Think of a place that you know well—your kitchen, your office, or a spot you often visit—and, from memory, write a passage that describes that place. Focus on the physical characteristics of the space, leaving out any emotion that may be connected to it, and be as descriptive and detailed as possible. The next time you’re there, read your description and see how accurately your memory served you. Take note of the details you may have missed.
Choose a bureaucracy: the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Post Office, the Army, etc. Imagine two people who work there, one a supervisor, the other an underling, and write their letters of resignation. Then write a scene where the two former co-workers meet for coffee three years later.
Compose a poem collaboratively with a friend. Write one line and send it to your friend via e-mail, or by passing a notebook back and forth, and invite your friend to write the next line, building on what you wrote. Continue composing the poem together, line by line, until you have at least twenty lines. Then each of you consider the draft and revise it independently. Compare your final versions.
In the third person, write a scene using three different modes of narrative distance:
- Using an objective point of view, describe a woman boarding a bus. Use only actions, expressions, and dialogue; make no judgments about the scene or about her interior life.
- Using the omniscient point of view, describe the woman striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to her. You can still describe what you see on the “outside,” but now, reveal something “inside” that only a privileged narrator would know. (Is she late for work? Is she worried about something? Is she bored by the conversation?)
- Shift into stream of consciousness as the woman gets off the bus. Continue to access the woman’s thoughts, feelings, and memories, but use the language of the character herself.
This wide range of voices may be extreme, but it allows for a full portrait of a character’s inner and outer life—and reminds us that no point of view is static.
Collect the praises you’ve received for your writing, whether from a high school English teacher, an editor, a friend, or a reviewer. List as many as you can remember, or file the actual reviews together. Keep this list or file handy. When doubts arise while working on an idea, take it out and read them quickly. All writers need such affirmations.
Think of someone you haven’t seen or talked to in over ten years. Imagine you receive a phone call from this person today. Why are they calling? What do they want? Write a story, narrative poem, or dramatic monologue based on the hypothetical interaction; or, write a creative nonfiction piece about your imagined reunion and the reasons you might want or dread it.
Research the origins (Latin, Greek, biblical, or otherwise) of your first name and develop an alter ego for yourself based upon those origins. Free-write for twenty minutes from the perspective of that alter ego, writing about anything that comes to mind—and see what kind of patterns, ideas, or thoughts emerge.
Write a poem in the style and voice of a personals or classifieds ad.
Consider: Who is placing the ad? Why? What do they thinkthey are searching for? What are they actuallysearching for? What has prompted them to place this ad now?
Think back to the closet of your youth, and write an essay about what was inside. Let the contents of the closet become a metaphor for who you were as a child, who you might have wished to be, and who you have become.
Find a story you admire, specifically one with a tight, linear structure. Read the story slowly and thoroughly several times, so that you are emotionally detached from the narrative and able to recognize every sentence as a moving part that contributes to the overall design.
Then read it again with a notebook next to you. Chart the architecture of the story. Indicate a new paragraph with a dotted line running across the page. Separate every instance of white space with a bold line. Track each paragraph, noting every relevant element.
Example: Opens with a description of setting that clues us in to the mood of despair. Character A introduced with a line of dialogue that reveals his selfishness. And so on.
When you finish, write your own story that bears no resemblance to the original except in its design.