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.

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