I designed a new writing exercise for my MFA creative nonfiction workshop last week, and contrary to what a good teacher should have done (stating the objective of the exercise before leading the students through it) I purposely eliminated that step and jumped right in. I didn’t want the students to write toward an objective, thereby thinking too much about the purpose of their responses to my cues. Instead, I wanted them to be open to leaps and associations and surprises and the texture such things can lend to a piece of creative nonfiction.
As promised, I’m now sharing this exercise with you:
1. Make a list of three adjectives. Any three. Don’t think too hard. Just do it.
2. Make a list of three objects that have recently become “unforgettable” to you in some way. Three objects from the current time or the recent past that you can’t get out of your head.
3. Make a list of three abstractions, but try to avoid nouns that could also be transitive verbs. Nothing that could be turned into a statement such as “I love x,” or “I hate y.” Stick with things like”limbo” or “harmony.”
4. Choose an adjective from your list, an object, and an abstraction. Do it in that order. Add a preposition or an article as necessary. Write the title of your essay (e.g. “Pretty Dog Leash in Limbo”). Note: now that you know you’re creating a title, feel free to switch out any of the words for others on your lists.
5. Write a few lines about the object you’re chosen. Why have you been thinking about it lately? Give us a context for why this object is important to you.
6. Write a few lines that evoke the abstraction you’ve chosen without naming it. How does the abstraction convey your emotional response to the object? In what way does thinking about the object leave you unsettled, uncertain, or whatever your emotional response turns out to be?
7. Write a few lines that evoke the adjective you’ve chosen without naming it. Give us a sense of its relationship to the object. Is it ironic, for example, or genuine?
8. Write a few lines about another object, story, or memory that comes to you right now. We’re working with free association here. Look for words or phrases or images that subtly connect to what you’ve already written. If you need a prompt, here’s one: “When I think of that dog leash, I remember (fill in the blank with another object, a story, a memory).”
9. Make a direct statement about where the second object, story, or memory takes you in your thinking. Here’s a prompt: “I begin (or began) to think about (fill in the blank however you’d like).” The emphasis with this last step is to let the texture of the writing invite an abstract thought, conclusion, question, speculation, etc., thereby allowing the central line of inquiry of the essay to grow organically from what precedes it.
Since this is a new exercise, I’m particularly interested in what you think. My students, in our post-writing debriefing, talked about how the exercise led them to unexpected connections, became a process of discovery, forced them to “push through” material that was a bit uncomfortable for them, and in general led them to things they wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. I’m hoping this exercise will be helpful for those writers who want to write in forms that aren’t predominantly driven by narrative and who are more interested in dealing with recent material rather than the distant past.