Create Your Own Writing Exercise

In those hazy moments between heavy sleep and clear wakefulness, on a morning when I woke without an alarm in a room at once unfamiliar and like every other hotel room I’ve ever slept in, the sentence uttered itself in my mind as sharply as early sunlight through a window:

Dan Foylton is flat.

Where did that come from? As soon as I heard it–and I definitely heard it rather than thought it–I knew the name was spelled Foylton, not Foilton or Foilten. I don’t think I’d ever heard or seen the name before.

New writers often wonder how to begin, how to train themselves, and the answer is simpler than one might think. Author Laura McHale Holland reminds us in Tips for a New Writer that, as with all worthwhile activities, writing grows from practice. Daily practice. The kind of practice that is throw-away, for-our-eyes-only practice, like piano scales repeated in variations or free throws made and missed, over and over, far removed from performance or applause:

“1. Write, write, write every day. It doesn’t matter so much how many words you produce or how much time you devote at first. Consistency is what counts. And give yourself permission to write whatever you want in whatever form you want. You will learn by doing.” Read More

What should you write, especially if you don’t have a larger work in progress at the moment? While many books about writing offer excellent suggestions for daily writing practice, writing exercises can be as simple as taking a phrase that comes to you with the morning sun and using it as the beginning of a story:

“Dan Foylton is flat.”

Rehearsal was already running an hour late. Everyone’s eyes but Dan’s and the choir director’s remained fixed on his individual score. The director stared at Dan. Dan slowly looked up from his tenor notes and stared back.

“Dan Foylton quits,” he said calmly.

Dan Foylton is flattered to accept Miss Katie Nelson’s invitation.

She was pleased with her script. As soon as the ink was dry enough not to smudge, she folded the page so that the corners matched perfectly, and used her just manicured fingers to press the crease smooth.

Dan would be upset with her at first, but this was for his own good. In time, he’d understand and not only forgive her, but thank her.

Dan Foylton is flat broke. Busted. Poor. Pinched. Wiped out. Divested. Yes, he prefers divested. Much more dignified. I’m sorry I can’t join you for lunch today. I’m divested.

How did this happen? Last year at this time he was full of promise, with a new job and new car and a new suit that cost more than his entire college wardrobe, a new girlfriend and new hopes for his future. A new Dan. And then it all started again.

You might later expand what you’ve written into a complete piece, or you might throw it away. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the practice, the work, even if for only ten or fifteen minutes.

The only question that remains is who in the world is Dan Foylton??

Good Morning Pages!

Recently I’ve been feeling rather scattered, not as whole as I do at other times, parts of me—parts of my self—blown here and there without a lot of coherence. So I breathed a small sigh of relief when I read the recent Psychology Today piece “Is Your Brain Like an iPhone?” by Robert Kurzban, author of the new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite (the article contains a nice literary reference to Walt Whitman, by the way):

“[T]he idea that there are ‘multitudes’ in your mind helps to explain various kinds of inconsistencies. If there’s a lot of applications in your head, then they can be doing different things at the same time; oddly, this means that different applications can have different and contradictory beliefs in them. Further, suppose that, just like a smart phone, different applications are in the foreground or background at different times. If behavior depends on which applications are currently active, then individuals can seem to be very different people at different times, depending on all the details of which modules are currently active.” Read More

While the article reassures me that my scattered self is not necessarily a sign of approaching senility or lack of a meaningful integrity, I still want to feel more whole, more solid, less like a collection of apps and more analog.

That’s where morning pages come in. Recently, Christi Craig posted a link on Facebook to a blog post by Jennifer Blanchard on “The Power of Morning Pages,” and I was reminded of how, when I make Julia Cameron’s creativity tool of daily morning pages a part of my life, I do feel more whole, perhaps because they provide a continuous narrative for my days (regardless of whether I ever read them again), linking one to another in ways I don’t always notice at the time.

What are morning pages? They are a little like freewriting, but with the difference that they don’t need to lead to anything else. They can act as a warm-up to other writing, but they can also exist entirely on their own. To learn more, be sure to read Jennifer’s post. In the video below, Julia Cameron discusses how she uses morning pages in her life and why it is important to write them in longhand. She writes in The Artist’s Way:

“It’s like you’re taking a little whisk broom to all the corners of your consciousness, and you’re sort of whisking ‘this is what I’m thinking about, this is what I’m thinking about.’ It’s as if you’re saying to the universe ‘This is what I like, this is what I don’t like, this is what I want more of, this is what I want less of.’ And the universe tends to cooperate with what you spell out in your pages.”

Morning pages, here I come! I’m happy to be whisking again.

Creative Inspiration: Felicia Day, Mad Men, and Create a Scene Tuesday

You know how, every once in awhile, you need some inspiration for your creativity? I’ve been in one of those places recently. Fortunately, there are a lot of creative folks out there who have inspiration to spare. Check these out:

1. Felicia Day

Joss Whedon fans will enjoy Douglas Eby’s piece on Felicia Day (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) and how she turned being “creatively bored” into her latest project, The Guild. The article includes this video:


Felicia also has an extremely fun website. Believe me, this creative and energetic woman will inspire even the couchiest of potatoes!

2. Young Adult Novel: Mad Men Style!

Associate Literary Agent Bree Ogden is issuing a challenge on her blog to writers to give her a Mad Men style young adult manuscript:

“I would L.O.V.E a manuscript in the YA category that explores that time period. I know it has been done before. It’s not like I am asking for anything hugely unique. But I want it like Mad Men. I want it dry. I want it cold and hard. I want it real and unabashed.”

