Writing Exercises 101, 201, and 301

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Oh, the energy of autumnal days! Summer has its blisses, winter its purities; spring lays out romance and adventure, but these short weeks, the light falling like a voice into the distance — they grip me like nothing else. These are the days of the private pleasures of the mind opened into conversation, days in which I thrill at blank pages, new music, appointments fulfilled in the noise of crowds, and my breathe materialized in the cooling air. It’s a time of study and practice. It’s a time of education.

I don’t teach anymore, but I’ve always loved it, especially because I’ve had the fortune of driving at least a small variety of workshops, with a variety of different kinds of students at different levels of familiarity with the traditions that basically define the craft of writing. There are many ways to bend one into the doorway of this craft, and perhaps I’m emboldened by my distance from the profession, but I thought I could share some of my favorite exercises, ones I’ve either led, participated in, or simply heard about.

As is typical of my posts, I’m largely concerned with the writing of poems, but there should be plenty here for prose writers as well. I’ve divided these into the most straightforward categories imaginable — Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced — and while I have some definite reasoning for that, of course don’t feel like you need to adhere to any structure whatsoever. I’m always curious about new exercises and prompts, and I hope some of these stir some thinking for you, either as a teacher or a writer, or maybe both. The bell rings. Let’s begin.

Beginner

Teaching the beginning student of poetry is often, to me, about shaking them out of their preconceived notions. Largely this means freeing them from the constraints of canned rhyme and showing them how to make images rather than abstractions. These exercises have these goals in mind.

What’s in Your Room: This is actually an excellent exercise for K-12 students, and I’ve done it with both high school and elementary school students, but it can work well for college freshmen, too. It’s very simple: describe what’s in your room. You can stretch this any way that helps: describe what’s in the southwest corner of your room, describe the blue things in your room, describe the things you need to put away in your room. For further depth, have them linger on objects, elaborating for two sentences on a memory of that object, getting them to switch from tenses. The goal is not a finished piece but an exercise at materializing their identity, at seeing how objects harbor emotional meaning. I think of this as pure calisthenics — teaching them how to pan (while the setting is out-of-doors, you can look at James Wright’s famous poem “Lying in Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” for a great example of a skilled pan).

Sweet Reminiscence: Write a love letter — it can be romantic or platonic — that reminisces about a shared experience. It has to adequately describe the setting, activities, and begin to suggest implicitly why this experience was meaningful. Have them try to keep their lines short, no more than four stressed beats — it’s a good constraint that will force many to really consider syntax. This is a good exercise in scene building as well as well as framing — framing the memory in the present of the address.

No Similes Allowed: Address the difference between similes and metaphors, and have them write toward the latter. Control vehicle and tenors. You’ll have to think carefully about what is most productive. Usually it’s helpful if there is some resonance between them, like a similarity of physics or a proximity of sense: have them describe cloudscapes with the motions of animals, for instance. Have them describe a piece of music according to flavor and appetite. Have them describe a conversation like a sports match. Again, absolutely outlaw the use of “like” and “as” — they have to learn how to start using verbs and modifiers in new ways. You can have them just write example sentences, or they can employ the prompt in a finished poem. This can be a tough exercise, but for some students it really clicks.

A Day in the Life: The quotidian is a kind of intuitive, natural poetic subject, and I find it’s an easy way to get students are stuck in abstraction to looking at the material world around them — it gives them immediate material to work with. Tell your student to describe an eternal day — not any specific day with specific events — but something quotidian, with facets that recur over and over. What is the sky like when they wake up? What are the offenses of the surrounding world? Where do they find small opportunities for wonder? Where does the question of who they are open up again and again? Fill the prompt with abstractions, and don’t let them use their own, make them follow those abstractions into the real world.

Intermediate

Teaching intermediate students is all about getting them to read. All students, of course, should be reading, but I find intermediate students are at a good place to begin thinking about their own work in relation to that of established poets. It’s a good place to start assigning single collections and drawing on the techniques and idioms of those collections to inform your exercises. That’s obviously an improvisational approach that I can’t really address here, but I can offer some exercises that more directly engage some common techniques they will generally find in their reading lives.

Anaphora: I love this exercise because the momentum it encourages can be exciting and addictive to many students. You can choose the repeating clause (“By the river I … ,” “The day I was born … ,” “Otherwise it’s … ”) There are many wonderful poems you can use as an example, but I like fairly concentrated poems (i.e. avoid “Howl,” though there are plenty of good things to learn from that poem). I really like Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” and Donald Justice’s “Variations on a Text by Vallejo.”

