Do exercises really help writers to write?
Kate Mosse, bestselling author of Labyrinth, says that writers ought to practice writing in much the same ways as musicians practice the scales. She is not alone in suggesting that if we are serious about writing we should treat it like a job of work, writing even when we haven’t got a story idea scratching at the inside of our skulls demanding to be written. We should write when we don’t feel like it. Write when we haven’t got time. Write when we don’t know what to write about, and it is here that creative writing exercises can become part of a regular routine.
Not all exercises are equal though, as I was acutely aware when I started to edit BACK TO CREATIVE WRITING SCHOOL. I’ve developed a couple of hundred exercises over nearly 10 years of teaching at university and in adult education and community centers. The first exercises I discarded were those that only work well in a group.
For example, I’ve created an exercise that interrogates Kurt Vonnegut’s fifth rule of writing: start as near the end as you can. Class members are asked to re-write Hansel and Gretel, but each one is given a different starting point, ranging from Gretel pushing the old witch into the oven to the children meeting up with contrite Dad again. Those that are asked to start the fairy-tale after the gingerbread house stage would be justified in feeling that they have been given the sticky end of the lollypop, but it is their stories (or in reality part stories) that create the debate as we discover together just how far Vonnegut’s commandment can be pushed.
Other exercises were jettisoned because I knew from experience that they sometimes require further reflection and explanation during the activity or that their primary purpose was to make people feel comfortable reading aloud in front of strangers. The ones that made the book had to work for a solitary writer with no guarantee of feedback. In addition, they also had to have a useful goal that would stay with the writer after the book was put away and forgotten.
Some exercises aren’t so much writing as thinking with a pen in your hand. My suspense template fits into this category. It isn’t a test of writing skills, because there is no such thing as great template literature, but it is a good way of feeling the rhythmic flow of a story line. Other times the exercise is designed to fling strange ideas together because it is the lucky accidents, the unexpected way two words rub against each other that can sometimes set the imagination alight.
I have to be honest and say that there are exercises that I wouldn’t consider. You might have used them yourself and found them valuable, but I long ago went off lists of story prompts that read like a masochist’s prayer: you are lost in a forest and it’s getting dark; you live in a world where no one has sex; you cannot remember your own name. It strikes me that the originator of these prompts hasn’t thought them through – it feels as though they are passing the baton on without having any clear idea where the finishing line is.
And there is too much you, you you. What about characters? What about writing the other…?
They are also a world away from the kind of prompts that the poet Ted Hughes used. Here are some he came up with:
The laughing merchant – attempts to kill him only make him laugh louder.
Fish tossed ashore for a moment, then recovered by the next wave…
Houses you have lived in, personified as people…
Single old shoe on moor…
Those are the kind of prompts that feed the writer. Sylvia Plath’s poem Mushrooms grew from one of them
I have also taken against the walk-in-the-woods type exercises, often found in well-meaning books where you are instructed to go outside in a vague commune-with-nature way.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy exercises where you are encouraged to leave the keyboard and gather snippets of overheard conversation, observe the way light changes colors and focus on the shoes people wear. It is the quasi spiritual ones I dislike because most writers and would-be writers know how to do that already, it is one of the reasons they want to write. It is the next stage, and the stage after that, exercises have to address,
Exercises, however, are more than just a way of filling an idle half hour. Back to Ted Hughes again; he saw them as a testing ground, a call to action.
“barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells.”
You can be flung in unexpected directions by an idea born in someone else’s imagination. Skewering that idea and making it your own, slicing it up and transforming it, is part of the apprenticeship scheme that all writers are enrolled in and which we never quite graduate from.
So, to answer the question I posed at the top of this post, it seems to me that writing exercises have the potential to help us explore new ways of doing things and new ideas. The best of them help us to create and the worst make us hurl books and kindles across the room (not a good idea with latter) and reach for the wine bottle.
I like Kate Mosse’s approach to the everyday routine of writing, but I’m not convinced her comparison altogether works. We are not like violinists who repeat the same sequence of notes in a search for perfection. Writers do the same thing again and again – describe falling in love perhaps or the color of blood – but each time it’s different. And it is in the difference that we find our art.
Practice writing doesn’t exist: there’s just writing.
And anyway we don’t do perfect.
A version of this post originally appeared on Janice Harvey’s blog for writers Fiction University