To Write a True Thing

I’ve just returned from teaching a novel workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, and I want to share a writing exercise that I hope will help you know your characters better while also allowing your own vulnerability to take you to a deeper level of engagement with the material. The greater your engagement, the greater will be the reader’s.

First choose a character from one of your novels, stories, essays, poems, and make a list of all the objects that you’ve already given that character ownership of in your draft. What does she have on her dresser, what does she carry in her pocket, what sort of knickknacks does she have in her living room, what has she hidden away in her closet? Just list all the “things” of her life. Then look for an anomalous object, one that doesn’t seem to fit in with the personality that the other objects suggest. If you’re writing a piece of memoir or a personal essay, you’ll have to rely on the facts to recall that one item that was out of the ordinary. If you’re writing a poem, you might want to catalog all the images in the draft and then ask yourself whether there’s a new image wanting to come into the poem, one that will be surprising in some way. If you’re writing fiction, you’re free to create this anomalous object.

When the writers in my workshop did this exercise, they sometimes found themselves creating objects that had some sort of personal emotional significance. As a result, they found themselves more emotionally engaged with their characters. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable on the page, but first we have to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable in our lives. If we’re not feeling, if we’re not risking, we’re just moving words around on the page. We’re performing technical exercises that don’t require, and, therefore, don’t receive or emit, any sort of emotional resonance.

Now take that anomalous object, and create a brief story of how someone came to own it. Did they inherit it, buy it, find it, steal it? Why can’t they bring themselves to part with it? Then see if you can use this as a prompt to write more about that character’s vulnerability. Begin with, “I (or he, or she, or you, depending on the point of view you’ve chosen) couldn’t let anyone know that. . . .” What does your character fear will happen if someone finds out about that object?

To write a true thing, a thing that comes from our hearts and our glorious and complicated places in this world, we sometimes have to come at the material in an indirect manner. Often an object, especially one that doesn’t seem to belong, can turn out to be exactly right.




  1. Dawn Boyer on August 17, 2015 at 11:39 am

    Well, you know what happened when I did this wonderful exercise in the workshop with you! I’m still more than a bit stunned at what happened–a character’s voice and storyline that had been eluding me became audible and visible and three-dimensional, things resonated on levels I don’t yet quite fully comprehend, and I got a chapter written because of it. I became deeply immersed; I “tapped in” to the underlying vulnerability and fragility of a particular character and her grief. It was the perfect illustration of how we can get to a deeper truth in fiction only by coming at the material “slant,” and I knew I was onto something important because I got chills and was shaken to the point of tears, not only when writing the story behind the object but by the object itself when it popped up out of nowhere. It scared me, actually, because I didn’t know if I’d be up to doing justice to the story behind it. And that’s when I knew I had to walk through the doubt and fear and write it. As difficult as it was to explore my character’s painful secret, it was also liberating, because now she is no longer being pushed around on the page the way she was before. Now I can love her and empathize with her and feel tender toward her. Now I can give her the care she deserves in her story. What a breakthrough. Thank you, Lee. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on August 17, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      Dawn, I loved what you created from this exercise. I agree with Jeanne that the voice you found was haunting and beautiful. Keep doing the good work.

  2. Jeanne Voelker on August 17, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    That was a powerful connection you made, Dawn, and the resulting prayer and voice you found are haunting. I hear it still today.
    In my case, I was able to connect with one of the least likeable characters in my entire story, find an emotional vulnerability in him, and feel for him. The connecting object–a small toy top made of wood–surprised me exceedingly and touched my heart.

    Thank you, Lee. I will be using this exercise again and again.

    • Lee Martin on August 17, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      Jeanne, I’ve often used this exercise to find an emotional vulnerability in less than admirable characters for exactly the same end that you did–to increase my empathy for that character. I’m so glad you get to spin that top now!

  3. Ellen Weeren on August 24, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    This sounds like a fantastic exercise and I can’t wait to try it! I’ve come to your website because Nick White speaks so highly of you as a teacher (and of course a writer). Thanks for sharing this!

    • Lee Martin on August 24, 2015 at 8:36 pm

      Thanks, Ellen. Anyone who knows Nick White is all right with me! I’d love to know how the exercise turns out for you. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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