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.