Creative Writing

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Class Activities

Write a character based on one of the below photos. What can you figure out about who they are based upon what is in their fridge?
We have stories held within us, sometimes we just need something that surfaces them. A writer and artist sees things for what they are, but they also see things as tools for excavation. Tools to coax stories out. A Monument for the People Look through the monuments written by people for the people. See if a story surfaces. If one does not, follow this story structure using one of the monument descriptions from the website: A character (they’re not the focus) notices a monument of some sort. Use sensory writing to show the monument. Suddenly we are transported away in time and space to the people/person for whom the monument was constructed. Set us in one of these two scenarios: The monumental person is doing the thing for which the monument gets made. The monumental person is doing something mundane.
Erasure Poetry
Sometimes it’s easier to find something to say when the words are already on the page. Digital Version: Searching for Poetry in Prose (Published 2014)
This artist allows his mind to run free with ideas. Drawings lead to new ideas which lead to new drawings which lead to new ides. Etc. Doing this helps an artist to think of more than they would if they committed to an idea immediately. Find a random photo or video from your camera roll. Doesn’t matter what it is. Use it as inspiration to get your first sentence down. Write for 5 minutes. Once the 5 minutes is up, pick one line/word from what you wrote and use it as a starting place for new writing. Pretend the first thing you wrote no longer exists. See where this new writing takes you. Write for 5 minutes. Once again, pick one of the lines you just wrote and use it as a diving board for new ideas. Write for 3 minutes. Once the time is up, you’ll have three different chunks of writing. They could be related; they might be strikingly different. Read through all the sections, and then, for a final 7 minutes, write whatever you want. You’ll have an idea, I promise. Explore many avenues, zoom out, then commit to a path.
Pick one of these photos and write about the person’s headspace/emotions/thoughts.
Hermit Crab
The general definition is that you borrow a form from a different genre and use it for what you’re writing. Example? Writing a love letter in the form of a recipe card or IKEA furniture instructions. Could be weird. Could be cool. Brenda Miller, for example, wrote an essay by borrowing from the poetic form of a pantoum. Her essay is called “Pantoum for 1979.” It’s very good.
Make a Zine for a Friend
Zines are cool. Make one for a friend. (Pronounced like “zines” at the end of “magazines.”) Here’s a video explaining how to make one using the method I learned from Austin Kleon. Inspiration/Examples
The idea comes from a scanned page of some book (possibly De/Compositions by W.D. Snodgrass). To appreciate and study great writing, it can be helpful to make it bad. Plus, making someone else’s writing bad feels more doable than making our own writing great. Here’s an example. The top section is the original; the bottom is the one that the author de/composed. Do both versions say the same thing? Fundamentally, yes. But the first one says it much better and thus says more. Take a few of these excerpts from below and de/compose them. EXAMPLES TO DE/COMPOSE Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Frank Herbert, Dune “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Cormac McCarthy, The Road “Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that. You forget some things, dont you? Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.” Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem “…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night” “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo “He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘Wait and Hope.’” T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” William Ernest Henley, “Invictus” “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”
Character Exercises
Great characters are idiosyncratic (quite the word, huh?). Alice LaPlante says the best characters are “round” which means they are surprising and convincing. They feel like real people. They are unique. Here are a few exercises to help make your characters real in your own mind. Proust Questionnaire Pretend you are interviewing your character. Ask them some of these questions and write down their answers. Questions (source). 1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? 2. What is your greatest fear? 3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? 4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? 5. Which living person do you most admire? 6. What is your greatest extravagance? 7. What is your current state of mind? 8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? 9. On what occasion do you lie? 10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? 11. Which living person do you most despise? 12. What is the quality you most like in a man? 13. What is the quality you most like in a woman? 14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 15. What or who is the greatest love of your life? 16. When and where were you happiest? 17. Which talent would you most like to have? 18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 19. What do you consider your greatest achievement? 20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? 21. Where would you most like to live? 22. What is your most treasured possession? 23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? 24. What is your favorite occupation? 25. What is your most marked characteristic? 26. What do you most value in your friends? 27. Who are your favorite writers? 28. Who is your hero of fiction? 29. Which historical figure do you most identify with? 30. Who are your heroes in real life? 31. What are your favorite names? 32. What is it that you most dislike? 33. What is your greatest regret? 34. How would you like to die? 35. What is your motto? Dinner Experiment Imagine some of your characters are sitting at a table for dinner at a restaurant. The server comes with the food but spills it. How do the characters respond? How do they respond to each others’ responses? Mood Board Build a mood board on Pinterest for your character. Bedroom Describe your character’s bedroom. Write down as much as you can think of.
Context (Banksy)
Meaning is derived from context. The words, “I’m lost” mean something different if the speaker is in a chemistry class as opposed to when they’re hiking. This video reveals how much context impacts meaning. Bob Ross was referring to his own painting, but Banksy uses his words and applies it to his own process of making art. At the same time the meaning of Bob Ross’s words change when they are applied as commentary on Banksy’s finished piece. Finally, the camera zooms out and the “canvas” Banksy was painting acts as context for the work which adds more meaning for the final piece. Instructions Take a copy of a page from any story. Then decontextualize it by cutting out lines you like, gluing them to a page, and filling in the gaps with your own writing. The end product could be a story or a poem or whatever. Here’s mine:
Dialogue Remix
Now that you’ve completed the “Eavesdropping” challenge you should have a transcript of dialogue. Pick one of the following four options to do as a writing exercise: Choose one of the speakers and tell the story of the situation from their perspective (1st person narration). You can take any creative liberties you like, but use the dialogue and situation as a starting point. Change the tone or style of the dialogue. If you were to change the tone, you’d adjust the emotion behind the words. If the initial conversation were happy, you’d keep the words but try to make it feel sad/angry/longing/etc. If you were to change the style of the dialogue you’d keep the meaning of each phrase, but change up the way it is said. For example: “I’m afraid of the dark.” >> “The dark. There’s just something about it that I can’t stand.” Pick three lines from the transcript. Remix their order. Use them as anchor points and write a new dialogue/scene that eventually uses all three lines in their adjusted order. Change the conversation by deleting one of the speaker’s lines and replacing them with a new character.
Take a look at these drawings. The image works because of lines that are absent. What the artist leaves out, the brain fills in. Balance must be achieved, though, because too little suggestion leads to a mind far afield. Too much detail, such that the piece is crammed, and there’s no room for the viewer to be surprised. Here are some written examples for you to consider. They aren’t intended to progress from worst to best but instead give you options to think about. Sam was 10 years old and had buck teeth that were almost too big for his mouth. It was time to get ready for school, so he loaded his blue Jansport backpack with his yellow and green and blue spiral bound notebooks, his pencil pouch shipped from Singapore, and his lunch made by his father who was leaving for his job as an architect. In addition to making his lunch, his dad also drove him to school in their black Honda Accord, which was due for an oil change. (Is this example filled with too much detail? Or does this author simply lack purpose? Why the dad? Why Singapore? Why mention all the notebooks? Why the car in need of an oil change?) Consider this: Sam stood in front of the mirror flexing his upper lip and pulling it down with his fingers. Until recently, his buckteeth had just been his teeth. Now, he became conscious of what they really were: different. His chest raised with a deep breath, and he exhaled onto the dirty mirror which fogged over. He drew a happy face. No buckteeth. “C’mon Sam, if you don’t hurry, we’ll both be late!” He rubbed the image out with the side of his hand, shoved his stuff in his backpack, and ran down the stairs. His dad was holding out a sack lunch. “Ready, Sambo? Feeling good?” (It’s still detailed, but the detail is selective.) One more: Sam looked in the mirror and smiled. He hadn’t thought much about his smile until recently. It hadn’t ever looked good or bad, it was just a thing he did when he was happy. Now, it was a thing he tried not to do, even if he was feeling great. His dad called for him to hurry up, so he grabbed his backpack and shuffled down the stairs. (Is this too loose? Or does it still work?)
Holding Attention
The path to fresh writing is fraught with pitfalls. The writer can easily misstep to the cliché or the brash. Cliché writing often comes when the writer accepts their first thought without a second glance. Brash writing comes when the writer tries too hard to be unique and selects words and images that aren’t fully settled into the piece or purpose. In an effort to be unique the words end up feeling out of place. Take a look at this excerpt from Arthur Plotnik’s book Spunk & Bite: Plotnik includes an exercise to help the writer craft fresh and pleasantly surprising writing. I’ve adopted that activity here: Pick a few of these sentences and replace the bracketed word with a fresh description: The way nobody responded left him feeling [insignificant]. Her busyness was [deceitful] because she didn’t actually get much done. The sun rises the way [metaphor for something peaceful]. The engine [rumbled] as she drove past. I’ve never had a pizza so [delicious]. They were on the lookout for trash to turn into treasure, [sifting] through what the city left behind.
Write a character based on one of the below photos. What can you figure out about who they are based upon what is in their fridge?
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