Writing Exercise for Craft of Prose: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”

After the group presentation on Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, my Craft of Prose class participated in an exercise inspired by Russell’s title story, in which they had to write from the point of view of mythological creatures who are rejecting their mythical powers, innate desires, or supernatural tendencies. Here are some of the creatures about which they wrote:

  • A Kelpie that doesn’t drown people anymore
  • A reindeer that has stopped flying for Santa
  • The Boogeyman who’s decided to open up a daycare
  • A suicidal phoenix
  • Vegan Werewolf
  • Speed-dating siren
  • God on Vacation
  • A magical healer who will no longer heal anyone

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.

Metamorphosis Exercise

Bottom part of plate LXXI. from Veranderingen der surinaemsche insekten, Amsterdam, Joannes Oosterwyk, 1719
Bottom part of plate LXXI. from Veranderingen der surinaemsche insekten, Amsterdam, Joannes Oosterwyk, 1719

Today in Writing Out of the Ordinary the class animatedly discussed Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” During the last twenty minutes of class, they participated in the following exercise that asks them to transform a character into another creature in the spirit of Gregor Samsa’s overnight transformation or à la the “fearful thunderclap” that “rent the sky in two and changed her into a spider”:

1. Outline the narrative of an extraordinary—think of “extraordinary” in terms of its literal meaning, “outside the normal course of events”— event (the time when . . . i.e. you broke your arm skiing, you shared an airport shuttle with the mayor, the woman sitting next to you in 16A threw up on the plane window during takeoff, etc.).
2. Now, pick a character that you’re willing to change.
3. Turn that character into another creature (ghost, sheep, centaur etc.) but allow the world to stay familiar. Rewrite it with that in mind. What changes? What can stay the same?
4. Now, reflect. Is there a way to get to something you couldn’t by making this change? Does it change what’s at stake in the piece? How did you attempt to keep the world realistic even when there was a fantastical creature in the scene?

I also emphasized that the realism in magical realism isn’t simply that the context of magical creature is realistic but that the magical creature is also depicted in a way that seems real to that world of the story. What’s realistic in a fictional space can be different than what’s realistic in our lives. Other thoughts I encouraged: How does one keep the narrative squarely in the world of magical realism and not drift into fantasy? How does one prevent the fantastical creature from being thought of as only allegory? We’ll continue to think about these things as the magical realism unit progresses.

Fantastic Creature Telephone Exercise

Portrait of a man-bat (Vespertilio-homo), from an edition of the moon series published in Naples. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library.) (1836)
Portrait of a man-bat from The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats (1836), published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.

To jumpstart my Writing Out of the Ordinary students thinking about the weird and wild, I created the following exercise for the first day of class.

1. The class breaks up into groups of at least five. Each group designates a leader and forms a line.
2. Each leader reads an entry in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings for two minutes. (I used “The Bird That Makes the Rain,” “A Crossbreed by Kafka,” and the “Hare in the Moon” as they’re among the shortest entries in the book.)
3. The leader then returns to the group and whispers details about the creature to the next group member; each member then whispers it to the next until everyone has heard about the creature.
4. The last group member must write, from memory, a summary of the creature as it was last described.
5. Each group then hands the summary to the leader of an adjacent group.
6. The groups then brainstorm and write a narrative (daily routine, an encounter, origin story, etc.) for the new creature.

There’s several “translations” here that I asked my students to consider:

1. text to memory,
2. speech to hearing (multiplied by however many students are in a group),
3. intention of the writer (the last group member) to readers (the next group),
4. and information (transcription) to imagination (the narrative).

This exercise introduces students to a practice of imaginative thinking, asks them to consider readers’ relationship to text, locates significant and memorable details, and provides them with a chance to interact and thus establish a good rapport with one another—a boon to future workshops!