be sure to pay attention to key themes and words from the phrase, which will be the leit motif to build your scene or story from.
Some slips of favored stories and songs:
“It could not have lasted more than two hours: many a week has seemed shorter.” –Jane Eyre
“Shyness is nice. But shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.” -“Ask Me,” The Smiths, from Louder than Bombs
“A little bit of Elfin magic goes a long way.”- Keebler Products
Above all, keep your training fresh. As with physical exercises, repetition leads to plateau. Any fitness trainer will insist that bicep curls can only do so much, and reps need to be varied for tone. Our literary muscles work exactly the same.
During her reading at Rakestraw for her latest novel Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich pressed to the audience, “As a writer you just have to show up and be there. You have to be open.” I’ve just started to maintain a regimen of writing drills. Better late than never, I hope.
Before I sit down to work on my manuscript, I crack my knuckles and clear my writerly throat by tapping my fingers to keyboard and stretching my imagination into new, sometimes uncomfortable, but always stimulating contortions. Prompted by the likes of Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop and Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal, though I often drag my feet before I commit myself, this hoop jumping has become part of my writing ritual. Once I focus, my mind wanders. The pen makes that wonderful noise I love best, the endless scratching of fine tip to notepad. My Pilot V5 rolling ball releases its inky scent, as heady and intoxicating as a glass of wine, and I am chasing that white rabbit. After completing my twenty minutes, I come to my manuscript with a different lens, a unexpected strain of voice, a new pattern of images I never knew I had in me.
To that end, we must stay faithful and married to our art.
The dread of ritually performing exercises needs to be excised. Writing drills should be provocative, hopefully fun, but ultimately coax us from complacency and comfort. They need to challenge us. We in turn need to commit to them, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. After all it is a marriage to our creative selves, and in that commitment, if we are dedicated we will keep seeking ways to renew our relationship.
Do you train regularly and if so, what are some of your favorite texts and sources for writing exercises?