Summer Online Intro to CW Writing Exercise: “Nothing Amiss, Nothing Missed”

Writing Exercise: “Nothing Amiss, Nothing Missed”

Your first writing exercise asks you to draw upon the concepts of concrete language, significant details, and mood-inducing setting from Chapters 2: Image and 5: Setting. The exercise is multi-part, so make sure not to miss a step.

  1. Take a pen and paper (or laptop, if you’re more comfortable typing) into a space in which other people (preferably strangers) are interacting with one another or objects. Grocery store, coffee shop, doctor’s office, cemetery, public park—wherever you like. Feel free to do this exercise on a regular errand, if you can squeeze it in. Once you are in the space, I would like for you to set a timer on your phone or watch for a set time between 10–15 minutes. Without pausing to consider or edit, write down in a paragraph or list every detail from this space that you possibly can. This is called automatic writing, and it should allow you to efficiently take in your surroundings as quickly as possibly.
  2. Please select one mood from the a list and one genre from the b list in which you’d like to rewrite your setting:
    • overjoyed, despondent, apathetic, devious, hopeful, grief-stricken, afraid, or something else
    • fiction or nonfiction
  3. As we learned from Burroway, a concrete, significant detail means that the specific image appeals to at least one of the five senses and suggests an abstraction, generalization, or judgment. In other words, that detail reveals something more than just that object’s there-ness. It comments on something within the story or reveals something about the point-of-view character. We may also find that what a character selects to tell us about a setting is very revealing of their personality or mental state. Burroway writes: “Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment, mellow or harsh. And it alters according to what happens to us.” As a very simplistic example, imagine that character A and character B walk into the seasonal section at the grocery store. A’s excited about the sale on the industrial-sized, Banana Boat suntan lotion that smells like pina colada, whereas B’s gravitate to the adult-sized arm floaties. These two things, although related and present in the same setting, reveal very different things about the needs, wants, and personalities of the two characters. We might concur that A’s interested in spending a lot of time in the sun and getting a tan, meaning that they are concerned about their looks, how they are seen. B, however, cannot swim (or swim well) and may even be afraid of the water. In this way, each of these objects are significant because they reveal something about the character. With all of this in mind, you will:
    • rewrite your description of the setting through the twin lenses of the character’s mood and the genre, being sure to only select those details that seem to reveal the character and the mood you want to cast over this place while leaving out incongruous information, but be sure not to tell us what mood you’re trying to portray
    • and then read your peers’ attempts at the exercise and guess what kind of mood they were trying to portray through the details they chose.
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Reading Exercise “Begin Again” for Craft of Prose

In this reading exercise, students are responding to and annotating different literary devices and features—including dialogue, active voice, unique diction, etcetera—in the opening pages of five chapters (13–18) of the class’s icebreaker text, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Guess Who Reading Discussion Prompt for Craft of Prose

In this reading discussion prompt, students are asked to consider what elements contribute to our understanding of character in this “Guess Who” game in which students draw a character who appears in chapters 3–12 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and then describe them by answering a series of questions. They will use their descriptions to come up with three clues about the character: one is a concrete detail about the character’s appearance, the second is to identify a scene in which they appear, and the third is a literary craft element that helps reveal their character.

“Babylon: A Place You’ve Only Heard Of” Exercise

"Abbildung der Stadt Babylon" ("Picture of the City of Babylon"),  Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

“Abbildung der Stadt Babylon” (“Picture of the City of Babylon”), Erasmus Francisci, copper engraving on paper, 1680

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how place becomes setting and to cultivate an “outsider’s” point of view
Readings: “Goodbye to All That,” “Babylon,” and “No Man’s Land” from Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

 

  1. Think about a city or country that you’ve never heard of but have never been to. This can be a real (Saigon), mythic (Troy), or imagined place. Describe what you know or imagine to know about this place. Write for 5 minutes.
  2. Now think about your hometown. Describe it as you remember it, including the homes, the landscape, the stores, the values, etc. Write for 5 minutes.
  3. Write a paragraph that considers similarities between the place you’ve never been and your hometown. Write for 3 minutes.
  4. Is there something notable or notorious about your hometown? Write for 3 minutes about how outsiders might view your hometown. Is there something unique to your hometown and therefore strange to outsiders? Would an outsider have prejudices against your hometown? Write for 3 minutes.
  5. How might you be like the outsider with the place you’ve never been? Write a meditation on these similarities for 5 minutes.

