As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m teaching a short writing course at my daughters’ school. We had our second session this past Friday night, and, once again, I had my “students” do a couple of writing exercises in class. As I did last week, I did the exercises myself, right along with them, and found to my surprise that I loved the passages I wrote.
There was nothing terribly creative about the exercises I had the class do. Last week we worked on character development; this week we discussed point of view and voice. For the first exercise, I had the class write a scene in which the character they created during last week’s class meets the student him or herself (so when I wrote mine, I had the character I worked on the week before encounter me at a bus stop). I told them to write the scene in first person from the point of view of their character, not themselves. I wanted them to work on getting out of their own voices and concentrate on seeing the world (and, in this case, themselves) through the eyes of another.
I gave them (us) fifteen minutes to write, and then asked whoever was willing to read aloud what they had written. And wow! The quality of what they wrote blew me away. Their characters had depth, the voices in which they wrote were unique and clearly different from their own, and their scenes, though small, had coherence and story arc.
I assure you, this had nothing to do with anything I did as their teacher. Rather, I think the quality of their work, and also the quality of the passage I came up with, had everything to do with the conditions under which they were written. At the start of the fifteen minutes, most of my students said that they didn’t think they could write anything worthwhile in so little time, to which I basically said, “Well, try anyway.” But I have to admit that I was a little skeptical, too. That, in part, was why I wanted to try it myself. I make myself write everyday, so I figured that if I couldn’t do it, I could hardly fault them for having trouble.
After, I could tell that all of them were pleasantly surprised with what they had written in so little time.
And I think that the time factor was the key to it all. It certainly was for me. I didn’t have enough time to plan, or to worry about word choice, or to come up with something clever and complicated. I turned off my internal editor and I wrote. What I came up with was lean and funny and good enough that I want to find a way to work it into a larger story.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post in which I suggested a few writing exercises. Allow me to suggest a couple more, beginning with the one I had my students do the other night. (Exercise 1: Again, write a scene in which a character you’ve created meets you. Write the scene from your character’s POV, in first person.) We ran out of time on Friday night, but I intended to have them follow up that exercise with Exercise 2: in which they recreated that scene between themselves and their characters, this second time writing it in third person with themselves as the point of view character. Again, this pair of exercises is meant as practice on point of view and voice; it’s intended to force the writer to make each character sound unique.
Exercise 3: One more for voice and point of view. Gauge your own mood, and then write a short sketch of a character who is in the exact opposite mood. If you’re happy and content, make her ticked off. If you’re feeling relaxed, make her tense. Or vice versa. In other words, step out of your own emotions and step into your character’s.
Do you ever play with motifs in your work? This exercise might help. Exercise 4: Choose a person you know who you really don’t like and (after changing the name…) write a character sketch of this person using a food motif. Don’t overdo it. If your sketch is two pages long, don’t have more than three or four food metaphors or similes. But this can be a really fun one, as long as you don’t show it to the wrong people….
I’ll have my students do this one next week, when I plan to have them work on dialog. Exercise 5: Write an encounter between two characters and don’t use any direct dialog attribution. In other words no “he said” “she said” “he asked” “she asked” or any such phrases. Instead, use only descriptions of mannerisms, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. to indicate who is speaking. (So this would not be allowed: “‘Stop doing that,’ he said.” This would: “He glared at her. ‘Stop doing that.'”) This exercise can help writers avoid said bookisms (things like “he rasped” “she growled” “he hissed” “she exclaimed”) and also get them to look for more imaginative ways to describe conversations.
With all of these exercises, I would urge you to give yourself a set amount of time — use an oven timer or the alarm on your cell phone. Don’t take more than twenty or twenty-five minutes with any one of them. You’ll be surprised by how much time that is, and by how much you can get written in that time. As I said at the outset, I was surprised and delighted by the work I did in class the other night. I can’t wait to do more of these.David B. Coe