Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Writing Exercises

Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior about Seymour Benzer and his experiments with fruit flies is, among other things, a book about elegance. Benzer is a scientist, but his art is the ability to design extraordinarily elegant experiments. Benzer constructed 'fly mazes' which were rows of test tubes where flies could travel toward a light source or stay where they were. (Flies don't need complicated mazes--they're not complicated creatures.)

I would like to be the Seymour Benzer of writing exercises. (It is perhaps characteristic of me that I would seek to emulate people no one has ever heard of. When I was a kid and everyone else was wanting to be Joan Baez or Carol King, I wanted to be Marie Curie.) When I first started teaching, writing exercises didn't address my biggest problems with writing, and didn't seem to address the problems my students had. I read a book called Beat Not The Poor Desk and it had a writing assignment based on the concept of seed sentences. The student was to fill in the sentence, Was I was __________________; now I am ____________________. That 'seed sentence' was to form the basis of a personal essay. And it worked pretty good. Built into that sentence is the turn--like the turn at the end of a sonnet, another classic structure. And from that sentence, students who had been unable to write much sometimes ended up writing the first essay that fully engaged them and also engaged the reader. It was kind of magic.

I thought of it as the Surprised By Sin method of teaching. ('Surprised by sin' is from the literary theorist Stanley Fish and it describes how he thinks Paradise Lost works--that we get so caught up in the charisma of Satan that at a certain point we are seduced, and then suddenly we realize that we have been seduced and we are 'surprised by sin.' That the poem in fact induces us to fall into sin and then allows us redemption. I'm not convinced that Paradise Lost does that but what a nifty mechanism.) In my ideal world, as a teacher, I would give students writing exercises that were structured so that they allowed the student to be successful at techniques of fiction writing, and then to see themselves successful and to understand the technique by doing it. And in an ideal world, I would build exercises that illuminated p.o.v., voice, story structure, diction, dialogue, etc.

The nice thing about writing exercises is that, unlike Stanley Benzer's work with fruit flies, they are not subject to verification. No one can test my exercises empirically, which means I can tell myself that they work the way I think they do. I'm pretty sure they aren't really as effective as I think they are. I'm also pretty sure that just as Ursula LeGuin's diction exercises don't address issues that are central to me, my exercises don't necessarily address issues that are central to most other writers. Writers work in different ways, and have different issues, and know different things, so I suspect even if my exercises address the issues I want them to, they may only help a minority of students.

They help me, if only because they give me a working hypothesis about how certain kinds of fiction works.

I'm thinking that I need to figure out something about endings. Right now I'm thinking about how to structure a writing exercise that backs me (and students) into effective endings.


Blogger Darby M. Dixon III said...

"Right now I'm thinking about how to structure a writing exercise that backs me (and students) into effective endings."

I was reading your post; now I am sitting here with my arms outstretched and my fingers clutching at the air in front of me. "Gimme."

I mean, I need some new method of ending stories; my "Oops, out of cocaine, this story's done" technique isn't doing it for me anymore.

June 26, 2007 8:05 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Darby, I would worry about you except I know you can't afford cocaine.

June 26, 2007 11:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, for the exercise on endings, would you give the students a synopsis of an incomplete story, with a list of the plot coupons collected along the way, and ask them to:
1) write various endings, using all, some, or only one of the plot coupons.
2) choose your least favorite ending. rewrite it in a wildly optimistic manner. select your favorite ending, and rewrite it in a pessimistic manner.

June 27, 2007 12:07 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

That's a great exercise.

I also might have them write an ending which is an epiphany (ala the short story and the way I ended three of my novels.)

Write an ending which take the issues of the work and suddenly expands the world and makes the reader look at thing a whold different way--i.e. recontextualize the who thing they've just read.

But I think if I dictate the synopsis of the story, I've structured the exercise too much towards my conceptions of story. For one thing, I would never ever give them a plot coupon story. It just wouldn't occur to me. And yet , even though it is popular to disparage the plot coupon story, I can't help thinking that there are fantastic ways to address that story. It's a story structure that arises again and again. So either it satisfies something for a lot of readers, or it works well for a lot of writers, or both.

My problem with the ending exercise is figuring out how to generate enough framework of story to be able to do endings.

June 27, 2007 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Austin Kleon said...

i really dig the idea of a "seed sentence"

whenever I'm stumped for a way to start, I use this one suggested by Lynda Barry:

"It was a time when..."

although, that isn't really a sentence...just a beginning.

June 27, 2007 6:28 PM  
Blogger dubjay said...

The way to structure a plot coupon story is to not make it about the plot coupons.

Ideally a quest story is about learning. You don't just grab the Goggles of Foofoo so that you can see the Gauntlets of Uggbubb, which you need to seize the Sword of Hungadunga in order to prove that you're the rightful prince.

Each episode should change the character in some way, the way that Frodo evolves into the person who can save Middle-Earth only to renounce it, and Aragorn grows into a person who can become king.

Thanks, by the way, for the list of cool exercises. My students need beginnings more than they need endings, but I'll bear the ending thing in mind.

June 30, 2007 5:10 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

I'm with Darby--I totally need ending exercises. I know a good one when I read it, and sometimes I can write a good one, but I have no idea how it works.
I like Anonymous's idea; but what are plot coupons?

July 01, 2007 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They are similar to plot vouchers, but instead of getting them at the beginning of the story, the characters collect them along the way.

July 01, 2007 9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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