I’ve been dreaming up some writing exercises and trying to suss out which one I want to post first. And then it dawned on me…what last happened in my own life to make me pick up a pen with a sense of urgency?
It was a found object. I literally found a ring in the gutter on one of my night-time walks around the neighborhood. It’s engraved inside and out, and seems to have once been cherished by someone…so what was it doing in the gutter?
I put a lot of internet snooping into finding the owners of the names engraved inside the ring. As luck would have it, the combination of these two fairly unique names resulted in a couple who no longer seem to be together. Which is sad, of course… I found a picture of them together. They might have been high school sweethearts. It seems that their paths diverged at least four years ago, though.
And then I began to wonder how this ring came to be in the gutter of my neighborhood some four years after these folks parted ways.
So. I began to write.
It seems like the perfect exercise to me. What would you do if you found such an item? What IS the story? Or, bring your own found object to the exercise and use it as a jumping off place into a new story, or as a character building exercise by writing from the point of view of one of your characters…what would s/he do with a found ring? A found…key, pocketwatch, shoe, sweatshirt, pen?…It can be anything! OR have one of your characters be the one who lost, threw away, or intentionally left behind this object of curiosity.
So many possibilities! I might start this exercise over again to go into another story already in the works. Hm…exciting!
Maybe this is particular to a certain subset of the population, but I know more than one person who has another name for who they become when they are…er…drunk.
One friend becomes “Dwayne,” a bullish, brute of a redneck. Another turns into “Kitty,” who purrs and swishes an imaginary tail. And me? Well, I’m Lola.
And it’s definitely a farce for me. I don’t get so drunk that I don’t KNOW that I’m pretending to be Lola. Lola who has red hair (even though mine is really blonde) and speaks in a terribly hit-or-miss (and shame on me, stereotypical) Puerto Rican accent. Who dips her fingers into other people’s drinks (usually just my significant other’s), and dances way more provacatively than I ever would. Who sometimes bums a cigarette from a perfect stranger and takes a few puffs, but mostly lets it burn down, so she can flick ashes like punctuation marks in her conversations. Ha ha, right? Ahem.
But Dwayne, he borders on being my friend’s alter ego. Like a “Jeckyll and Hyde” alter ego. Like “The United States of Tara” alter ego. Dwayne likes to fight. My friend does not. Dwayne likes to smash things. My friend has zero idea how his knuckles got busted up. Dwayne doesn’t talk much. My friend makes a living by talking. Okay, so my friend might have a drinking problem, but it is still interesting how much a person can change “under the influence.”
This scenario can lead to a variety of exercises…here are the ones that come to my mind:
- Who is your alter ego? (If you don’t have one, make one up now!) Who are they and what do they do that is different than you? What does this “person” do that you would never do? Create a new character based upon this “alter.”
- Does one of your characters behave differently when they are “under the influence?” Do they transform into a monster or a pussycat? Do they like to drink? Do they never drink? Why or why not? Or, conversely, are they even more themselves when imbibing.
- Create a situation where a character encounters a Dwayne or Kitty. Are they amused, frightened, disgusted, indifferent? Do they set up Dwayne to get into a fight? Do they play along with Kitty and her imaginary tail? Are they completely bewildered, demanding that the “real” person answer them? Does the “real” person oblige, or continue to hide behind Dwayne’s fist or Kitty’s purr?
Have fun with this one. Use one or more of these exercises to explore a new character or create conflict in a scene. Deepen a relationship between two characters, or create a giant rift.
Lola is off to paint her nails, now (I have a date for Valentine’s Day). Good luck!
If you have read “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel, or “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously,” by Julie Powell, or “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, or…I could just keep going…you know how important food can be to a story. We have it around us every day, we all have our partiuclar favorite dish, idiosyncratic flavor combinations, and favorite (or least favorite) family recipes. If your house is anything like my house, the food I make is what makes it smell like “my” house.
Since taste and smell are two of the five senses, including a food description in a scene can help bring it alive and place your reader into your story. This is a good way to “show, don’t tell” that will make most scenes more relatable. You can also set mood and tone with cooking smells and flavors. You can explain a whole culture by its food. And you can use it in negative or positive ways. Too much, too little, too rich, too salty, or…just perfect.
For an exercise, put food in a scene. It can be prominent or mere background. It can be the focus of a character’s emotion, or a way that two characters relate to one another. It can be life or death.
- If you have trouble finding your way into this one, try thinking about a favorite food from your childhood and how that food made the moment perfect–how do you react now when you have, or even just smell, that same food today?
- Or, think about your favorite food now. Do you go the distance to make it perfect for yourself? Or do you make a special trip to that restaurant to get it once a week? What would happen if you introduce this deliciousness to someone else? Would they think you are crazy for liking it? Would they share your enthusiasm and demand the recipe? Would you share it?
- Or, think about a trip you took and how the food made it an even exceptional experience, or how the food ruined everything for you. What did it smell like? Where where you? Why was it so amazingly good or bad? What did you find yourself “homesick” for?
Your character has been kidnapped!
What is his/her first reaction? Is it a scary situation or just confusing? Maybe it was a pleasant aside that turned sinister, or maybe your character knows the kidnapper and doesn’t even realize what is happening?
Try to create a beginning, middle, and end to the situation…if it ends. Does the character lose his/her identity or sense of what is real? Does s/he dream about her “real” life? Does your character try to escape? How?
Your character has kidnapped someone! Who? Why? What happens?
Even if you don’t use this writing exercise in a story, thinking about your character’s reactions and choices can really help shape them into a more “real” entity with a better-defined personality. And, if you can really take yourself into such a scenario, you might just have a new story on your hands! Good luck!
Once, when I was traveling through Arkansas, I stopped at a rest stop for a bathroom break. Graffiti in such a place can always be entertaining in some fashion, although sometimes it is just childish and/or repulsive. I happened to find a note, however, written with what looked to be a yellow highlighter on a mustard yellow door. It went something like this:
“PLEASE HELP! My name is Brandee Johnson and I am 9. My mom’s boyfriend has kidnapped me. I can’t get away, but I want to go home. My mom is Carla Johnson and live in St. Louis.”
It was written in a child’s big scrawl and very hard to read. I was terrified for her. There were no bathroom attendants or anyone else to ask about the date of this message appearing. I didn’t know what else to do, so I called the state police and told them about the message. I also called 1-800-THE-LOST in case the missing girl had been reported as lost. I also wondered if it was just a childish prank and I was a fool to think it was real. Or perhaps it had been there for months and Brandee was long gone.
Fifteen years later, I still sometimes think about what might have happened to her, and if it was a real cry for help, or a prank.
Write a scene that includes graffiti and what it might or might not be trying to say.
On “making it” into the world of comedy.
Sage advice from a comedienne who started her career writing bits for a puppet (Topo Gigio on the Ed Sullivan Show). You cannot afford to wait around for the perfect situation. Get your foot in the door and then your elbow and then, like the hokey pokey, your whole self. I’ve been waiting for a very long time for the stars to align, my writing room to be completed, my favorite pencils to be on sale…yadda, yadda, yadda.
Once you have decided that you aren’t going to wait around anymore, be vigiliant for those cracked doors just waiting for you to insert yourself. You are the only one who puts limitations on you. And, likewise, you are the only one who can strip them away.
Get to stripping, do the hokey pokey, and get in the door!