Writing Exercise: “Guess Who”
Writer Jean Kwok uses a Character Sketch Table in order to better develop and, subsequently, understand her characters. Whether or not she ends up using all the information in her final creative work, it helps her consider the ways that her characters move (and have moved) in the world. Prior to completing the following exercise, review this document and consider what sorts of information you would need to know about your characters. To begin the exercise, follow the next steps:
- Create two characters who identify as the same gender and use the same pronouns. Note: If you choose to create a transgendered character, please honor the gender and pronouns they have chosen, not those assigned at birth, e.g. Dan, a cisgendered man, and Colin, a trans man or Maria, a cisgendered woman, and Jamila, a trans woman, would be grouped together here.
- Create a quick character sketch in which you identify them by at least: name, age, occupation, interests/hobbies, life goals, and an old embarrassment. If there’s anything else you think your reader should know, you may also include it here. Avoid stereotyping based on race, sexuality, gender, ability, region, culture, religion, appearance, or age toward a complex person that’s more than any one of these identifiers.
- Write a paragraph-long description of a short interaction between only one of your characters and someone else—barista, boss, what-have-you, as long as it’s not your other sketched-out character. The only caveat is that you must only use this character’s pronoun and never identify them by their name or specifically identify their occupation.
- Read your peers’ pieces and try to guess which character appears in their scenes.
Writing Exercise: “Code Switch”
- Read a little bit about the linguistic concept of “code-switching.”
- Now, let’s apply it to your creative writing. Create a dramatic situation in which a first-person narrator has to switch between two different types of language in her narration and in her dialogue, e.g. her dialogue with her best friend is informal but, in telling the story to a wider audience, she uses proper grammar and more meditative language.
- For an added challenge, you can add in a third act of code-switching, i.e. your narrator might talk one way in her narration, one way to her best friend on the phone, and one way with her mother while they are out to lunch.
Note: Please take care to avoid cultural appropriation with this exercise in code-switching. To do so, you might try taking on acts of code-switching that are familiar to you and your discourses.
On Wednesday, November 16, I gave the lecture “It’s Alive: Why Poetry Still Matters” at Rutherford Hall in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Here are the materials for that talk:
This talk also transformed into my November 2016 blog post for Ploughshares, “Truth & Dread: Why Poetry Still Matters & The Risk of (Too Much) Empathy”:
Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
In “Backstabbing,” students are practicing their abilities in creating a scene that hinges on the drama of subtext, dialogue, and conflict.
Purpose: To consider how persona, point of view, voice, argument, and empathy can support and/or complicate one another
Readings: “Skinhead” by Patricia Smith
- Watch Patricia Smith perform “Skinhead”: https://youtu.be/Klb5TniRGao. Discuss.
- Jot down some notes about a situation in which you found yourself in direct opposition with someone else. Perhaps it’s as extreme as the violent racism in Smith’s poem or as routine as having the same seat number assignment as another person on a flight. The best situation is one in which the conflict was never or not easily resolved. (2–5 min.)
- Describe the diction that person uses and provide some examples. (1–2 min.)
- Now freewrite in the voice of that person as if he or she is addressing you. What would they say? How would they defend themselves against complaints about their actions toward you. (5–7 min.)
- Share your efforts. Did the exercise of writing in their voices change your opinions of your adversaries? What does this reveal about poetry’s ability to engage in empathy? Do your opinions carry into your rendering of their voice?
“Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party in Summit Valley, Placer County” Grayscaled albumen print, half stereograph. (1866) via the Library of Congress
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Purpose: To explore Burroway’s concept of “Character as Image”; examine potential of non-verbal communication; and situate the reader to receive information along with a character
Readings: Chapters 4 (“Character”) and Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
Two characters come upon one another in the middle of a forest. Something bad—but not melodramatic*—has happened to one character and that character needs help. When the first character tries to tell the second what’s wrong, it’s revealed that the two characters don’t speak the same language. (This could include sign language.)
Write a scene from the point of view of the second character (first person “I”) while the first character tries to communicate the problem using only gestures, drawing, or other non-verbal communication. Additionally:
- the second character cannot know what the problem is before the first character reveals it in this scene;
- the second character should notice details throughout the interaction that reveal more about the first character (i.e. clothing, appearance, possessions, etc.)
- the second character may or may not—or even cannot—help.
*Challenge yourself to come up with a problem that doesn’t involve far-fetched plot lines, flat characters, and easy conclusions. This means it would be best to avoid killers, aliens, and monsters. Think about more ordinary but equally tension-filled situations like a farmer whose lost a bull, a teenager who has a flat tire but doesn’t know how to change it, a hunter who accidentally shot his buddy in the foot, etcetera.
Illustration from Fables for the Frivolous by Guy Wetmore Carryl, with illustrations by Peter Newell (1898)
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Purpose: To open up discussion about plot structure and significant details
Readings: Chapters 9 (“Fiction”) and 6 (“Story”) in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing
- Watch a viral video without taking notes. (“Texting Guy Almost Runs Into Bear”: http://youtu.be/WYsAkjfXxzU)
- Write a summary of what happens in the video. (2 min.)
- Now write a scene from the point of view of the bear or the man. Try to tap into their thoughts and moment-by-moment perceptions. Include as many details as you can in 5 minutes. Here’s the hitch: you must tell the story in reverse chronological order! (Tell the story backwards!)
- Look at the inverted check mark diagram of pg. 173 in Burroway. Discuss how the check mark works for a chronological story compared to the story told in reverse. Where does the conflict fall in your scene? The crisis (climax)? Is there resolution? Were there any details you thought of telling the story backwards that you might not have thought of telling the story chronologically?