Writing Prompt: Through Their Eyes

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Prompt

In a poem or a few paragraphs of prose, describe a pleasant scene from the eyes of a character who just experienced/is experiencing a negatively impactful or otherwise traumatic experience. However, you may not explicitly state what this experience is but instead provide clues through the narration of the piece.

Examples of situations:

  • A sunset through the eyes of a person who just lost a loved one.
  • A young couple holding hands through the eyes of a person who just went through a break-up.
  • The woods through the eyes of a person with depression.
  • Children laughing in the park through the eyes of a person who had a traumatic childhood.
  • Parents singing to their baby through the eyes of a person who can’t have children.

Rationale

A typically pleasant scene can stir not only pleasant emotions but also unpleasant, at times painful emotions depending on the past experiences of a person. A traumatic event can severely influence how a person perceives the world around them, and conveying this in writing is a powerful tool in producing empathy in readers as well as the writer him/herself, if not catharsis if it reflects personal experiences. In addition, learning to shape the narration to fit the eyes of a person with a specific experience without explicitly telling the reader what this experience is allows you to train your brain to think deeper and more carefully about the descriptions you use and the thoughts and reactions your characters have to this pleasant scene. Sometimes what is not said can convey a lot more than what is said.

For Later

In your writing throughout this class and beyond, think about how you might juxtapose elements like this (typically pleasant ideas tainted by the narrator’s unpleasant perception). It adds a layer of depth in your writing, conveying how there’s more to a text than the scene taking place. A layered piece of writing is typically more thought-provoking than a piece of writing where the text itself is to be taken at face value.

Writing Prompt: A Little Bird Told Me Some Writing Advice That Is Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, or The Cliché Problem, er Problematizing the Cliché

At the end of the day, clichés are as American as apple pie. My writing teachers used to tell me, “when stuck between a rock and a hard place, don’t beat around the bush, use clichés.” At the time I was wet behind the ears and waiting for the cows to come home when pigs fly, so I felt dumber than a box of rocks when I tried to get down to brass tacks. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t tell my ass from a hole in the ground, so I was glad to learn every gray cloud has a silver lining. Writing is feast or famine, so it’s best to just go with the flow.

I felt like a fish out of water when I first put pen to paper, but from humble beginnings come great things. I said to myself “don’t put the cart before the horse, go at a snail’s pace.” Even if your nutty as a fruitcake, there’s nothing new under the sun to write, especially if you’re stone cold sober.

I learned if I just keep on truckin’, I’d soon have more writing than you can shake a stick at. If you just take it one day at a time, eventually you’ll hit paydirt and write something that will make others green with envy. If not, shit happens.

So don’t just sit there looking as useless as tits on a bull; there’s no time like the present to try your hand at writing. Then again, maybe clichés are not my cup of tea, and perhaps I’ve only opened a can of worms by giving clichés a place in the sun. Anyhoo, I’ve never been too good at seeing the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s best to just wash my hands of the whole thing, but you can bet your bottom dollar that every bump in the night can turn an armchair quarterback into an old pro when it comes to writing.

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Prompt
Write a ten-line or ten-sentence 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 used in the traditional way, 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.

You’ll have our undying admiration if you are able to use all ten words or writing two ten-line/ten-sentence texts.

Rationale
Using a cliché means using an automatic expression, turn of phrase, or idiom that has entered the general consciousness to the point where it is banal and hackneyed. They are usually extremely common expressions and are generally derided as uncreative in creative writing courses. When readers encounter a cliché or an automatic expression, they do not have to do any work to unpack the phrase or think about its place in the text, which means the text will have less resonance.

When you find yourself using a cliché, it usually means you’ve run up against a barrier in your writing. In other words, you’ve hit a place where language fails to present estranged, novel, or unique ways of creating.

This exercise gives us a fruitful way to use clichés 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
When you revise your writing, try to identify and replace all instances of cliches or automatic writing, including obvious physical and emotional descriptions as well as idioms, with more compelling choices that reflect your emerging style as a writer.

Beyond sentence-level cliches, character types and plots can also be clichés, so try to also be mindful of writing worn-out characters and plots.

