This is where my posted writing challenges come to relax after they’ve been posted. These exercises go further than prompts; I hope they stimulate creativity and empathy — and they’re fun!
Writing challenge #10: the cut-up.
Start by choosing a page of text you don’t mind defacing–you can experiment with other people’s words (eg. newspaper article; the first-year philosophy text destined not to open again) or your own (eg. that unpublished novel you have sitting in the bottom drawer).
Next, literally cut it up! Here are a few variations on the theme:
- Tear the page down the middle and reconnect it several lines out of sync;
- With a pair of scissors, cut out individual words or phrases that jump out at you. Mix them up and match them to unlikely partners;
- Fold the page in on itself such that more or less of the central text on the page is missing. The resultant left-right reading becomes your new text. This is a borrowing directly from Burroughs, who cut-up the notion of a cut-up himself;
- In 1920, Dadaist Tristan Tzara developed a specific methodology for writing poems using cut-up. You can learn all about it, and hear William S. Burroughs’ voice, at Open Culture.
You can turn your mixed-up creation into anything you want — a poem, a story, song lyrics, a novel. It might help to decide on the purpose for your cut-up before you start, but I think it’s more fun to mix it up and let the words tell you what they want to be. Above all, enjoy the process.
★ Not enough for you? Try the process with two disparate texts. You might try an abstract from an academic paper, for instance, combined with a fashion column.
Writing challenge #9: write smaller.
- Write a 200-word story. You can base it on anything, but it must be 200 words or less (not counting the title).
- Rewrite it in 100 words or less.
- Got it? Great! Now compact it–to 50 words.
- Ultimate challenge: Can you repackage it into the size of a tweet (140 characters or less)?
How did you go? Is the story you finished with the same as the one you first wrote? How has it changed?
Maybe you struggled to keep your tiny story to 200 words to start with. There is nothing wrong with that; your story might not have been destined for smallness. Remember to micro-size your thinking, for the purposes of this exercise.
Shrinking your stories can help you to pare unneeded words but can be tricky to achieve while keeping a sense of meaning and staying in touch with the magic that made the story tellworthy in the first place.
Writing Challenge #8: do no thing.
Find a place to sit. Just sit–or recline, if you prefer–for half an hour or more. Loll, if you like. Isn’t loll such a great word? Sure, you can drink a coffee if you pre-prepared it; no cheating! Breathe deeply. Don’t aim to think about anything. In fact, aim for blankness. Be quite still.
If something wafts into your mind, let it. Be aware of your thoughts without feeling the need to do anything about them. Let them roll around and ferment and fragment, but don’t try to control them. Keep doing this, for almost as long as you have time.
In your last few minutes, write something down. Even if nothing particularly creative sprang to mind during your nothing time, you can write a few sentences about your experience of doing nothing, about the feelings you had at the start and finish, about the fact that the next time you do something like this you’ll wear a jacket or a hat.
Writing Challenge #7: write a letter.
1. Think about how someone might become a refugee, and what they might go through in the process of escaping their country. Put yourself in their shoes. (5 minutes)
Be careful here–I want you to think not of migrants, but refugees. A migrant is someone who chooses to relocate to a country for a better life; a refugee is escaping imminent persecution or harm.
Think about how you would feel about leaving behind your home, family and job, hurriedly gathering together what’s important. Think about the decisions you’d have to make when leaving–like where to go, how to get there, whom to trust, what to leave behind.
Imagine being in that situation with young children. What would you tell your kids? Would the children understand? Can you really keep them safe?
Imagine what it would be like, landing in another country where you don’t speak the language, having lost friends and family in the process, where immigration officials are potentially hostile.
What would you eat? How would you keep warm? What would your support system look like? How would you communicate?
What do you need? How would you feel?
If you’re having real trouble getting started, watch this video:
2. Pick up a pen and write a letter. (10 minutes)
Now think of a specific person. Someone just like you, having to run for their life.
Write down all the things you could say to them that might make them feel hopeful and connected to humanity.
3. Review. (15 minutes)
Ask yourself: Are your words sensitive and caring? Do they reflect what you really want to say–and what you think the recipient needs to hear?
4. Act. (5+ minutes)
In the process of thinking and writing, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve developed some real emotion. What are you going to do with it?
Even in Perth, a place often touted as the most remote city in the world, you have many options for using your words for the powers of good, including:
- Send your letter to an asylum seeker in detention via GetUp! and Julian Burnside QC.
