A Writing Teacher’s Favorite Writing Exercises

The author of the classic writing guide “Bird by Bird” shares some of her favorite ways to get the creative juices flowing.
  • Transcript


Question: What are the best writing exercises you know?

Anne Lamott: When I used to teach writing, I had lots of them, but writing fiction, short stories, and novels is really about creating—having to create some characters that we’re really interested in really quickly because the trick is, you’ve got to get people to turn the page, unfortunately.  Maybe in the books they’re only going to read the first two pages.  So you create a couple of characters that right away are interesting.  You put them in a situation where there’s tension and where the poor reader feels, “Oh God, I wonder what happens now?”  So I used to have people getting—people who couldn’t stand each other getting stuck in elevators, or metaphorically getting stuck in elevators.  Getting stuck in a situation where they really don’t want to be together.  Or, something is found, like in “Blue Shoe,” the novel from a number of years ago; something that is found as meaningless.  It’s a little tiny rubber blue shoe.  A high top, a Converse, I think, that with a perfectly delineated shoe lace, it’s almost microscopic in size in that little round label that doesn’t say Converse because it would be a copyright violation.  Those little things somebody got in a gumball machine, and yet to try to figure out why the father held onto it all those years, opens up... like in “The Wizard of Oz” when the movie goes from black and white to color.  It throws the family’s history into color.  And that’s not always a good thing.  It’s always a good thing, but it’s often very painful and disturbing and distressing.  And it’s often like the house of cards coming down, however, in color. 

And so that’s a situation I would often ask my students to write about, finding something that you instantly know is like—can’t think of the word.  What’s that thing—a talisman.  Or either something that is protective, or that’s something that sets the hero’s journey into motion. 

My experience of exercises is that they’re great when you’re in class or workshops, but for me, I kind of work daily on exercises, but that’s short assignments again.  I’m going to say to myself... like the other day I was actually writing and I had gone to a bilingual Good Friday service in San Francisco at one of the old mission churches from the days when Spain ruled over Mexico and then they established the mission system in California.  It’s a magnificent church and it is truly the people’s church.  And it is very bilingual and it’s very middle-class and poor.  And half of the mass is in Spanish, which I don’t speak, and half is in English.  And it’s so much richer when you can’t understand the words because it takes you to places inside yourself and inside the community expression of grief and hope and the great shalom that you are welcome both by God and by this one community.  And I was trying to write about it and it’s about huge themes.  But it was about a one-hour service.  And so I made that the title, "Bilingual Good Friday," just for now and I started writing about it.  But what it did was it made it possible for me to tell the story of a mother with a 8-month old grandson asleep in her arms when he wasn’t spluttering and making loud farting noises, usually at times of silence.  And with a best friend with a 40-year standing, in a community of almost entirely Hispanic people.  It had a beginning, it had a middle, and it had an end, and half of it was in a language I don’t speak. 

And so the exercise was just that, to capture it.  Now, I could have written 25 pages, but you personally, I know are not going to want to read it.  And I don’t know that you’re a Christian, I don’t know if you want to read about my family, and why I have such a woman as young as myself has such a young son has an 8-month old grandson with her.  But, so I wrote it and I wrote a really terrible first draft of it, which is always a first assignment.  And then I went back and I took out the stuff that wasn’t any good, or was kind of overwrought, or that was preachy, or that was lies.  And so what I was left with was about five pages.  And it was, I can say, it’s not well-written and I wrote it right before I left for tour, but it’s exactly what I had hoped to create. 

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen