Welcome to “The Writers’ Room.” This page contains a series of writing exercises and prompts to accompany the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts online workshop of the same name. Each of the exercises is comprised of two parts: “Part A” is generally a short, quick warm-up, meant to give you fuel for “Part B” a longer piece that calls for more reflection and depth. There is no “right” way to do these exercises. You may find yourself moving through each one in quick succession, or you may find that writing several variations of just one part or pairing is more your jam. The only thing I ask is that you give yourself permission to PLAY. Resist the urge to talk yourself out of things. Editing can come later. Now is a time for openness and first steps towards something new. Let’s get started!
EXERCISE #1 – LESS IS MORE
PART A. Blackout Poetry. Take a page from an old book, magazine, newspaper etc. and either make a copy of it or commit to altering the original. (If you don’t have a black marker on hand, you can do a digital version of the exercise by taking a photo of a page and then using “mark-up” to black out words for the final poem.) The point of the exercise is to find a few words within the sea of text on the page that have meaning for you, in the moment. Don’t take too long to worry over things, just take a pencil and circle the first few words that pop and go from there.
After you find the basic shape and idea from the words you like, commit to them by re-circling them in ink. In my example, I’ve taken the extra step of connecting some words with a snaking line between them. This is because I wanted to separate some groups of words into thoughts. You can also choose to only circle individual words, which will simply have a different effect on the page.
Then the fun begins! Start blacking out all other text than the words you want for your poem. It’s therapeutic, it’s enlightening and important. Your brain will reward you for getting rid of all the other text and making the words you chose your own. (A very different experience than if you’d simply written them down or even cut the words out and pasted them on a new page.)
PART B: Take One Thing Away. Now that your brain is used to removing words in order to make something YOURS, let’s stretch those muscles and try writing a longer piece. We’re currently living in a world where handshakes and high-fives are off the table. Some things that were completely normal a few months ago have completely changed. Let’s take that idea and mess around with it a bit. For this prompt, choose one thing from our world (or a character’s world) that’s mundane and seemingly normal, and take it away. It could be anything – erasers, or the colour yellow, or chocolate (heaven forbid!) – whatever you choose. Then explore how the loss changes your character and their world. Does it cause chaos? Does it make things hilarious, wild, better? You can write the piece from whatever POV (point of view) you like. You might even consider what a person 100 years in the future who has never known a world WITH “the thing” might feel upon hearing or reading about it. Let ‘er rip!
EXERCISE #2 – OBSERVATION
PART A: The Six Minute Diary. I’m a HUGE fan of cartoonist Lynda Barry and her books about the creative process. The image above comes from her book “Syllabus” which grew out of the courses she teaches at University of Wisconsin, Madison. It’s the format she assigns to her students for keeping a daily diary. I love it because it’s quick and spontaneous, while encouraging me to be more observant of the world around me. Give it a whirl and see what you think. It only takes SIX minutes! 2.5 minutes to list five things you DID that day; 2.5 minutes to list 5 things you SAW; 30 seconds to write down something you HEARD someone say; 30 seconds to DRAW one of the things you SAW. Lynda is a firm believer that drawing unlocks a part of the brain that nothing else will and thus improves your writing. I don’t care if you think you ‘can’t draw.’ Who told you that? Shame on them! When did you stop doodling? It’s time to start up again. Hopefully this will become a daily habit.
PART B: Setting the Scene. The other thing that I like about the Six Minute Diary is that it gives you a nice little box of “stuff” you can use to write a descriptive scene. It’s all there – setting, dialogue, action. Don’t worry about recreating what actually happened minute by minute (unless you want to document a specific day that way) just pick and choose from what’s on the short lists and let your mind make something new. Also, if you’re already working on a longer piece of fiction, you can even use this format to quickly sketch out a day for one of your characters and then refer to it as you write a longer scene.
EXERCISE #3 – A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS.
Part A: Context is Everything. The human brain loves to make sense of things. Given a set of images (like the ones above,) your mind will do its best to make connections between them to build a narrative. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write a sentence (or two) for each image that when put together makes a loose series of events. (Think small, think Instagram or Twitter.) Order of the images doesn’t matter.
Part B: Where to Start? One of the biggest challenges every writer has is knowing where and how a story should begin. We often think we “have it” when we first sit down to write, but by the time we get partway through, the opening lines feel dull and rambling and devoid of spark. Why is that? Usually it’s because we spent too much time, too many words, setting the stage for action that comes too late to hold a reader’s interest. As the old saying goes, you should approach writing like going to a party, “come late, leave early,” meaning the best way to open a piece of writing is to have it begin later than you initially thought it should. Take the images and sentences you wrote for Part A and use them to play with plot. You probably had an order in mind when you finished Part A. but what happens if you mix them up? When you give the sentences you wrote for the fox to the book? Write a 1000 word short story (or fairytale, or whatever you like) based on the images and sentences from Part A. Start from the point that has the most tension, the most magic. It’s OK to hold things back from the reader. You’re not being mean. Good things come to those who wait.