“Headliner” Exercise

The front page of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet from the 2nd of January 1905. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)
The front page of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet from the 2nd of January 1905. (Published before 1923 and public domain in the US.)

Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Poetry
Readings: Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines
Time: 20–25 minutes

Mayor To Homeless: Go Home
Stabbing Disrupts Anger Management Class
Missippi’s Literacy Program Shows Improvement
One-Armed Man Applauds the Kindness of Strangers
Statistics Show That Teen Pregnancy Drops Significantly After Age 25
Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons

  1. Pick one of the (real) headlines above as the title of your poem.
  2. Now begin to write a narrative poem about the situation that provoked the headline.
  3. Go back and read what you’ve written. What else does it remind you of? (The first thing that comes into your head.) Start writing about that.
  4. Go back and read what you wrote about the second thing. What does that make you think of? Write about it.
  5. Is there a way to get back to the first story? Is there something else you missed in the first story? What images connect across each of these stories? How are the motives of the characters different? How are they alike?
  6. Try to work your way back there.
  7. End the poem with an image from the first story.

“Fame Makes a Man Take Things Over” Exercise

Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)
Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)
Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Creative nonfiction
Readings: A packet of persona poems and dramatic monologues
Time: 10 minutes

1. Pick a celebrity, sports star, cartoon or comic book character, product mascot (ex. Count Chocula, the Geico gecko, etc.) or newsworthy individual (Octomom, Charles Manson, etc.).

2. Create a mundane problem for that character or person. (Kobe Bryant can’t open a jelly jar. Elvis Presley can’t fit into his old slacks. Speedy Gonzalez gets stuck in a mouse trap.)

3. Free write for ten minutes in the voice of that character as they’re attempting to resolve the problem. What concerns them? Are they worried about their public image? How does this problem relate to bigger problems for them? What sorts of language do they use? Are they thinking about the problem at hand or something else? Where are they at? More specific questions: What are they wearing? What kind of jelly is Kobe Bryant trying to get into? Strawberry or grape? Who set the trap for Speedy? Has Elvis tried dieting? (Hint: You don’t have to answer these specific questions, but be sure to take leaps like this with your own characters.)

I’d like to ban the word . . .

I’d like to ban the word “slumber” from my students’ creative writing. I don’t think I’ve ever “slumbered.” So often, they believe it conveys a softness, but that double consonant “mb” with that unpleasant “er” actually seems more clunky to me that the simple “sleep.” Easy to say for easy sleep.

Prompts: “The Conversationalist,” “Just a Phase,” and “Witness” for Creative Nonfiction Writing

Phrenology diagram. From People's Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883).
from People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883)

A student wrote to me over the weekend to request a prompt for my Intro to Creative Writing‘s 5–7 page creative nonfiction assignment. Although I usually encourage students to locate their own subject matter as it’s a critical skill and they’ll likely care more about their handpicked subjects, I came up with several prompts that I’ll hold onto for future students who need a place to start.

The Conversationalist
Is there a story or several stories that you like to tell friends or new people you meet? Is the subject matter related or disparate? Write the story/stories that you tell, and the narrative of telling these stories. How have people reacted? Reflect. Why do you tell these stories? Do you find yourself wanting to create a certain impression on listeners? This piece, as it has three narrative components, has a lot of promise for fulfilling the page requirement.

Just a Phase
Was there a time that you tried to “be someone else,” to adopt a different personality? Describe in detail. Did you change your clothes? Your hair? Your interests? Your speech or accent? Many of us go through identity crises especially as adolescents. What did you do while you tried this out? Did you go somewhere? Did you make a fool of yourself or pull it off? When did you realize it wasn’t right for you? Why change? Do you feel nostalgic now? Show this.

Witness
Have you ever witnessed something violent, unsettling, or scary? Write about this and your reaction after. How long did it affect you? How did it change you? Did you intervene? Why or why not? Do you regret your decision to become involved or not involved? (See “Accident, June 1948” by Seamus Deane for an example.)

Notes on writing in one’s head vs. writing on the page with an extrapolation to subject matter

Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris […] historia, tomus II (1619) by Robert Fludd
by Robert Fludd (1619)
These days it takes me a longer time to get started on the page with a poem. I spend weeks only thinking about lines. Used to, all that wheel spinning and doubling back took place on the page. What’s interesting is how that’s allowed for a shift in my subject matter: I’m more willing to give a little space to the intangible, the ineffable. So perhaps, for me, subject matter is tied more to the medium than I originally anticipated.

I wonder how it would change if I started writing only by hand . . .

Homing In On Home Exercise

Garage met Chauffeurswoning te Zandvoort (1916) by Guillaume Frédéric la Croix
Garage met Chauffeurswoning te Zandvoort (1916) by Guillaume Frédéric la Croix
Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Creative nonfiction
Readings: “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “Los Angeles Notebook,” and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion; “Bread” by Jane Brox
Time: 24 minutes

1. Describe the home you spent the most time in as a child including its location, distinctive features, the people, the food, the weather, etc. Be as thorough as possible. (7 min.)
2. Is there something that people often assume about the place that isn’t true? Write an anecdote about a time that someone made a presumption about where you were from. (i.e. Every evening while I had bronchitis I stopped at a pub in Mayfair to have a shot of Jack Daniel’s to ease my coughing before bed. The first night, the bartender asked to see my ID. When I handed him my Tennessee driver’s license, he said, “A Tennessee girls drinks Tennessee whiskey,” and, laughing, “Do you like your country music too?”) (5 min.)
3. Why do you think that outsiders often assume these things about your home? Speculate about why that is, how long that’s been true, and if it will continue to be true. Why or why not? Use this as a means to tell us a little bit of history about the place you grew up. You can use historical facts, family stories, gossip, rumors, etc. (7 min.)
4. If you weren’t from the area, how would you view your hometown? Would you visit or move there? Consider several possibilities. (5 min.)

