5  Exercises

Do you like doing writing exercises?

I have mixed feelings about them.   They can work pretty well, I think, if one tries them honestly but doesn’t take the results too seriously.

The best exercise I’ve ever found is still pastiche.  I did my first pastiche when I was still in my teens.  I spent Saturday afternoons attempting to write a chapter being Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, and Victor Hugo.  Hugo was the hardest:  I had read Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris, and they had blown me away.  But to read and feel moved by them and to write like them require completely different magnitudes of understanding.  I had no hope of succeeding and certainly no pretensions of genius.  Nonetheless, trying to get inside the thoughts of another writer and recreate his or her style–free of one’s own ideas and notions of style–teaches more than anything else I’ve ever tried, read, or heard about stylistics and storytelling.  We tend to think we have a style of our own long before we do, and getting inside another’s style shows just how hard it is to find one’s own way or ways.

I’m teaching a poetry writing course this spring for the first time, and I’ve tried a number of different exercises to help the students think about poetic style.  One day each of us picked a person who should have a poem written about him or her; we started with list-making, describing the person’s traits or qualities, then turning the list into a poem.  One day we talked about haiku, then wrote one–then rewrote it twice to think about other ways of trying to get at the same feeling.  One day we wrote two versions of a quatrain, one with rhyme and meter and one with free verse, trying to make each equally “good” and complete.  One day we wrote about place, again starting with list-making and turning the list into a descriptive piece that might then lead to something more than simple description: an understanding of its history, aesthetics, or personal importance.

I think the exercises are working pretty well and the students are enjoying them.  Last week we had about thirty minutes left in a class period and I asked them if they’d rather spend it working on their previous drafts or trying a new exercise.  I assumed they’d rather chat over and edit their drafts, which they would soon have to turn in, but nearly everyone immediately called out “Exercise!”  So you know what we did.

Another policy I keep in class:  if I ask them to try an exercise, I try it with them, on the chalkboard so they can watch as I work through it.  I try not to think about what I might do with the exercise beforehand, so that I don’t have an advantage; they can then see how I struggle with it and try things (some work, some don’t) just as they do.  I tell them not to use what I write on the board as an example; I do the exercise simply to show them that I value it enough to do it myself, that I would not want to assign it to them without finding out for myself if it has value.

Exercising together, I find, is good for the heart and the lungs and maybe even for the soul.  So far the practice has carried over into the students poems:  I can see them using what they’ve done in the exercises in their subsequent poems.

I don’t know yet if any of these class exercises will carry over into my own private writing.  Lately I’ve been in a stage where I’m so eager to write that I don’t need exercises:  I need ways to stop myself from writing so I can get myself to school to help the students.  Should we have “pause” as well as “play” buttons for writing?