Unleash Creativity Part 3: Impose Time Constraints

Greta Skagerlind GestureThis post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog on 12/9/15.

My teacher Roy Kinzer routinely warmed us up for our life painting class with a series of timed gesture drawings beginning with lightning fast poses. He required us to use large paper and to fill up the whole page. Grumbles of exasperation reverberated as every 15-seconds he told the model, “Switch.” Sometimes, in his smooth evil voice, he would call the change after only five seconds. Our hands flew. Our charcoal snapped. We tore pages from our sketchpads and cursed. When the beauty of a particular pose made me desperate to capture it, I held my breath until the switch. Details impossible to catch abbreviated themselves into lines expressing movement, rhythm and musicality, as seen in this drawing by artist Greta Skagerlind. Once Roy had us where he wanted us, that is, with our thinking brains shut off and our arms in motion, he would gradually lengthen the poses to 30, 60 and 90 seconds. By the time we reached two minutes, it felt like luxury. He had succeeded in shutting down the part of our brains that wanted to hesitate, deliberate and ponder accuracy. We simply dove in.

Just as I had in Roy’s class, my creative writing students love to hate our timed exercises, which take many forms. Here are a few:

BAG OF TRICKS: I pass around a “bag of tricks” filled with various objects. Each student reaches in and grabs one, a pinecone, a playing card, a broken watch, whatever. Using the object as a prompt, they write for X seconds, and then pass the object to the right until every student has written about every object. Sometimes they write pure physical descriptions using the five senses. Other times they write memories or associations the object evokes. In the spirit of gesture drawing, we start with 15 seconds of writing and work our way up to a minute or more.

NOUN VERB SWAP: In a variation of the above exercise, I ask each student to write on separate slips of paper a verb and a noun. I tell them to go for highly specific words (“wire fox terrier” over “dog” or “paraded” over “walked”). Next, I set the timer and have them pass nouns to the left, verbs to the right. Students combine the two words in their hand into a prompt (…the wire fox terrier paraded…”) and write for a minute.

SPEED DATING: We do similar exercises in pairs, wherein students “speed date” by joining their words to a partner’s words for a blitzkrieg brainstorm before the timer sounds and they move to the next person. Inevitably they argue and beg. “We were just getting started!” Eventually, I increase the time.

IN-HOUSE FIELD TRIPS: The exercises the students love best are in-house “field trips.” For example, if we are brainstorming for a one-act play, I send them out of the classroom to collect eavesdropped dialogue for ten minutes. Another day I might have them pick from a hat a particular location in the school (library, cafeteria, gymnasium, etc.) and send them there to speed write sensory details (sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, colors, shapes, etc.) I ask them to write down both the obvious ones (the sound of a basketball bouncing), and those that normally fall below conscious awareness (the clinking of utensils, the hum of an air conditioner). When they return to the classroom ten minutes later, they share their spoils.

Lynda Barry Syllabus2-MINUTE SELF PORTRAITS: This idea comes from cartoonist Lynda Barry’s book SYLLABUS. Instead of drawing themselves as Barry suggests, students write a description of themselves in the 3rd person present tense using as many sensory details as possible. It might be a portrait of themselves when they arose from bed that morning or from when they were 5-years old. Their choice. Many of the wonderful cartooning exercises described in both SYLLABUS and WHAT IT IS are easily amended to writing.

5-MINUTE STEPPING STONES: Adapted from Ira Progoff’s INTENSIVE JOURNAL METHOD, this exercise asks students to map their lives in 8 to 12 stepping stones beginning with, “I was born,” and ending with the present. The stepping-stones could be external markers such as “We moved to Brooklyn” or “I made my bar mitzvah” or more interior ones, “I was afraid of the boys in my gym class” or “I had a crush on Lisa.” Stepping-stones can be done multiple times with different results, depending on how you’re seeing your life that day. They can also be done for a certain time period or project, such as the stepping-stones of a novel you’re working on.

7-MINUTE INVENTORY: Also transmuted from Jungian scholar Ira Progoff, this exercise asks students to take stock of their current life circumstances through a series of quick lists. For example: Who are the people in your life right now, both the inner circle—family and friends—and the outer circle—the gas station attendant, bakery cashier or others you see daily but may not know by name? We go on to list recent life events, projects we are working on, current circumstances relating to our bodies (health, sleep, diet, exercise, sexuality) as well as the current places in our life, both those we visit and those we think about. Next comes a brief list of our societal circumstances (home, office, school, town, nation, etc.) followed by any recent dreams we may remember. After compiling the list, I ask students to write a paragraph beginning with the phrase, “This has been a time when…” or “This time has been like…” Often a simile is waiting to unfold.

These exercises are fertile additions to what Anne Lamott refers to in BIRD BY BIRD as “the compost heap” of our journals. Lump these things together on a page and something is bound to combust. Whether describing an acorn in 15 seconds or writing a life inventory in 7 minutes, the clock we love to rail against is our writing ally.

Unleash Creativity Part 2: Emulate the Masters

Mona Lisa Eric Terrade

This post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry blog  on 12/8/15.

For my students’ first poetry assignment this year, I distributed a dozen past issues of BEST AMERICAN POETRY along with other anthologies snatched from my shelf and asked them to browse through and settle on a poem that caught their eye, one whose style or cadence made them envious, a poem they wish they had written. Next, I gave them several prompts to consider and we did a bit of memory brainstorming around those ideas. In particular, we conjured up the memory’s smells, tastes, sounds, textures and visual details. Finally, I asked them to use their brainstorm to construct a poem in the style of the one they admired.

Initially, some students were not enthralled. Hadn’t they signed up for this course in order to unearth their own personal voice? Why imitate someone else?