- If you have children, talk to them about children in immigration detention and find out if they’d like to be a pen pal–through the Befriend a Child in Detention Program.
- Share stories and make friends over dinner, with Amnesty’s Welcome Dinner Program.
You might be one person, but your words might be just the right ones to give courage and light to someone in need.
- SMH–‘You’ve been misled on boat people: Here are the facts’
- The Age–‘Refugee crisis: How you can help refugees trying to reach safety in Europe and here in Australia’
- Neil Gaiman–‘How to help your family and save lives.’
- The Atlantic–‘The Black Route of Death From Syria’
Writing Challenge #6: sit still and observe.
Find a space where you can sit and watch for half an hour. This could be a place that is quiet and alone, or you may be in the midst of a lot of movement.
Don’t write; just observe. Allow half an hour or more if you can. Soak it in.
Ask yourself questions to home your attention–eg:
What do I see?
What does it smell like?
What do I taste?
What can I hear? What am I not hearing?
How do I feel?
Does this scene remind me of anything?
What is changing as I watch?
Is there anything out of place?
Afterwards, give yourself 10-15 minutes to write down whatever comes to mind.
You might focus on the whole of what you observed, or a tiny detail, or your observations may trigger a story. What you produce might be raw, beautiful, ugly, powerful. It might even be the kernel of a something bigger.
Writing Challenge #5: that thing you hate.
Spend a minute or two thinking about something you loathe or fear.
Your something can be a person, place, animal, vegetable, mineral, object. Anything that inspires a strong negative emotion when it comes to mind.
Got it? Good. Now channel that feeling into its polar opposite, and take ten minutes to write about that something as if you love it.
Your time starts…now!
Love and hate are extreme emotions. Be intense.
Writing Challenge #4: dialogue only.
Think of a dramatic interaction between two characters. The scene/characters could be part of a story you are writing or imagined for the sole purpose of this exercise. Write the dialogue that would unfold between the characters, and keep it under 2,000 words.
Write only the dialogue. Do not include any scene-setting, actions, or attributions–even he said/she said.
It can be tricky to begin with, but you may find this way of writing to be your preferred way of getting your characters’ voices onto the page, without the noise of extra words.
If writing in dialogue only seems so tricky to you that you can’t even get going, start off by writing dialogue in your usual style. Then try to absorb the emotion, action, characterisation, etc. that you would ordinarily include in the narrative within the dialogue itself.
If this challenge still seems unsurmountable, look to Bartleby Snopes for some pointers and examples, via http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/dialoguewritingtips.htm.
★ Sound too easy? Add to the challenge by incorporating a third character.
Writing Challenge #3: rewrite a familiar story from another character’s perspective.
Choose one of your short stories. Take a minor or incidental character from the story and rewrite your story from their perspective. The character you choose could be a sibling, a lover, a waitress, a stray dog–anyone, so long as they are not already a central character in the story.
Ask yourself questions like: What’s their backstory? What do they look/smell like? How do they move? What do they enjoy? What/who do they love and hate? How do they interact (or not) with the events in your original story?
If you’re having problems using one of your own stories, use someone else’s story–or a movie, or TV show–that you know and love. Consider a particular event/episode and reflect that from a minor character’s perspective.
This isn’t a time-limited exercise; use what you can spare. You might be surprised at how much the process stimulates your creative flow.
Writing Challenge #2: ekphrasis–write in response to an image.
Choose a picture at random from a magazine, newspaper or website. Write a poem or story in response.
In doing so, think about what may have brought this image about, what it could lead to. Are there certain words or phrases that spring to mind? How does it make you feel? What do you smell, taste, touch, hear? Who or what is standing outside of the image? From whose perspective(s) will you write your piece?
Having problems getting started? Use this photo as your inspiration:
You have 30 minutes for this exercise–or more, if you’re keen. Go for it!
Writing Challenge #1: random words.
Choose five random words and give yourself fifteen minutes to write a story that features all of these words. Your words can be nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, self-created…the more diverse the words, the better. Don’t edit/censor; let go and let your writing flow.
If selecting random words is a sticking point for you, you can: (1) look around the space you’re in and use that as inspiration; (2) select a newspaper, magazine or book, flick the pages open, and let your index finger select five words for you at random; (3) ask a stranger in a cafe to tell you the first five words that come to their mind; or (4) use this random word generator.
★ Add to the challenge by teaming up with two others and each contributing your five words to a pool. Now you have fifteen words to incorporate into your individual stories.
Your 15 minutes starts…now. Go!