writing exercise | exercise your writing

When I taught creative writing I would often bring my box of clippings into class. Little newspaper stories that caught my eye because of their wider potential. If you go to the old weblog and search, you’ll find some examples (probably the story about the woman who left all her money to Charles Bronson was the most memorable, if you want to look for that one).

Then the class would brainstorm ideas. Was this the beginning of a story, or the end? Who were the main characters, and which main characters were off-stage? What were the possible underlying conflicts and motivations?

Those were also the most lively class discussions, because they really engaged the imagination.

Paperback Writer put something similar on her weblog yesterday, a post about an experience she had when she was waiting in line to mail a lot of packages. It’s a short account of her interaction with an elderly farmer, and how that encounter stayed with her while she tried to come up with a context (a backstory, if you will) that would make her feel more comfortable about what had happened. She lists some of these, many of them quite inventive and excellent material for a short story or a scene in a novel.

Her post is the on-line version of what I used to do in class. I haven’t read the replies, because I want to think about the story on my own terms for a while.

But I will give you one of my clippings, to see what you make of it:

At the border between United States and Canada, an irate father slugged a customs officer who was trying to pry excess Beanie Babies from his daughter. The Economist 12/5/98

Of course the Beanie Babies date this story, but it could be updated with any currently hot toy. It’s such a short story, but it evokes a hundred questions. Was there a history between the border guard and the father? Did they go to high school together? Does the border guard simply remind the father of his ex-wife — who ran off with the pimply poetry loving clerk at Kinko’s, leaving him to care for a sullen, desperately unhappy kid? Or is the border guard the main character? What is going through his head when he sees a nine year old girl clutching a bag of Beanie Babies that makes him lose it?

Maybe (just consider this possibility) he just got a package from his own father, a farmer in Florida. A package that breaks about a dozen laws, because it’s filled with the only present his father has ever given him: mutant grapefruit, the size of cantelopes.

6 Replies to “writing exercise | exercise your writing”

  1. Our view of the clipping didn’t tell the girl’s age. So. The border guard is quite suspicious of a young woman clutching a bag of dolls and wants to examine them for contraband. The father attacks the guard because he has worked very hard to get the dolls for his daughter. She has a severe case of autism, she expresses very few emotions, and the dolls make her happy.

  2. This is just one more insight into your very active imagination. It is rather self-enlightening to realize that I don’t automatically think of such things myself. I wonder if the imagination has been stamped out of me with my scientific classes and training, or if I ever had it. I’m not really sure.

  3. Whose imagination? Rosina’s or mine? If mine, I am a scientist, trained to ask, not what, but why and how. So in real life I’m looking for patterns to explain that doofus in front of me. Why she didn’t have her card ready to pay for the groceries? She knew she would need it when she got in line. Maybe I’ll just smack her and go to jail and not worry about her anymore. Yep, that would teach her!

  4. I was trying to respond to this – but something came out and I need to write it on the forum I think. Excellent exercise. I feel like registering for a creative writing class when you suggest these things, Rosina. Gosh I miss school.

    The nugget of what I was writing makes the daughter in her mid-50s, the father just plain senile, and the security officer calling his buddy, the local AP reporter. The security officer has an axe to grind about not being armed at the border with Canada, and he deliberately didn’t mention the ages or mental states of the parties involved. The daughter may just sue. She’s used to getting what she wants. In the process of suing, she learns the truth about her father’s senility, and as the youngest daughter in a family of five, the other sisters breathe a sigh of relief: finally, Susie Q gets a clue.

  5. I really believe that logic and rational problem solving can coexist with an active imagination. But you have to exercise your imagination; it’s a muscle.

    Pam: glad you decided to take your spin on this to the workshop. Maybe other people will jump in there too.

  6. Another 2 cents…. I’ve attended a number of workshops that highlight creativity, where some come out patting themselves on the back and others slink out. But creativity is in everyone, not just a chosen few. Some dream it out of the air; others implement those ideas. Both are creative. Society would be in a mess if we had only the dreamers. Not much would get done. We need many more implementers, and we need to remember to honor their creativity.

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