I described the copying exercises that are part of traditional visual arts training, in which the student tries to create a replica of a masterpiece by analyzing the brushstrokes, composition and color. In the painting classes I took with artist Roy Kinzer, (seen in photo) we sometimes started with monochromatic under paintings, as the masters did, and built the painting up from the inside out, endeavoring to mix colors and apply brushstrokes to resemble the original. The learning curve was steep. The point was not to do one such copy and subsequently forever paint like that artist, but rather to do dozens of them from a wide range of styles, each time depositing another tool in the toolbox, building up our own style. Art forms, whether painRoy Kinzer Shanghai Cuttingting, poetry, dance or music, move forward collectively, an unfolding conversation. Picasso borrowed from Braque, Braque from Cézanne and so on. Last year, a student of mine named Michael wrote an emulation of Major Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry” called “Why I Do My Homework.” Another student named Dani wrote an emulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map” entitled, “The City,” which Poetry.org selected for publication on their website. These poems were not appropriations of Jackson or Bishop, but a salute to them. This year, a student wrote an emulation of Robert Haas’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa,” an emulation of an emulation!

I sometimes do a similar exercise with fiction. I give students signature lines from established authors with a wide range of styles—Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Borges, for example. (Having asked my English Department colleagues for their favorite lines of literature, I have an ample supply). I then ask the students to pluck out the nouns and verbs and replace them with their own words while retaining the scaffolding of the sentence. What’s left is a syntax the student may never have considered using before. While there’s no immediate end product to this exercise, it attunes their ear and broadens their idea of what’s possible.

Strictly speaking, these are not true copying exercises in the style of the visual arts, but many writers do find it useful to handwrite passages they love word for word as a way of absorbing their rhythm and structure.

Perhaps the best part of an emulation exercises is that it offers students the luxury of wading through stacks of poetry anthologies to find a poem that speaks them. It all begins there.

Tune in to tomorrow’s post to see how time constraints can be your new BFF.

Unleash Creativity Part 1: Give Students Chains to Break

HarryHoudini1899This post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry blog, 12/7/15.

Give your students a Houdini challenge. Having taught creative writing for more than ten years now, I’ve found the most restrictive assignments, the ones they gnash their teeth over, invite the most inventive work, while the free-for-alls they beg for often produce reams of ‘meh.’ I’m talking high school students here, but writers of any age enjoy outwitting a dare.

When I was a high school student myself, my English teacher asked us to write a story on the theme of violence. Maybe he was trying to engage the bored freshmen boys by giving them the chance to write shoot-em-up stories (not so quaint anymore). I thought the theme was stupid and retaliated by writing about the violence of being silent when your voice is needed. I thought I had tricked the teacher by twisting the prompt to my own design. Of course, he had tricked me by giving me a chains to break open. Read More »

Writing for Free: Like it or Not, the Information Revolution is Making us Generous

Word of Osama bin Laden’s death fired through social media networks before being reported by official news agencies, who rightly awaited the formal announcement. We used to get news from newspapers, poems from literary journals, and novels from bookstores. Now, all can be accessed with a flip of our laptops or phones, much of it for free.

It would be freer still if Google had its way. Although Google’s plan to scan, index, and make every book available online was struck down in court last month, we all know that sort of accessibility will eventually come to pass. Why? Read More »

Mod Podge Interview

Today, as part of Hearts, Flowers, Romance, Tess Callahan is here to share her most romantic memory- one that will have you all swooning and itching to pick up her debut, April and Oliver. Click here to read the interview.

A Friendship that Keeps Distilling Thirty Years Later


wlogoTess Callahan discusses how an unlikely friendship can change your life. (Originally published by
Waterstone’s Book Quarterly).

My novel, April & Oliver, germinated in part from my own experience. The book explores a tumultuous relationship between former childhood friends who alter the course of each other’s lives. Nowadays, we tend to pooh-pooh the idea that a single person can change your life. It’s more popular to think that we single-handedly manage our destinies. But do we? Read More »

Beauty and Danger

216_heron13k400Our 21 year old cockatiel sent alarm shrieks through the house at 6AM. I flew out of bed and downstairs to find a Great Blue Heron beside the pond, gazing in in at the trusting fish schooling in its reflection. Such beauty and magnificence. It took flight, but how long before it decides to risk the trip lines placed there to foil it? Thank you, old man cockatiel!

Are Human Beings Maturing?

The Oil Spill, the Dalai Lama, and Reason for Hope

One of our most exhilarating moments during a whale watching trip off Cape Cod was when a northern gannet skimmed the sea just beyond the bow. My children and I hung over the rail, taken by the bird’s power and agility. Its distinctive plumage and bluish beak made it easily recognizable when I saw one in the news recently, plucked from the Gulf Coast oil spill. The marine life that showed itself to us on Cape Cod – whales, terns, plovers and seals – had a magical effect on our suburban hearts. Now, as we see related species such as brown pelicans and sea turtles affected by the spill, the big space those animals created inside us is filling with disbelief. How could we let this happen? Read More »

Enemies Can be Good for a Child’s Development

Can your Child's Enemy be a Friend?Parents, take heart. Your child’s enemy at school may be contributing to his/her social maturity in the long run. Check out this excellent article from the New York Times science section.

The Creative Process: Painting, Writing, and the Case for Ruthlessness

hindu-gods-kaliEven before I began writing, I loved to draw and paint. Although it came easily to me, I never considered it as a profession. Maybe I was afraid of the impracticality, or like my character, Oliver, (in my novel April & Oliver), I was simply afraid. Accessing one’s own creative power can be terrifying. Disowning it, on the other hand, opens the door to catastrophe, as poor Oliver finds out. Read More »