The Opposite of Worry
The Second of the "Silly Exercises"
To underscore that writing advice is mostly nonsense: I just took our dog for a walk and noticed myself…planning out a whole story, in advance, in my head. I said to myself, “But is exactly what you were just advising against! Earlier today! In that post!” And then I thought, “Yes, but this time, it might actually work!”
Although, you know - it could. (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, and so on.)
But here’s something that is generally true (for me): my best stories often come when I am following a certain voice, as opposed to "trying” to do something (tell a clever story pre-freighted with meaning, or make some political point, or even “trying” to not be in control). There’s a feeling of honoring the sound and trying to attain a certain fullness of effect and not knowing why people are saying what they’re saying and then, bango, suddenly something interesting starts to happen. Or at least my best stories tend to start in that way - in this sort of disinterested mode, while I am trying to make a compelling sonic pattern, one sentence at a time, the result of which might not even make much sense. There’s a feeling of steering by ear, maybe - a deliberate attempt to avoid commonplace-sounding sentences, for one thing. (Trying to make the sentences interesting enough to vault the reader out of her disbelief.)
What vanishes in that mode is that little planning voice that wants to run out ahead of me, laying down clever, premeditated tracks for my train to follow. It feels a little like the kind of comic improv we used to do around the neighborhood as kids, just talking without pre-qualifying what was about to get said - blurting things out, and then discovering something in the process (about the character you were embodying, usually). It’s not possible, I don’t think, to write a whole story in this mode, but for me it’s a great way, at the beginning, to try and outwit myself - to make the seed of a story that doesn’t know what it is or what it is trying to do yet.
And again - this is just one mode of the infinite numbers we can inhabit while writing. But it’s a mode I really love to be in. It is almost entirely free of worry, because it is made up almost entirely of exploration…genuinely not knowing what I’m trying to do. It feels fun and powerful.
But it’s not easy to get there.
So, here’s an exercise I’ve been assigning at Syracuse for many years. I kind of stumbled on it and was really surprised at what happened in the classroom. Full disclosure - this exercise is in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” as Appendix B, so apologies for the repetition — but I feel all right about (re)using it here because, in all of the letters and emails I’ve received about that book, in only one (1) has the correspondent mentioned having actually tried this. :)
O.K, so here’s how we’ll approach it. I’ll give the assignment below. If you’re inclined, give it a try. I won’t say anything in this post about what to expect during it or any of that. Just try it as described and then, if you feel like it, post the result in the comments. No pressure to post…just if you want to. And/or you might write a little about what it felt like to do the exercise.
Next post, I’ll tell you why I assign it, and how it works (or how I think it works).
All right, here goes:
Set a timer for 45 minutes.
Write a 200-word story. But (and here’s the trick), it has to be exactly 200 words long (not 199, not 200) and you can only use 50 unique words in the process.
You’ll figure out how to keep track of your word count. One way is to just keep a running list on another page. So, if you write, “The rain in Spain…” your list will look like this:
And then you’ll “have” those words to use as you move forward — and will only have 46 words “left.” When you hit 50 words, that’s it - you have to start reusing words. And for the purpose of this exercise, every word is a new word (“dog” and “dogs” are two separate words). And yes, articles like “a,” “the,” etc. count as words.
If you have procedural questions, post in the Comments and I’ll answer.
You are all amazing me with this. I have to admit - I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I started Story Club but I am finding your playful courage and energy and generosity to be just mind-blowingly gratifying.
This exercise! At first I felt unmoored. Like how is it possible to make a story so fast (45 mins!) with a 50-word vocabulary? But then once I had a problem I liked, something I could play around with, then it felt more like a game, a word puzzle even. I made a table with five columns and ten words per column and having the words displayed like that made it easier to pick what to say. I was surprised by how much I liked the limits — it forced me to think about how to use nouns and verbs creatively. I liked making my characters repeat themselves within these limits. I noticed the repetition ended up being what moved the story forward. I like that the outcome is something whole and farcical, and also sad in parts, too. Anyway here is what I came up with:
“A snake in the room,” Tom says.
Her heart slams off. “No. It’s our honeymoon,” Emma says. She sits, the bedframe complains. She wants a drink.
“It slinked into your duffle.” Tom stands. “Where are my slippers?”
“You dreamt it.” Emma stands, her cheap nightie strap slips off. “Too much wine.”
Tom complains, it’s his honeymoon too. “I will drink what I want.” He had not dreamt it, he says.
Emma wants wine. “In the duffle?” Slippers on. She opens the duffle, her heart complains. No snake. She slips off her nightie. “It’s our honeymoon.” Emma sits, the bedframe opens. She says, “I want you.” She wants wine, too.
“The snake?” His heart slinked off. Her nightie is too cheap. He had not dreamt it. Where are his slippers?
“Tom, too much wine,” she says. “It’s our honeymoon,” Emma complains.
Tom slams the duffle. He had not dreamt it. “Not too much wine,” he says. “Too much Emma,” he opens the wine. “Drink it,” he says.
She drinks it. “Where are your slippers?” she says. His slippers are in the duffle.
“Emma, I dreamt you,” he says. His heart opens.
The snake slinked on the bedframe. It wants a drink.