I know that I just wrote a short list of exercises for creative endeavors, but as I was looking for a book for a friend, I stumbled upon one of my favorite books about writing, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It contains not just some good advice — but pure gold — and the exercises in the end, the ones John Gardner used for his classes, are diamonds. As a writer, my challenges are many, but chief among them is the fact that everything I write sounds like my voice — my style, my flow, my wordplay. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at times it shows both a lack of creativity and a lack of imagination.
So, to better my skill and expand my voice, I am going to complete a list of a few exercises from Mr. Gardner’s book, and then do them. Although I don’t always take my own advice, it would benefit me greatly to take Mr. Gardner’s. Here, then, is a list of some his best exercises, in no particular order, that I invite you to do, as well.
1. Plot a realistic short story, beginning with the climax and working backwards.
2. Plot a story based on some legend.
3. Plot an interesting novel on a hackneyed subject, for example, about a gold mine, an unfaithful wife, a doomed planet, first love.
4. Described a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death.
5. Describe a lake by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.
6. Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention a bird.
7. Write a two-page (or longer) character sketch using objects, landscape, weather, etc., to intensify the reader’s sense of what that character is like. Use no similes (“She was like…”). Purpose: to create convincing character by using more than intellect, engaging both the conscious and the unconscious mind.
8. Write an honest and sensitive description or sketch of: a) one of your parents, b) a mythological beast, and c) a ghost.
9. Write, without irony, a character’s moving defense of him or herself.
10. Using all you know, write a short story about an animal — for instance, a cow.
These are tougher, more specialized writing exercises. They require work, actual work, and as such, demand more time spent on them. I would set a timer for 30 minutes for each, to start with, or, if possible, a whole hour. I want to stretch those creative muscles, frequently underutilized.
Thank you, Mr. Gardner, for your Art of Fiction — Notes on Craft for Young Writers. My first creative stretch will be considering “young” anything under a 100. So, go on young writer, and get to it.