I’m getting ready to watch last night’s new Mad Men episode in about 15 minutes, so I am definitely inspired!

3. Create a Scene with a Witch

At Ketch Tavern, Kelsey Ketch has announced this week’s topics for her “Create a Scene Tuesday” series. How will you write about a witch casting her first spell in a school setting? Let’s share our creations on Kelsey’s blog tomorrow!

Reading-Inspired Writing: The Very Best Moment of Your Day

What should I write about?

A Writing Exercise Inspired by The Anthologist


[Don’t forget to leave a comment here for a chance to win copies of free books!]

In The Anthologist, a quirky, gem of a novel by Nicholson Baker, the narrator—a poet who is struggling to write the introduction to a new poetry anthology—answers a question about how he puts himself in a frame of mind that allows him to write poetry:

“[S]omething cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?’ The wonder of it was, I told them, that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something that I hadn’t known was important will leap up and hover there in front of me, saying I am—I am the best moment of the day.” (pp. 256-7)

What a wonderful idea for writers of all ages to use when we face the daunting question, “What should I write about?”

  • What was the very best moment of your day so far today (or yesterday, or in general)?
  • Visualize it. See it in your mind’s eye. Feel it. Hear it. Touch it.
  • Do some freewriting about it. Or draw a sketch of the moment. This is pre-first draft writing and drawing, uncensored thoughts and images meant for your eyes only.
  • What are the strongest words—either from your freewriting or your mind—that describe the moment? Circle them in your freewriting. Write them down in a list. Try to think of words and phrases that use all of the senses.
  • Use the words in a poem, essay, or short story that captures the very best moment of your day.
  • Revise, rewrite, share.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat.

Listen to Nicholson Baker discuss how he wrote The Anthologist, including focusing on the very best moment of the day:


Further Reading:

“[E]njoy this book’s intensity. Don’t break its spell. Notice the way Mr. Baker glides from Paul’s plain talk to his plummier locutions, knowing that Paul is miserably aware of how he sounds. Share Paul’s joy in the writing he adores. And remember his best ideas as if they came from a classroom, because they could. An essay, he says, is a glass of water. But if a few drops of that water fall on a hot frying pan and sizzle? Then you have a poem.”

Read an excerpt of The Anthologist.

[This post was first published on Everyday Intensity.]

July 9: A Post in Which Nothing is Concluded

Happy Friday, everyone! Today I’m going to do some writing this morning, followed by a stop at Milwaukee’s Bastille Days with my son, then toilet shopping to replace our pre-WWII toilet that finally sprung a leak (we’re consider this one), and, in the evening, a reception where I work, at MSOE’s beautiful rooftop sculpture garden, in honor of Dr. Roger Frankowski, who hired me (gulp) 21 years ago to teach my first college classes. I am forever grateful for the opportunity he gave me.

A good day, but not one with much time for elegant or substantive blog posts!

That said, here are my humble, scattered, offerings:

First, if you are a blogger or web designer or just someone who loves creative and beautiful designs, check out the 10 Beautiful Free Hand-Drawn Icon Sets from Mashable. Here’s a taste:

Twitter Icon

Second, here is my paragraph based on the Edgar Sawtelle exercise from yesterday:

The Edgar Sawtelle paragraph: “The four of them stand in the weeds behind the barn, gazing upward. A ragged patch of shingles the size of the living room floor hangs from the eaves like the flap of a crusty skin, thick with nails. A third of the roof lies exposed, gray and bare. Before their eyes the barn has become the weathered hull of a ship, upturned.”

My original paragraph from a work in progress: Her eyes move from the girl to the open window, where a yellow bird looks in from the low hanging branch of a willow tree, its smooth head tilted to one side. The dip in the road behind the barn is lined with willows. Their sleepy branches fall heavily to meet the ground. She and her cousin play in the coolness of the willow canopies when the Nebraska wind blows hot and dry. They sit with their legs crossed and eat mulberries and wild cherries until their stomachs ache. The wind through this window is a different kind of hot—heavy, wet, pregnant. That other old wind is as dry and light as the summer dust she sweeps off the front steps every morning after breakfast. Henry would know who she was. The thought comforts her.

My revised paragraph in the style of Wroblewski’s paragraph: Her eyes move from the girl to the window view, where a yellow bird sits on a willow tree. The sleepy branches fall to touch the ground like the hem of a work dress, weighted with mud from a walk into town. She and her cousin play in the willow canopies, cool and hidden. The wind is becoming that old wind, the summer dust she sweeps off the front steps every morning after breakfast.

It was good to try to condense some of the information. One of the things I realized is that my style, at least in this work in progress, isn’t too far off from that of Sawtelle. It’s something I’m going to think about more and try to improve.

Finally, an entry from Hattie for July 9th:

3 Pts. of Gooseberries

July 9, 1920 (Boyd County, Nebraska): Was a nice day. Will helped finish Bradstreet’s hay at noon in p.m. They went to Sherlock’s for Binder then Will took it to town for repair. I got cherries ready to can, also canned 3 pts. of Gooseberries. Got afraid because some one was looking for work and Will was in town. I went to Bradstreets in the evening until Will’s return at 9 p.m.

~ From the unpublished Great Plains Diaries of Harriet E. Whitcher