Writing Exercise

A few weeks ago, when we were talking about characterization in Beginning Fiction Writing, I had my students do an exercise. The gist of the thing goes like this: I put ten or eleven objects on the table--a little chick salt shaker, a Camel buck, a flashlight, a notebook, a binder clip, etc.--and then had the students think of a character who owned all of the objects. After they'd conjured up a person, they had to write down what each object was and list a specific use the character has for the object. Once they were finished with that part of the task, I handed them a sheet of paper with questions like: What does the person look like? Does s/he have any siblings? What is this person most afraid of? What was their first kiss like? What is a secret this person has never told anyone else? To whom might the person tell this secret? etc. The idea behind the exercise is that most of the info. the students imagine will never find its way into an actual story, but the more they know about their characters' lives--both the objects in them and the characters' pasts--the more three-dimensional those characters will end up on the page.

The truth is, I don't like having my students do too many exercises in class. It sometimes feels like a waste of time. But I tend to work three or four exercises into the syllabus each ten-week term, and we almost always end up doing this one.

Anyway. The reason I bring it up: This morning I read a pretty fantastic student story. Really. It was good. Once I'd finished reading it and written some notes to its author, I turned to the last page, the author's note. In the author's note, the student had written that she started writing about the narrator when we did the above exercise in class, and that the story she ended up writing pretty much came directly out of the exercise.

How happy did this make me as a teacher? I don't think I need to tell you.

On a side note: I took all of the objects to school in a plastic grocery bag, which, once I brought it back home, I placed on the bureau where a lot of junk ends up going. I just yesterday took the time to throw away the bag and put away the objects, which, of course, had all come from somewhere in the house.


Lisa said...

That's so great—to actually see tangible results of one's teaching. So rare. Congratulations!

This item in The Writer's Almanac today reminded me of your writing exercise:

It's the birthday of actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress, born in Charleston, South Carolina (1916). She was taken to Harlem, New York, to be was raised by her grandmother, Eliza Campbell, the daughter of a slave. Her grandmother encouraged her to write. She would sit at the window and point to people passing by and ask Alice what she thought they were thinking. Alice would make something up, and her grandmother would say, "Now, write that down. That sounds like something we should keep."

Anonymous said...

Not very often you find a teacher that doesn't believe in doing exercises. Why don't you think they're worthwhile?

Chad Simpson said...

Anonymous--I suppose I should have specified "in class" writing exercises. I think writing exercises are very worthwhile--I do them myself fairly frequently--but they don't always seem to me like the best use of class time, especially during a ten-week term, when we only get about thirty hours of it.