Setting and Voice

Victoria Embankment, London (circa 1930)

Victoria Embankment, London (circa 1930)

Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Genre: Fiction and Nonfiction
Purpose: To examine how setting is influenced by voice
Readings: Chapters 3 (“Voice”), with “Guns for Teachers” by Warren J. Bowe and “What I Learned” by David Sedaris, and Chapter 5 (“Setting”), with “At the Dam” by Joan Didion, in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing

Read the following two passages—the first from the second page of a novel, the second from the third and fourth paragraphs of an essay—by the same author about a woman going out to run an errand. Consider the author’s use of voice and setting. How does the voice change between the novel and the essay? What might point of view have to do with voice? What impression do you get of the characters from these excerpts? How much do we know about the setting? Why does the author describe the setting early on in the work?

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty, —one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribably pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reasons: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.*

~

How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light — windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars — lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which —— She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?*

*The first excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The second excerpt is from Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” I didn’t, however, reveal this to my students immediately. As an aside, I asked them if they recognized the author before revealing the source.

Two Poetry Exercises: “The Side of the Road” and “A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea”

Map of Henrico, VA showing Fortifications Around Richmond North and East of the James River, detail.

I gave the following two exercises to my Writing Poetry students in the last month. Because these exercises encourage students to build their poems upon concrete description, I’ve presented them together.

Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
Genre: Poetry
Purpose: To explore strategies employed by authors we’ve read as well as situate poems in concrete details, settings, and narratives
Readings:Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey and When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

*

“The Side of the Road” Exercise

“What matters is context— / the side of the road”
—Natasha Trethewey, “What the Body Can Say”

  1. Only using concrete details, describe as much as you can about your hometown or your current neighborhood without editorializing. For instance, if you believe something is “pretty”, describe those features that create its aesthetic appeal (the fleur de lis ornamentation on the porch railing, the ivy trellised up the front of the house, etc.). Your readers will likely know how you feel about the looks by how you describe what’s there. (7 min.)
  2. Look at what you’ve written and underline those concrete details that seem signficant to a reader’s understanding of the place. Meaning, the descriptions must provide us with a clue about what’s going on there or what someone is like. Ex. On China Street in Oregon Hill, there’s a house that has abstract acrylic paintings nailed on the siding. Across the street, a small sherbert green house flies a Confederate Flag above its porch junked up with a recycling bin full of Miller Highlife and several ashtrays full of cigarette butts. In the window is a sign: “Roomate Needed / Must like Dogs” accompanied by a phone number. What does each detail reveal about the invidiuals that live in each house? What does it reveal about the neighborhood? (2 min.)
  3. Say someone from another part of the country—or even another neighborhood—visited you here. Speculate about what that person would notice about the area. What would excite them? What would trouble them? (3 min.)
  4. Consider what assumptions that person might have about you based on your affiliation with the place. (3 min.)
  5. Rewrite all of this in lines, cutting out excess wording and ending on one of the telling images you previously identified without explaining what it means. Think of Trethewey ending “Again, the Fields” with “his hands the color of dark soil.” If I wrote about the two houses in Oregon Hill, I might end with this image: “the paintings and the flag will both fade in the light of day.” (5–7 min.)

*

A Pig Is A Pig Is An Idea Exercise
[Note: This is a variation on my “Headliner” exercise.]

An image is a detail that allows us to feel as if we “see” rather than understand what happened or is happening in a literary work. It’s imitative of the tangible. It suggests meaning rather than explains it. It can be within the “real world” or it can be figurative, Natalie Diaz’s men “leaning against the sides of houses” (realistic) or the coins “We are born with spinning coins in place of eyes” (figurative). In understanding how image often serves the function of both providing us with concrete details, narrative, and/or abstract ideals, thoughts, or emotions, complete the following exercise.

