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.

Archaeology Exercise

Woman putting a letter in a post box, United States of America.
Caption: “FOR YOU, MY DARLING. COPYRIGHT BY A.L. SIMPSON 1909.”

Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Time: 40 minutes

I place many objects in the table or assign them at random to students. All of the objects are old: postcards, advertisements, mugshots, taxidermy instructions, a dried beaver face, etc.

1. Select a piece of ephemera from the center of the table.
2. Describe the object. What does it look like? What is/was it used for? How old is it? (5 min.)
3. Who owned this article? Who encountered it? Speculate on their perception/reaction would have been to the object. Would the object have some special importance to them? Would they have ignored the object? Describe a situation in which the object was previously encountered. Is it similar or different to your initial reaction? (10 min.)
4. Have you ever encountered something like this before? Make parallels to your experience with similar objects. Ex. If it’s an advertisement, talk about an experience or reaction to another advertisement. (10 min.)
5. Is there a public and/or private issue that this object and your memory causes you to consider? Does it make you think about identity? The ephemeral nature of life? A shift in culture or fashion? Cruelty? Art? Talk us through your thought process. (10 min.)
6. After thinking about this object in the context of speculation, memory, and meditation, has the object changed in meaning for you? Do you appreciate it more or less? (5 min.)

***Bonus step: Now switch objects with the person on your right. Describe this object. How does this new object compare or contrast to your old object? Does it raise similar issues?

Poetry Analysis Exercise

Détail de la carte de Montréal de 1859 faisant ressortir Pointe Saint-Charles.

Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A poetry packet featuring the poems listed below
Time: 30 minutes

Group 1: “Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them” (Shapiro) and “In the Waiting Room” (Bishop)
Group 2: “Perpetually Attempting to Soar” (Ruefle) and “The Lovers of the Poor” (Brooks)
Group 3: “Your Wild Domesticated Inner Life” (Banias) and “Dorothy’s Trash:” (Johnson)
Group 4: “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” (Levis) and “The Day Lady Died” (O’Hara)
Group 5: “The Mare of Money” (Reeves) and “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” (Corral)
Group 6: “Scrabble with Matthews” (Wojahn) and “Ode to Browsing the Web” (Wicker)
Group 7: “The streetlamp above me darkens” (Faizullah) and “A Pornography” (Rekdal)
Group 8: “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” (Gay) and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives” (Levine)

Read each poem assigned to your group. Answer these questions:

  1. What’s the dramatic situation of the poem? Meaning, what’s going on? What’s the scene or the conflict? (Ex. For Matthew Olzmann’s “Notes Regarding Happiness,” the speaker is attempting to post a happy birthday message on a friend’s Facebook wall.)
  2. How does each poem get from its beginning to its end? Is it narrative (a story) and therefore moves in a linear fashion? Are there associative connections between images? Examine the relationship between images in these poems.
  3. Describe the tone. Is the poet sincere?
  4. Describe the style of this poem. Is the language conversational or esoteric? What does the poem sound like?
  5. Describe the form of this poem. Is it in couplets? A single stanza? Etcetera? How long are the lines? Why do you think the poet chose this form?
  6. Do these two poets have anything in common in terms of their style, strategies, or motivation for writing?
  7. If you were going to write an imitation of one of these poets, who would you pick? How would you begin? Start drafting a few lines using the strategies you described above.

“Bluets” Exercise

“Dead City III (City on the Blue River III)” (1911) by Egon Schiele

Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Poetry/Nonfiction
Readings: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Time: 30 minutes

  • Identify one thing you have been obsessed with for quite some time.
  • Detail a direct encounter with that thing. Be as descriptive as possible.
  • Name the first person you can think of who is missing from your life.
  • Write down something you never told them. (A confession, an idea, a story, etcetera.)
  • Remind that person of something you did together. Tell the narrative.
  • Is there a connection between the thing and the person? Explain.
  • Write down the first thing and then write the next five words that come to your mind in an associative chain from one word to the next.
  • Now pick one of those things on the list and write about an encounter you had with that thing.
  • Repeat previous steps.
  • “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.)

    Literally I wrote

    Why are things happening literally in student creative writing? 

    If “literally” is not present, does that mean things are happening metaphorically?

    If “literally” is emphasis to ensure us that something is happening exactly as it’s said, does that mean other sentences embellish the details?

    Or does “literally” work like a double negative with the meaning of the sentence so that we should see the exact opposite?

    Or is “literally” used in a very nonliteral sense? Is it literally literal or literally nonliteral?

    Is it literally necessary to use “literally”?

    Is “literally” a literal word? Or is “literally” a nonliteral word?

    The Shape of Words

    ImageIn Design as Art, Bruno Munari writes, “Not only does each letter of a word have a shape of its own, but all its letters taken together give shape to the word.” When we read, we read the shape of the word if the word is familiar to us. If the word is unfamiliar, we must read the shape of each letter, attributing sound to each one and combining them. We use this amalgamated sound to attempt to locate meaning. We troll our memories for previous usage. We look at context. If we’re scholars, we might even recognize roots and stems. In effect, in all of these investigative processes, we look to the history of the word—personal, textual, or etymological—in order to understand its present meaning.

    Sometimes when I’m tired or sick or otherwise impaired, however, I look at words and they’re only shapes; they mean nothing. It makes reading more akin to viewing visual art, a Rothko perhaps. I look at the whole page, the shape, and the rivers of white across the lines. I see the words as bodies, as segmented insects. Regardless of whether or not I view the shape of the letters or words, meaning becomes untethered to those shapes. They become tangible. I care more for the vessel than what it contains.

    While this as a permanent condition could be problematic, the transient aphasia provides me with a means to reboot language, the way time seems new and fresh on those rare and brief occasions when I forget how old I am. It reminds one that language is a symbol rather than an incarnation and that, in order for language to mean, I must be present. I must supply language with meaning. Reading is a transaction rather than a gift of information.

    Words need me as much as I need them. When I realize this, suddenly the axis shifts again, and those shapes suddenly have definition.

    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.)