 

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

Writing Narration: Voice

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Prompt

Rewrite your third (i.e. most in-depth) passage from Tuesday’s writing prompt three times (at least ½ – 1 page long each), this time using first-person narration. In each of the three rewrites, convey a different voice in your character’s narration, so that you have three passages with an identical plot but each with a distinctive personality narrating the scene. The voice (and therefore personality) of your protagonist should be clearly differentiable among the three. To do this, think about who your character is: Male or female? Old or young? Witty or serious? Outgoing or reserved? Uptight or laidback? Anxious or confident? A realist or an idealist? A leader or a follower? The list is endless. The traits the three versions of your character have will influence how they perceive the world, and this should be visible through their voice in the narration.

Rationale

Experimenting with voice allows you to practice writing characters with distinctive personalities, so you are not merely writing characters with indistinguishable voices, which, more often than not for beginning writers, sound a lot like their own. As you establish the voice that suits your character best, the more you will get a sense of the kind of person they are and how they might react to certain situations. Then the story will begin to build around this information on its own.

For Later

As you write in this course beyond, should you choose to do so, use this exercise to explore the possible voices for your characters so they become distinctive. Draw from your past experiences of interactions with different people, analyzing the way they speak or their perceptions of the world and adapt it for your characters to make it more realistic. Build your characters into people.

Writing Narration: Execution

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Prompt

Write three passages written in third-person narration, each conveying the same plot but using different structures: the first merely a summary-like “skeleton” of the scene (At least a few sentences long); the second fleshing it out by adding the “meat” such as dialogue, sensory description, distinctive characters, etc. (At least one lengthy paragraph); and the third an alternative, more in-depth retelling, using a more fleshed-out structure (At least 1/2 – a single page long).

The final structure should be at least ½ – 1 page long.

Example:

  1. Joke woke. He tossed the covers back. A moment later he was standing by the bed on the rug.
  2. Joe woke. Dragging one hand from beneath the covers into the chill, he twisted the heel of his thumb against one eye socket. Then he snagged his fingers around the coverlet’s edge. He raised it—and the chill slid down his arm, along his side some eighteen inches. Dragging in a breath, he raised the covers further. Somewhere below, something put two cold palms over his kneecaps. He heard breath halt a moment in his throat. The bedding beneath his shins was suddenly so warm. He gave the quilt’s rim a toss and began to kick free even before it fell, off below the bottom of the t-shirt he slept in these November nights. One foot made it from the mattress edge, then the other—as the first slid from under the blanket to hang an instant, an isolate entity out in the cold room. He pushed into the pillow with his fist, so that his shoulders rose; his feet lowered. A moment later he was standing by the bed on the rug.
  3. Waking assailed Joe and retreated, a wave foaming up and sliding from the sands of day. At its height, there was a sense or a memory of dark green sheets beneath his belly, his knees, the pillow bunched under his shoulder, the quilt across his ear. Rising and retreating at an entirely different oscillation was sexual desire, now an unfocused and pulling emptiness, now a warm fullness in the groin, a sensitivity within his slightly parted lips under the susurras of breath. Somehow the cycles met. He opened his eyes—aware of the room’s silence. (But what had he been aware of before…?) He could feel the dawn moisture drying along his lower lids. Dragging one hand from beneath the covers into the chill, he twisted the heel of his thumb against one eye socket. Then he snagged his fingers around the coverlet’s edge. He raised it—and the chill slid down his arm, along his side some eighteen inches. Dragging in a breath, he raised the covers further. Somewhere below, something put two cold palms over his kneecaps. He heard breath halt a moment in his throat. The bedding beneath his shins was suddenly so warm. He gave the quilt’s rim a toss and began to kick free even before it fell, somewhere below the bottom of the t-shirt he slept in these November nights. One foot made it off the mattress edge, then the other—as the first slid from under the blanket to hang an instant, an isolate entity out in the cold room. He pushed into the pillow with his fist, so that his shoulders rose; his feet lowered. The shag rug’s nap trickled his soles, till the weight of his legs crushed it away beneath. Every damned bone in his feet had to move this way or that a couple of millimeters, it seemed, to get into the right position—and in the left foot, that hurt! He pushed himself forward, the hem of his limp t-shirt swinging forward over his upper thighs. As his body lifted, a cold blade of morning slid beneath his buttocks and down toward the backs of his knees. (Somewhere the springs clashed, muffled below the mattress.) It felt as if someone were shoving at his right kidney with the flat of a hand. He put his own hand there to rub the feel away. He blinked, standing in the silent room, flexing his chill toes on the rug, aware (or was it more a memory of something he’d been half conscious of before waking?) he had to go to the bathroom.

