On the first day of my Intro to Creative Writing class, I ask my students to do the following exercise as a means of introduction.
1. Write down two lies and one truth about yourself. It’s ideal if students write about specific and concrete events. Avoid the mundane like “I like cheese” and small factual discrepancies like “I have six brothers” when really you have seven.
2. Share. The class will try to pick out the truth.
3. After everyone shares, students will pick one of their lies and write a narrative based on that lie. What’s the character like? How would they react in the situation?
4. Now, consider the true statement. What if the character also had had that experience? Rewrite the narrative of the experience knowing the character has the “true” statement as a backstory.
5. Questions to ask yourself during and after the rewrite: How has the character changed in your mind? Did the two experiences make sense for the character? What is “true” in this new narrative? What’s the difference between “truth” and believability? Can something be “true” in a piece of writing that’s not necessarily “true” in real life?
These questions should illustrate what sorts of inferences students might make during this exercise. Plus, they get to open up and introduce themselves to the class. I should thank Tom Balázs, my undergrad fiction professor, who used to do Two Lies and a Truth at the beginning of the semester. I hope the additions to the exercise encourage students to think about context and to create believable characters.
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!