Exercises

1. postcard (Thisbe Nissen exercise from Naming the World, "Fiction Through Artifacts")

2. Write a response to the postcard.

3. object "Object of Affection: Prose Exercise" from Naming the World (RT Smith)

4. interviewing "Interviewing Your Character" from Naming the World (Ann Packer)

5. eyes "Through Your Character's Eyes" from Naming the World (Michael Knight)

6. action "Putting Characters into Action" from Naming the World (Varley O'Connor)—this is the "show, dont' tell" exercise.

7. silence "Silence and Blank Spaces" from Naming the World (Rene Steinke)

8. The Real World Interrupts

While writing is an act of the imagination, the actions of your characters are bound to some parameter or another, and, typically, these parameters have something to do with how we—people—actually act. For instance, if you want to get your character across town to check to see if her husband is cheating on her (I tell my students), think about how she would actually do it. You needn’t invent a mechanism to her there, because multiple ways already exist. She could take a bus or a train. She could call a friend to take her. She could walk. Or steal a bike. The point is that sometimes when we write, we get caught up in the significance of the plot turn (is the husband cheating?) and forget that stories are basically about normal people doing (relatively) normal things—and that the act of getting there—the manner she chooses and how it goes—can reveal as much about her and the story as the realization that her husband is cheating (or not). We have no idea who she might meet on the way there. Or what kind of dialogue will emerge when, say, her friend picks her up.

The exercise: Choose a stock situation—the kind of thing that would be given in the Spark Notes of your story (woman thinks her husband is cheating; man returns to hometown for 20th high school reunion; drunken couple argues about whose to blame for their troubles in a bar; gardener sees thief escape down the trellis of the house). Next, write a scene in which that drama is forestalled by the real world interrupting it. The woman in the drunken couple has to go to the bathroom (many things can happen between the table and the bathroom). The gardener has to pick up his daughter at soccer practice. Use that digression to explore the character.

9. Confusion

Stories of course are all about conflict. A great device for explicit conflict is dialogue. Something I’ve been asking my classes to do lately is write a scene in which two characters are not understanding one another, even thought they may be trying to. As you write, hold on to the confusion for as long as possible; look for ways of further complicating the misunderstanding. The idea is that our experience of the world is incredibly subjective; sometimes bridging the gap from our own perspective to the experiences of others is difficult, maybe even impossible on occasion. It’s a fundamental problem, a real problem.

It’s also a great way to create space in a story for tension.

10. Map

Draw a map of the place that you think of when you think of "home." This could be a neighborhood or farm or city or town or even the house you grew up in.

Next, write a story (or poem or essay) that is rooted in that place.

I'll leave the length up to you.

11. Ars Poetica

1) In this exercise you will describe, in 200-250 or so (typed!) words, what you think are the most important or interesting features of good writing. In writing this preliminary and speculative version of your own ars poetica (Latin for "The Art of Poetry") and the questions that accompany it, you will be describing tentatively a position that you will revise over the course of the semester. Being committed to experimentation means sometimes having to test your own rules. So here are the questions:

What should the effects of writing be on its audience? I mean this question particularly for you. In other words, what effects of writing do you appreciate in your reading—and by extension, what effects do you want your writing to have on its readers?

What are some of the methods by which it/you would achieve these effects?

What are two or three questions you have about how to define or achieve good writing?

2) Next, what are a few of the questions you still have? In 100 words or so, articulate the most important questions that you still have to answer about the way art works or is produced.

12. Research Exercise

In this exercise, I would simply like you to go and find something outside of your experience and write a story, essay or poem about it. This could be historical (from a book or museum exhibit or whatever). It could come from a newspaper. It could come from a scientific journal. Basically, I want you to choose a situation (and a character) and try to inhabit them, even though you have not experienced this thing/situation (whatever it is) directly.

13. Contributor's Notes

For this assignment, I'd like you to write your own fictional contributor's notes. Start, like Michael Martone's pieces, with John Doe was born in X. And go on from there. See where it takes you.

14. Dialogue Exercise

In this exercise, I would like you to write a brief piece (not more than three or four pages) in which you use almost exclusively dialogue to tell a story (I use the term "story" generally; this doesn't have to be fiction). It's okay to have brief stage directions. Yes—this is closer to drama or screen writing than fiction or poetry. The point is to put dialogue to work for yourself. Remember, like we said in class last week, dialogue really should only serve two purposes: propel the narrative and reveal character. You might find John Hodgman's "Fire: The Next Sharp Stick?" a useful guide (it's available through course reserve).

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