  1. Describe the narrative implied by one of the following real headlines. Be sure to use descriptive details that will reveal the place/setting. In doing so, try to be as objective as possible. Only describe what’s happens as it happen. Remove any commentary or statement of meaning. Focus only on tangible details and action. You may have opinions about the people, animals, or objects involved, but don’t reveal them. Through the attention to details, you may even empathize with these characters. (15 minutes)
  2. Pig in Australia Steals 18 Beers from Campers, Gets Drunk, Fights Cow
    Hiker discovers an abandoned town inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    White Ohio lesbians suing sperm bank over mixed-race baby
    Donkeys reunited at Polish zoo after sex scandal
    Two die, three injured after woman drops cell phone in toilet
    (China)
    Swiss Town: Have Cave, Want (Social and Outgoing) Hermit
    Davidson Co. home catches fire after man smoking tries blowing his nose
    (North Carolina)
    Jogger hospitalized after being hit by airborne deer (Dulles, Virginia)
    Alejandro Melendez Puts 911 Dispatcher On Hold To Complete Drug Deal (Cleveland, Ohio)
    Philly Bomb Scare Caused By Hotdogs At Ballpark, Mascot Implicated
    Reputed Colombian Drug Lord Complains Of Claustrophobia From His Prison Cell In New York
    Man In Wheelchair Robs 7/11 Of Condoms
    (Dallas, TX)
    Asian elephant cured in rehab of heroin addiction (Beijing, China)
    Python Kills Intern Zookeeper (Venezuela)

  3. Now go back through your description and circle any images you find. Make a column for at least three of the images you identified. Underneath them, write down what the image literally represents to the reader and then record the literal and abstract connotations that might arise from each image. For instance, if you wrote “the pig’s jowls, bearded in foam” for the first headline, you might come up with this: (10 min.)
  4. Literal Representation: the pig has just been drinking beer that produced the foam
    Connotations: the pig has rabid qualities; the beard implies a kind of personification, taking on of man’s roles/behaviors; the pig is out of control; the speaker is in awe of the scene and endangers herself by looking this closely at the pig; the pig is fat because of the word “jowls”; “jowl” is used in butcher charts, so therefore this pig is meat, it’s a commodity; the pig is adorned with things outside its natural habitat and therefore this poem suggests that there’s an intersection between nature and humanity; etcetera.

  5. Based on these literal and abstract connotations, select the image from your list that best represents you personal feelings about the people, objects, and/or actions in this narrative. Now rewrite the poem and end only on that image without explanation. (10 min.)

In Medias Res Exercise

Belauscht (1874) by Carl Wilhelm Hübner


Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Drama
Readings: Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Time: 45+ minutes

1. Have students pair off. One person per group should be in charge of transcription.
2. Leave the classroom. Take the students to a common area on campus like the student union, cafeteria, or the quad. Once you are there, have the groups split up and walk through the crowd. Encourage them not to linger in any one place. They should write down the most compelling and/or bizarre sentence they hear someone say. Examples: “I ate a whole pound of Swedish Fish and it cost me like 35 dollars!” “How old are you?” (10 minutes.)
3. Return to the classroom. Have each group pass their transcribed line to the group on their right.
4. On the board, write down a pair of character roles in a specific setting for each group. I gave my classes the following character/setting sets:

a. Two waste disposal workers on the back of a garbage truck.
b. A veterinarian and the owner of a pet in the exam room.
c. The host and a contestant on the game show.
d. A teenager with driver’s ed instructor in the car.
e. A police officer and an arrested person in cruiser.
f. A priest and a congregant in confession booth.
g. Two single people on a speed date at a bar.

5. Each group should read aloud the line passed to them. Assign character/setting sets to the groups based on these lines. Play it safe and assign the characters/setting to lines that seem natural, or see what happens if you make unexpected pairings. (Hint: Students often have more fun with unexpected pairings.)
6. The line provided will serve as the first line of the scene involving their assigned character/setting sets. Each student should assume the role of one of the characters. Each will respond to their partner’s line by passing the paper back and forth. (30 min.)
7. Share.

This exercise allows students to work collaboratively to create a narrative through dialogue, a skill that many of my students cite as the hardest thing to accomplish in their first plays. Additionally, their time in the crowd locates them in conversational rhythm and dynamics so that the information about the plot doesn’t seem unnatural to the conversation. The assigned lines provide them with an inciting action as well as a clue toward their new character’s personality. The hope is that once they are writing on their own, they will be able to recreate these investigative processes on characters of their own.