This exercise allows students to look at a subject from different angles as well as helps them access something personal through exterior descriptions. In much the same way that they saw Didion revealed through the places she talks about (California’s Central Valley, Los Angeles, and New York), students should realize that, by the details they choose to talk about and the perceptions they reject or defend, they do some work to define themselves as well as the place, subject, and—perhaps most importantly—a conflict.

Three Places Exercise

    The Hermit Saints Triptych (1490s) by Hieronymus Bosch
    The Hermit Saints Triptych (1490s) by Hieronymus Bosch
    My Intro to Creative Writing class discussed Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “On Morality,” and “On Going Home” with regard to what they learned from the “Creative Nonfiction” and “Setting” chapters in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. After, they jumped into this exercise about place and how external details reveal internal information.

    1. Write about entering a place that’s incredibly familiar to you (your dorm room, your car, etc., but not this classroom.) What do you notice? Use only concrete descriptions. Avoid emotional responses and abstractions. (5 min.)
    2. Think of a time in which you returned to a place that was once familiar to you but to which you hadn’t been in a long time. (A childhood home, your old school, etc.) Write a scene in which you describe only your physical surroundings as you enter that place. What’s changed? What’s different? Compare and contrast your memory of the place with its current state. (5 min.)
    3. Now write a similar sort of description about a time in which you entered a new place, particularly one in which you weren’t comfortable or one that has a culture that is unfamiliar to you (like Didion going into the Haight). Again, focus only on concrete details. (5 min.)
    4. Read aloud your three entries. The class will then vote on which one was more immersive, compelling, and detailed.
    5. Reflect: Why did the class choose that one? Did you write more about one than the others? If so, why do you think that is? As a reader, which one of these is more interesting to you? Why? Which one was the hardest to write? Why?

    Overwhelmingly, the class chose either the second or third description as both seemed to reveal an internal conflict—the sense of something lost/irreparable or alienation. The best part is that the students didn’t write about these internal conflicts at all; rather, it was entirely implicit in the concrete details.

Tearing Down the Walls Exercise

"The Drawbridge" from "Imaginary Prisons" (1750) by Giambattista Piranesi
from “Imaginary Prisons” (1750) by Giambattista Piranesi

After a spirited discussion of the first six chapters of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that included forays into questions of genre, style, and (with a little help from a Bachelard excerpt on “Intimate Immensity”) reality, my Writing Out of the Ordinary students took a break from their creative thinking to do some creative writing.

1. Pick one of the cities in Invisible Cities that you find the most outlandish, strange, or compelling.
2. Create a character that lives in one of these cities. Give that person a role in the community (i.e. a job, unemployment, a family, friends, etc.). Now write a brief sketch of no more than a page about a day in that character’s life. Make sure you take into account the unusual aspects of the city. Does the character visit the room of crystal globes in Fedora? What does the inhabitant of Baucis see looking at the ground? What are the goodbyes like when the people of Eutropia move to another identical city?
3. Now imagine that the fabulist foundation starts to erode. Write a narrative in which the city starts to become what we would think of as “normal” but which seems outlandish and strange to its inhabitants. Start small but by the end have the inhabitants’ whole reality challenged. Example: Maybe the inhabitants of Eutropia open the gates of their city with the intent of moving to the next one only to realize that there’s no other city nearby.

Because we ran out of time, the students will continue to work on 3 at the beginning of the next class. Once they are done writing, I’d like to add a fourth step to the exercise:

4. Reflect. What are the implications of the change for the character? Are interpersonal relationships changed? The character’s role? Is the character able to adapt to the changes? To what extend does that character cling to the old way of life? Is the change good or bad? In some small way, is the character a new character because of the new context? Does the old city live on in, still exist because of, the character’s memories and imagination?

I’m anxious to see what they come up with, especially because of the ouroboric discussion of invention and reality. I can’t help but think of Calvino himself writing that “a story is . . . an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.” With time, of course, comes change, and so at its root the exercise may be an exercise in time, an enchantment recharmed, an hourglass flipped on its head.

Italo Calvino on introversion

“Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words.”

—Italo Calvino, “Quickness”

On Journaling: a Revelation

Codex Manesse, fol. 383r, Meister Konrad von Würzburg
Codex Manesse, fol. 383r, Meister Konrad von Würzburg
Sometimes discussions with my students lead me to articulate things about writing that I’ve fathomed but haven’t been able to put into words. For instance, in Intro to Creative Writing this morning, my students were discussing Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and how they could use journaling as a foundation for their creative writing. Because of the students’ provocative questions and Didion’s exegesis on the practice—”I imagine . . . that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. . . . our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.'”—I was able to finally say what I’ve often felt in keeping my writing journal:

Journaling is an exercise in being a character.

In keeping a journal, I distance myself from the self that appears in my writing. (Think Dante the writer vs. Dante the character.) This not only allows me to receive critical input without feeling as if I’m under attack but it also, and perhaps more importantly, gives me the opportunity to view my own writing as a reader would.

Maybe other writers out there have come to this realization, but the idea, and the way I was able to say it, surprised me in its clarity. Maybe this too is a product of journaling: I have distanced myself enough so that I am allowed to be surprised by myself, a moxie I find quite germane to the writing of the lyric.