–“Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” by Samuel Delany.

Rationale

As creative writers, it is important to understand that the different ways to write a single scene are infinite, some ways more effective than others. A writer could conjure the best plot humanity has ever beheld, but the execution could make it the least compelling story you’ve ever read. Exploring different ways to convey the same plot will allow you to see the distinction between a compelling execution of a story and a poorly-executed version of the same story. When it comes to creating a good story, it doesn’t matter if you have an excellent plot if its execution doesn’t compel your readers.

For Later

Complete this prompt by Thursday, February 23, then see part 2.

Writing Prompt: Synesthesia

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Prompt

In writing, synesthesia is a technique that fuses color, sound taste, and smell together to present ideas, characters, or places. This technique makes ideas “more vivid and adds more layers of meaning to a text for the readers’ pleasure” that makes the piece of writing “more interesting and appealing” (LiteraryDevices.net).

Examples:

“Back to the region where the sun is silent…” – Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

“With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz…” – Emily Dickinson, “Dying”

“All colors immediately fell an octave lower…”– Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

“A creamy blur of succulent blue sounds smells like week-old strawberries dropped into a tin sieve as mother approaches in a halo of color, chatter, and perfume like thick golden butterscotch.” – Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

“The room’s carbonated silence is now hostile.” – David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

Write a list of 6–10 descriptive sentences of your own using the technique of synesthesia.

Rationale

Synesthesia is a device that stretches your brain to create descriptions beyond what one would normally expect, thus breaking away from automatic writing. Choosing how to blend two senses together allows you to practice making connections between two seemingly opposing ideas that create an entirely new texture to your words when combining them together.

For Later

As you continue to write, you may be tempted to use clichéd descriptions, like “white as snow” or “deep blue sea.” By substituting these with descriptions using synesthesia, you will be able to break away from automatic writing—words your readers have heard many times before—and more towards fresh and original writing that surprises your readers.

Writing Prompt: I Remember

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Prompt
The “I Remember” exercise is based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same title. Here are some lines from his book I Remember:

I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

I remember when my father would say “Keep your hands out from under the covers” as he said goodnight. But he said it in a nice way.

I remember when I thought that if you did anything bad, policemen would put you in jail.

***

I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.

(from poets.org)

The key to writing an “I remember…” is to focus on the details of your own memories as your recall them (or (re)inventing the details as you see them). For example, if you are going to write about the your dog’s death, you would not want to write “I remember when my dog died I was sad.” Emotion, if it happens in these, will be in the details; stay away from statements of emotion played straight. Instead, try “I remember the odd angles of my dog Fozzie’s legs and his lump-crushed torso under the Bridgestone off-roads on my Dad’s F-150. I remember he still had his cloudy brown eyes open, looking at me like he did when he wanted to understand what I was saying, full of concentration & what & why.”

Rationale
The “I remember” is a way to mine your own experience and memory for content while simultaneously avoiding automatic language and cliches. Like Brainard’s pieces, you can keep them really short but pack them full of specifics. Try to keep them under four sentences.

This exercise also reminds us that our memories are not as fixed as we might assume. Memories are more fluid and then become fixed when they are recorded and supplemented with details.

For Later
Besides revising or expanding your “I remembers,” you can keep this tactic in your arsenal of exercises to use when you want to create details or start new literary texts but are stuck. You can always edit out the “I remembers” or condense lines or sentences, but I sometimes like the repetition.

