Archive for the ‘Invention Exercises’ Category

Write a ten line text. The text must include a proverb, adage, cliche or familiar phrase. You must change this expression in some way. In other words, it can’t be transparent or played straight. It must also include at least five of the following words:

  • cliff
  • blackberry
  • needle
  • voice
  • whir
  • cloud
  • mother
  • lick

You have ten minutes to complete this text.

Rationale: This exercies give us a fruitful way to use cliches to our advantage by not playing them straight. The time constraints combined with the list force us to act on them rather than get caught up in thinking and associations.

For later: What we have essentially done by adding constraints to our writing is created a form, of sorts. When writing poetry, devising forms often helps me to write sequences of poems that have overt connections or make me think through language in a certain way. If the constraint, form, or project seems productive, I follow Mei Mei Bersenbrugge’s advice and “play a form of feeling out to the end.” In other words, I go as far as I can. This can get us thinking beyond the single text while still focusing our attention on the single text. It is a step of invention that points toward something larger: project, portfolio, sequence, collection, or book.

Adapted from Rita Dove’s  “Ten-Minute Spill” in The Practice of Poetry, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, eds.

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Study this photograph for a long period of time, much longer than you normally would look at an image. Compose a text based on your study. It is sometimes helpful to attempt to write from the vantage point of one of the people in the story or to invent a perspective, like an animal or fly on the wall. It can take the form of a dramatic monologue or a story. Focus on using detailed images, images that might not be revealed by the photograph’s limitations. What is the weather like? What sounds do you hear? Is taste involved in any way? What kind of a tone is appropriate for this picture?

Rationale: A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Imagination can reanimate this scene using the picture as a vehicle. Ekphrasis or ekphrastic writing, writing that renders or dramatizes a visual work (art, building, photograph) has a long tradition. A famous example is W. H. Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts.”

For later: This style of exercise can form the basis for an ongoing project or investigation.

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I used to love show and tell, and this exercise is a repurposing of that great elementary school practice. Everyone has brought an intriguing object to class they feel has a story to tell. First, we will briefly present the story of the object to the class while the object itself gets passed from person to person. While the stories are presented, each person should take notes of some kind (take down the story verbatim, lists, key or interesting phrases, how people “name” the object, etc.).

Once the “show and tell” is over, you have gained a great deal of information that can be used as a source for a new text. For ten minutes, begin choosing interesting ideas or phrases from your notes to begin a text.

Rationale: As humans, we attach a great deal of meaning to objects and possessions, especially in our American culture, and these objects can become great images, metonyms, or motifs for our writing. We also tend to attempt to make connections when introduced to a body of disparate things or ideas, and this skill can come into play as we “read” the objects each other have brought into class. Realizing that this is a collaborative writing exercise, although the collaboration is implicit and not explicit (like in the exquisite corpse), can be helpful.

For later: Your notes can serve as the beginning of a project or series of texts. You can weave notes into a larger text. The objects can present images that can be worked into writings you have already begun. You can take words you wrote in the notes totally out of context and work with a list of words presented by the constraint of this assignment (a version of the name anagram assignment).

Note: Exercise adapted from “Intriguing Objects Exercise / “Show and Tell” (For a Group)” by Anne Waldman from The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, editors.

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Write for ten minutes with a text you’ve been reading open before you. Let the language of that text intrude into what you are writing in words, phrases, and whole sentences that draw your attention.

Rationale: The idea of using found language extends beyond overhearing people in public places and in conversation. It is also perfectly acceptable to include quotations and “translations” of other people’s work in your writing. All writing is dialogic. That is, it is in conversation with other writing from the past and may serve to be a conversation piece for the future.

It is also useful to think about how workshops let new ideas into our writing or make us rethink texts we may have wrote as we weigh our writing against that of others.

For later: Let intertextuality and investigation become part of your writing practice. Copy down lines, sentences or paragraphs wholesale into your composition book or journal. Write with other books open before you. Use the internet as you compose on the computer to gather information or investigate things that might be important to your writing. Make a collage of found texts. Cut and paste.

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Form four groups in class. Each group should have several sheets of paper. For the first five minutes of writing, the group should write questions and answers. The first person with the paper writes a question and folds the sheet over, covering the question. The next person writes an answer. Switch up once a paper is filled so that each person has had a chance to write questions and answers. Read the questions and answers aloud to your small group.

Example: Why go on living? / Because at the prison gates only keys sing.

Next, follow the same procedure of writing, folding passing, but use condidtionals. This means the first sentence should be written with “If…” The second statement should be written in the conditional or future tense and may begin with “then.”

Example: If octopi wore bracelets. / Ships would be towed by flied.

Rationale: These collaborative exercises, like the exquisite corpse are meant to be fun and surprising.

For later: Copy down some of your favorites from your group into your journal. Explore what it might possibly mean and produce a new text from that idea.

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“Let’s plan a murder. Or start a religion.”

-Jim Morrison

This exercise is a modification inspired by the above quote, but filtered through an exercise “An Execution” in The 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley (31).

Three voices are in an enclosed area or room. The voices need not be attached to human beings, and they may not be your own voice. The voices are in conversation with one another about planning an execution or starting a new religion, and the voices should drive this piece. The voices should know the other voices, but not too well. They should be the voices of everyday people.

