Today I welcome Gail Lukasik to Terry's Place. Gail taught writing and literature classes at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she earned her Ph.D. in creative writing with a specialization in poetry. Here, she talks about three exercises she’s used in her writing classes.
Whether you’re a novice or a seasonal writer, there are times when the writing stalls. In my over twenty years of teaching writing at universities, nature centers, and libraries, I’ve used various writing exercises to help writers jump-start their writing. I’d like to share three of my favorite writing exercises. Each one offers a way back to the page.
Here and Now
Find a natural area where you can observe what’s around you without distraction. Leave all the electronic devices at home. Sit there for twenty minutes and let your senses roam. In your journal, make a list of what you hear, what the temperature is, what you see and smell. If you feel adventurous, walk around; run your fingers over the rough bark of a tree, feel the soft velvet of a flower’s petal.
This exercise is all about being present. Many of us rush through our days anticipating our next task, hooked into our electronic selves, not noticing the world around us. Writers can’t afford that kind of inattentiveness. Good writing thrives on the sensual details that draw readers into our scenes. The Here and Now exercise opens up your all senses to your environment. Many times we rely solely on visual descriptions in our writing. And because you’re merely making a list, the pressure of writing is lifted. Anyone can make a list.
I used this exercise when I canoed the Mink River in the middle of a downpour looking for a murder site for my latest mystery Death’s Door. It allowed me to jot down sensory notations without capsizing the canoe. The sensory experience of that cold rainy day went into my novel and added dimension to the scene.
Writing From Photographs
Find a photograph that you’re drawn to. The photograph should talk to you in some way. It can be a photograph of a family member, a friend, or a complete stranger. The photograph can be a portrait of the person, or the person in a setting.
Write a literal visual description of the photograph. Don’t add commentary to your description, just describe it using your visual sense—carefully and in such detail that another person could read your description and choose your photograph from a slew of other photographs based on your description. Once you’re written your description go over it and choose the three details that most capture that person’s character.
This is an excellent exercise to flex your descriptive muscles. When we’re describing a character it’s crucial to choose the right details. As writers we pick and choose, but we have to pick and choose skillfully. I collect photographs and have used them as inspirations for many of my characters.
The “Best” Worst
Choose an object to write about. It could be an everyday object like a car key or an object of significance such as a wedding ring. Now write a description of that object using clichés, very general language, and vague details. See how “bad” you can make your description.
If you’re feeling energetic do another description of the object, only this time describe it using vivid language, specific details, and no clichés.
There’s something very freeing about this exercise because it gets the critic off your back. Whenever I have students do the exercise it never fails to deliver a lot of laughs as they try to write the “best” worst description. The exercise also supports my belief that sometimes you have to write the awful stuff first to get to the good stuff.
So the next time your writing stalls, try going for a walk, or looking at a photograph, or writing the “best” worst description. Let me know what happens.
Gail Lukasik is the author of the Leigh Girard mysteries, a four-part seasonal series, set in the resort community of Door County, Wisconsin. The second book in the series, Death’s Door, was recently released. Besides her two published mystery novels, she has a published book of poems, Landscape Toward a Proper Silence, and she was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award for her poem, “In County.” Learn more at her website.