I used to think that one of the biggest differences between writers and other artists was that other artists practiced. For example, a graphic artist has a sketchpad, full of doodles and experiments that were never intended to be standalone pieces. Musicians practice, running through scales or playing music that is never intended to be part of a recording or performance.
I thought writers were different. I argued that when a writer sits down to craft a story, they’re investing more time and effort than the musician or graphic artist. I thought that repetition helped other artists, but not the writer. I now no longer think this is true.
There are exercises a writer can do. This evening, I’ll be meeting up with a small group and I’ll be doing some writing exercises. I’ve met with them a few times, and it’s been a good experience.
Here are some examples of the kinds of exercises we’ve been doing, and the results:
Poem Prompt: An Old House
I don’t remember what the exact prompt was. A poem was read to us, and we had 5 minutes to write whatever came to mind. The poem was about a house. It might have been a haunted house. Here is what I wrote:
The wind parted the faded curtains of the empty window frame as the young woman walked into the yard. Her feet crunched on the gravel walkway. Dry weeds reached up from the stony ground around her, brushing the hem of her skirt. Dark clouds hid from her the stars and dimmed the silvery light of the moon. She shivered as she moved, but not because she was cold.
The porch creaked under her sandaled foot as she made her way to the door. So close to the house, she could see bleached wood in patches where the paint had faded and flecked away from the building’s exterior. She clutched her bag.
We read to each other what we’d written. We didn’t focus on sentence structure or plot. The exercise was all about capturing a mood, and conveying that as quickly as possible.
A Figurine: A Girl on a Swan
With this prompt, the group’s organizer had brought with her a bag full of random objects. We reached into the bag and pulled an object. We then had about 5 minutes to write whatever came to mind. The object I pulled was a porcelain figurine. It featured a thin, dainty fairy, lounging on the back of a large, white swan. Seeing the swan, I immediately thought of The Ugly Duckling. Here is what I wrote:
The giant swan glided across the cool blue water beneath the starry sky. On the great bird’s back sat the frail form of a girl, her legs pulled up beneath her. She was one of the winged people, and her white and pink wings stretched out behind her, drinking in the quiet moonlight.
“It’s hopeless,” the girl said, stroking the swan’s neck with a gentle hand.
The bird continued to move across the lake, its legs pumping unseen beneath the dark water. It swam, straight and true, until the water was broken, and a mer-lass rose up from the depths.
“What’s hopeless?” the mer-lass asked.
A tear rolled down the winged girl’s cheek. She turned her face away, her cheeks crimson.
“Please,” the mer-lass said, reaching up with one hand. “Tell me what’s wrong. Why are you so said?”
“I’m ugly,” the winged girl said, and her shoulders shook with a sob. After a moment, she said, “My wings are all wrong, and my face is too straight and smooth. I’m the ugliest bat girl there ever was, as ugly as this mutant duck.”
I had a lot of fun with this one. The joke was in my mind as soon as I held the figurine, and I was able to type quite a bit in the short time we had.
Image: A Woman in Orange
We were shown an image of a woman leaning out the window of a log cabin. Her short hair and the bright color of her blouse gave me the impression of the 70’s. I focused on her stance and the color of her shirt. Again, we had 5 minutes.
The sounds of the forest surrounded the isolated cabin. Birds chirped, and insects buzzed. A brave squirrel scampered up a tree, its tiny claws making scratching noises against the hard bark. Nature’s pulse beat all around the cabin, but the inhabitants heard nothing.
A woman in orange peered through the pane-less window.
“Damn, Sally! Get back! You want us to get caught?”
The woman backed away from the window at the sound of the man’s voice. She smirked at her companion, also dressed head to toe in orange.
“No one’s coming, Gary,” Sally said, walking towards him.
“For now,” Gary said. “But it won’t be long before the cops are onto us. We need to ditch these jumpsuits and get into some real clothes.”
There hadn’t really been anything to indicate that the woman was an escaped convict. It just seemed like a fun detail to make up on my own and include.
Music: I Will Survive
The organizer popped in a CD and played I Will Survive. This wasn’t Gloria Gaynor’s version. This sounded more like jazz than disco, to me. I focused on the feel of it, rather than the words.
I ducked into the dive, the rainwater pouring off my jacket and off the rim of my Fedora. A man in a bow tie, with too many white teeth and greedy palms tried to take my coat, but I chased him off with a hard look. I was here for business. The kind of business that if it went sour, I’d need to leave in a hurry. I’d keep my hat and coat.
Hank was at the bar, as always. He lifted his chin towards me, and I gave him the nod. Without exchanging words, he drew a glass and drew the arm on the draft. I was there for business, but there was always time for a cold one.
The curtains on the stage parted. The people in the bar shuffled. A spotlight snapped on with a thunk. The bright lights illuminated…
I didn’t have time to get to what I was imagining. I managed to catch the feel, though. I wanted a gritty noir setting. The spotlight was going to illuminate a woman in a sparkling dress, that would then melt the place with her voice.
All of these prompts were based on different stimulus. We had some others where we were to describe a hero, a heroine, and a villain. All of these prompts had a tight time frame, and none of them had any of the pressures that come with trying to write a “serious” work.
These are sketches. They’re practice. And they’re every bit as useful as the doodle’s in a graphic artist’s sketchpad.