A Writing Teacher’s Favorite Writing Exercises

Question: What are the\r\nbest writing exercises you know?


Anne Lamott: When\r\nI used to teach writing, I had lots of them, but writing fiction, short\r\nstories, and novels is really about creating—having to create some \r\ncharacters\r\nthat we’re really interested in really quickly because the trick is, \r\nyou’ve got\r\nto get people to turn the page, unfortunately.  Maybe\r\n in the books they’re only going to read the first two\r\npages.  So you create a couple of\r\ncharacters that right away are interesting.  You \r\nput them in a situation where there’s tension and where\r\nthe poor reader feels, “Oh God, I wonder what happens now?”  So I used to have people getting—people\r\nwho couldn’t stand each other getting stuck in elevators, or \r\nmetaphorically\r\ngetting stuck in elevators. \r\nGetting stuck in a situation where they really don’t want to be\r\ntogether.  Or, something is found,\r\nlike in “Blue Shoe,” the novel from a number of years ago; something \r\nthat is\r\nfound as meaningless.  It’s a\r\nlittle tiny rubber blue shoe.  A\r\nhigh top, a Converse, I think, that with a perfectly delineated shoe \r\nlace, it’s\r\nalmost microscopic in size in that little round label that doesn’t say \r\nConverse\r\nbecause it would be a copyright violation.  Those \r\nlittle things somebody got in a gumball machine, and\r\nyet to try to figure out why the father held onto it all those years, \r\nopens up...\r\nlike in “The Wizard of Oz” when the movie goes from black and white to\r\ncolor.  It throws the family’s\r\nhistory into color.  And that’s not\r\nalways a good thing.  It’s always a\r\ngood thing, but it’s often very painful and disturbing and distressing.  And it’s often like the house of cards\r\ncoming down, however, in color. 


And so that’s a situation I would often ask my \r\nstudents to\r\nwrite about, finding something that you instantly know is like—can’t \r\nthink of\r\nthe word.  What’s that thing—a\r\ntalisman.  Or either something that\r\nis protective, or that’s something that sets the hero’s journey into\r\nmotion. 


My experience of exercises is that they’re great \r\nwhen you’re\r\nin class or workshops, but for me, I kind of work daily on exercises, \r\nbut that’s\r\nshort assignments again.  I’m going\r\nto say to myself... like the other day I was actually writing and I\r\nhad gone to a bilingual Good Friday service in San Francisco at one of \r\nthe old\r\nmission churches from the days when Spain ruled over Mexico and then \r\nthey\r\nestablished the mission system in California.  It’s\r\n a magnificent church and it is truly the people’s\r\nchurch.  And it is very bilingual\r\nand it’s very middle-class and poor. \r\nAnd half of the mass is in Spanish, which I don’t speak, and half\r\n is in\r\nEnglish.  And it’s so much richer\r\nwhen you can’t understand the words because it takes you to places \r\ninside\r\nyourself and inside the community expression of grief and hope and the \r\ngreat shalom that you are welcome both by God and by this one \r\ncommunity.  And I was trying to write about it and\r\nit’s about huge themes.  But it was\r\nabout a one-hour service.  And so I\r\nmade that the title, "Bilingual Good\r\nFriday," just for now and I started writing about it.  But\r\n what it did was it made it possible\r\nfor me to tell the story of a mother with a 8-month old grandson asleep \r\nin her\r\narms when he wasn’t spluttering and making loud farting noises, usually \r\nat times\r\nof silence.  And with a best friend\r\nwith a 40-year standing, in a community of almost entirely Hispanic \r\npeople.  It had a beginning, it had a middle,\r\nand 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\r\nyou personally, I know are not going to want to read it. \r\n And I don’t know that you’re a\r\nChristian, I don’t know if you want to read about my family, and why I \r\nhave\r\nsuch a woman as young as myself has such a young son has an 8-month old\r\ngrandson with her.  But, so I wrote\r\nit and I wrote a really terrible first draft of it, which is always a \r\nfirst\r\nassignment.  And then I went back\r\nand I took out the stuff that wasn’t any good, or was kind of \r\noverwrought, or\r\nthat was preachy, or that was lies. \r\nAnd so what I was left with was about five pages. \r\n And it was, I can say, it’s not\r\nwell-written and I wrote it right before I left for tour, but it’s \r\nexactly what\r\nI had hoped to create. 


Recorded April 6, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

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

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