Sestina: This is such a popular exercise that it’s almost a rite of passage, but it’s really effective and I’d be remiss to leave it out. The Poetry Foundation has a succinct description of the form, and if you want a good example, Elizabeth Bishop’s is probably the most famous.

Diction Matters: This is an exercise I’ve retooled several times, but the basic gist is to get students to write a poem in which they describe the same event twice, using different diction to try and effect a different tone. It’s an exercise I’ve pulled out of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” which — apart from being a marvelously good poem — is extremely helpful in teaching a variety of techniques. Years ago I was in a mood and wrote about it. Here it is.

Within Earshot: For this final intermediate example, I’d like to start looking toward more expansive exercises that challenge language in more fundamental ways. This exercise is a form of automatic writing: choose two students to each select a book they have on them. They can be textbooks, novels, comic books, anything — the more disparate, the better. It can be an HTML workbook and Moby Dick, a monograph on Latin American economics and a textbook on animal behavior, biochemistry and a history of Buddhism, whatever it is. Those two students pick pages and start reading aloud. Everyone else just records what they hear, what they want to hear, flitting back and forth between the texts, synthesizing them however they need to. Discourage straightforward transcriptions — have them open up and have fun.

Advanced

Advanced students are, of course, initiated into the fold — they are your real friends (I believe in this), part of your community. But they pose an interesting pedagogical problem. They are likely well along in their ways, invested in a style and wanting to develop it into real projects. You want to encourage this investment at the same time that you want to keep them open to possibilities. The exercises that follow are geared toward both of these goals.

My Life: I’ve never done this exercise, but I’ve always thought that it could make for a really cool semester-long assignment. It draws on Lyn Heijinian’s My Life, the structure of which you can read about here. This project verbatim isn’t really feasible over the course of a semester, but its spirt could inform a more modest assignment. Stick with the age thing: have students write a poem that is either the same number of lines or number of sentences as their age. Each week, they write a new poem that reincorporates, say, a third of those lines, reconfiguring, editing, or whatever as needed, and that also adds one additional line. Repeat each week. This would be an excellent way to reinforce — and I think it always needs reinforcing — the fact that their poems are malleable, that they should always be willing to take them apart and put them back together again.

Homophone: This is a sonically challenging exercise that is best done in small doses but which can really open up students’ ears. Simply write a homophonic replica of a line of verse or, especially, a song lyric. I think using extremely familiar song lyrics can be especially effective. I’ve done this with the lines: “If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake,” which can translate into something like: “Even the year cons the eye, beginning the ache.” Play around, give lots of examples and lots of possible prompts (or let them choose their own).

Antithetical Telephone: This is a brilliant exercise, especially to get advanced students working collaboratively. I learned it from Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton’s fabulous chapbook No Girls No Telephone, which I reviewed at NewPages. Pairs of students can begin with a source poem (like one of John Berryman’s Dream Songs), or one student can initiate the exercise with an original. The next student then simply writes the opposite: for instance, “She leapt past the farther shore” can become “He squatted before an immediate mountain.” Their senses of “opposite,” you’ll find, can be extraordinarily diverse, but you might give them a few examples (you can look at my review to retrieve some).

Revive Your Darlings: I’ve had more than one instructor remind me of this bit of Faulkner: kill your darlings. But why must they be dead forever? Of course, getting students to significantly revise work can be a challenge, partly because it’s, well, more work, and partly because of the anxiety of losing good things. This exercise relieves some of that anxiety and, I think, even further encourages deletion as a form of creation. I first conceived of this exercise a long time ago, when I used to write on an electric typewriter. That typewriter used correction tape, and when the spools of that tape were use up, I’d be left with these long ribbons written over with everything I ever backspaced over. I mean, how great is that? I would string these spools up like a kind of bunting around my office/laundry room. Probably none of you will have this prop (mechanical typewriters are so much nicer, if you want to go the analog route), but that’s okay, just do this: on the first day of class, have your students create a word document titled something like “Never Never Land” or whatever. This will be the repository of everything they delete over the duration of the class. Focus a lot on revision throughout the course, and remind them of this document every so often. Toward the end of the semester, they shape these deletions into a fresh work.

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These are just a handful of exercises touching on a variety of different techniques, and hopefully they will offer you and your students refreshing ways of approaching craft. Of course there are many resources out there for exercises such as these, so get out there. Adapt and adopt as needed, and good wishes for the good work so many of you do in the classroom every day.

 

Image: Young Men’s Christian Association, Broadview Ave., calisthenics class. Courtesy of Special Collections Toronto Public Library

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