For an execution: have the voices choosing the victim, planning the “why and how” of the act but do not have them carry it out. They should discuss an execution that seems justified to them, not a coldblooded murder or gangland execution.

For a religion: have the voices discussing or arguing over a new system of belief.You can use some tenets from existing forms of religious practice, but do not adapt a religion’s dogma and doctrine wholesale.

For either scenario, cultivate voices that are as as specific as you can make them. Be aware of the tone of your work.

Rationale: This exercise engages us with textual ethics while giving us a set of guidelines for a narrative, play or poem. We are asked to do some specific things, but many of the choices will be up to us.

As for ethics, is what we write a space that is free from ethics and morals? Does what we read and write affect the way we view the world, the plausability of possible actions? How do the morals and ethics of the author affect writing? These are extremely difficult but necessary questions.

This disconnect affects much of what we do in contemporary life, separating real life experience from verisimilitude. For example, I’m not a killer, but I play Halo, a game in which I kill beings. I don’t condone violence, but I enjoy watching movies like Raging Bull and Fight Club.

For later: Develop the voices you have created into full personalities or personas. Expand and refine the text you began in class or take these personalities and voices to new settings. Does knowing what you learned about these voices help you to figure them out as personalities?

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Use synesthesia to create a short text rooted in images. Synesthesia means talking about the use of one sense in terms of another i.e. hearing a color. Concentrate on using synesthesia to make specific, concrete, and enstranged images. Senses include sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

Rationale: Sometimes when we write, we get caught up in trying to make our images true. Using synesthesia allows us to keep the truth of an image while making it strange and something different from our experience of reality.

For later: Take an image that interests you from this assignment and build a story, poem, or essay around it. Invent a charater based on their experience of synesthesia.

*Adapted from The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.

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This is a collaborative writing game called the exquisite corpse. Each person in the group should take out a sheet of paper. Begin by writing a line or sentence, whatever comes to mind. Fold the paper so your line is barely covered. Pass the paper to your left. As you receive new paper, keep adding lines and folding over. By the time your paper returns to you, you will have a collaboratively authored text.

Rationale: The exquisite corpse is a surrealist technique that works for writing and also for collaborative visual art.  You will likely end up with a strange text that you could not have authored by yourself. Also, since many of the lines are not “yours,” you may feel more comfortable about revising them and trying different techniques to reshape the lines.

The best reason for doing this though is fun. It really is a game and should be treated as such. Many people do not value the play that is part of writing. It’s fun to race through creating a collaborative text. This can also be a great party game if you have friends who write. Keep making exquisite corpses and sharing with each other.

For Later: Read and reread the text you have. Blog about what you think it means. Revise it to make it make more sense or play up your interpretation of the meaning. Revise to make it more strange or wild. Break lines to make it a poem. Fill out phrases to make a story. Invent characters who speak the text in dialogue. The possibilities are endless.

Adapted from A Book of Surrealist Games edited by Mel Gooding

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First, write down a statement declaring your mental state: angry, hopeful, shocked, ecstatic, catatonic despair etc.

Now, write a text that simulates a mental state other than the one you declared. You can invent a character in this state and write in the first person.

Insanity is a fun state to choose…

Write for ten minutes, actively focusing on being in the mental state you are depicting.

Rationale: When we write, we often receive the direction our mind naturally inclines toward, which is a passive mental state. Freewriting or Automatic Writing harnesses this; letting the mind lead us where it will and separating mind from consciousness.

Affecting a mental state other than the one we declare in this exercise can be useful for inventing new writing or pushing characters in new directions even as we create them. It forces us to be active while still being inventive.

For later: Weave a character in this mental state into a story or play or invent a situation for the condition of your character.

This exercise is adapted from A Surrealist Book of Games, edited by Mel Gooding.

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Take the full name of someone you love. Using only the letters of that persons name, create a short text.

When I do this assignment, using say, my mother’s name, Kathleen Halle, I begin by making lists of words, from basic words like “a,” “the,” and “at” moving on to bigger words like “lean,” “hell,” or “ate.” Try to exhaust this word game first, and when you have a list populated with different parts of speech, start writing phrases and sentences.

Spend about 20 minutes making the list of words and beginning your text. Shoot for about 100 words your first draft.

Rationale: Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possibilities when encountering the blank page. This assignment gives us a way of severely limiting those possibilities (and possibly hinting at subject matter). Richard Hugo and Brian Kiteley, just to name two authors, advise working with a constraint like this to focus your writing. Caught up in the rules, our mind often unconsciously slips in what we really want to say, and in surprising ways.

For later: If you own Scrabble, take the game out, grab the letters you need from the name, and make new arrangements. Defamiliarizing the letters will help you eye to find things you couldn’t by looking at the name in its usual order. Making paper letter squares is fine if you don’t have Scrabble. Add in the new words or rearrange existing phrases or sentences to change your original draft.

When you revisit the text, you can be strict and adhere to the tenets of the original assignment or more forgiving, changing words and whole sentences.

Credit: This assignment is from the introduction to Brian Kiteley’s book The 4 am Breakthrough.

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