Writing Prompt: Ridiculously Difficult Dialogue Assignment (part 2 of 2)

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Prompt
You have created your two characters and sketched them out. By now, I hope you know them pretty well because you are going to thrust your characters together in a crisis situation. Your goal is to tell the narrative primarily by using dialogue. The constraints of the prompt are as follows:

  1. Tell the narrative of a crisis moment (you can define what crisis means, but narratives thrive on engaging tension) using dialogue almost exclusively to reveal the narrative’s action in four pages or fewer.
  2. You are permitted one prose paragraph per page, but the paragraph may be no more than three sentences. Use it wisely.
  3. Characters are only allowed to answer each other directly twice per page. (In literature, films, or plays, the expected answer is not noteworthy, and some of the best writers of contemporary dialogue (think Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino) are good because they write in a style that is different from how we expect people to actually speak. Case in point: “Where are you going?” asked Jim. “I’m going to the store,” said Mweldi. This is neither exciting nor revealing dialogue. But it changes: “Where are you going ?” asked Jim. “Out for coconuts and a quart of rum,” said Mweldi OR “What’s that on your hand?” asked Mweldi. “The store was closed, and I thought I could get what I needed for free,” said Jim. The first example here is a direct answer. The second is less direct and is a bit surprising in how much detail it adds about Mweldi. The third is the least direct of these example; we are left to inference about how what Jim did trying to break in affected his hand.) Mastering indirect dialogue compels readers to engage more closely with the text. When the answers are automatic, readers can quickly inference what a logical answer might be, and so the dialogue gets more or less glossed over. When the answers are strange or force readers to inference, they have to engage their mind at a higher level in order to comprehend the narrative and the speakers.

Rationale
You probably think you have paid close attention to or have been involved in enough conversations in your life to identify good dialogue and perhaps write it yourself. You are probably not correct. The material difference between speaking and writing are vast, and you have to find a way to acknowledge that gap when writing dialogue.

For example, think about how many great conversations you’ve had. I hope you have had at least a few. Now, write a verbatim transcript of that conversation. Most of you cannot do it. Even if you could, you are not likely to be able to remember the nonverbal communication, grunts, tics, pauses, etc. Conversations and the spoken word have a tenuous existence. What is written, however, has (the illusion of) permanence. Someone who reads writing, even writing meant to mimic the spoken word, could ponder it for a theoretical eternity. So dialogue in literature or film has a different material value than your great conversation or even that strange, strange snippet of discussion you heard on the quad yesterday.

This exercise is another that begs you to reveal how you identify with and represent (mimesis) the reality created in texts. Do you need to have dialogue be verbatim and develop “truth” through adherence to real conversations? Do you remember conversations through emotions or visually and are comfortable modifying them to match how your memory perceives it? How do inanimate objects or abstract ideas participate in dialogue? Will your dialogue break down the so-called fourth wall and allow your own authorial voice to enter the dialogue, a dialogue about the dialogue you are attempting to create, perhaps using New Narrative techniques?

For Later
If you are interested in writing prose, you will have to wrestle with dialogue at some point. Pay close attention to dialogue you enjoy reading and dialogue you don’t. Try to glean the writer’s own perception of their creation of dialogue. Does the writer have a lot of dialogue? She probably thinks she is good at writing it. Is the dialogue in a novel or story limited? Does the text warrant this or is the writer covering up for a weakness at writing dialogue? What techniques does the writer use to account for a dialogue deficiency?

Once you have finished your ridiculously difficult dialogue narrative, make a chart that briefly tells the plot of your narrative. Rewrite and change as much dialogue as you can while keeping the narrative structure mostly intact. You can do this as many times as you’d like; it will show you the flexibility of dialogue and test your creative capacity for coming up with different ways to have characters say similar things (i.e., develop a dialogue style).

The concept of dialogue, or the dialogic, does not have to apply exclusively to prose or realist texts. Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, is known for his conception of the dialogic, in which works, authors, characters, other authors, other works, paratexts, and extratexts are all in dialogue with one another across different times and places. Thinking about your work in terms of the dialogic opens up a great many possibilities for relational writing that exploits these inevitable connections rather than subsuming them beneath the myth of originality.