Exercises for Writing Creative Nonfiction Help
Exercises for Writing Creative Nonfiction
Personal essays, vignettes, flash nonfiction, letters, and journals culminate not only in the evocation of particular human questions and insights, but in the dissemination of information and the education of readers on particular subjects, the ones the writers are exploring to find answers to life questions.
When you sit down to write creative nonfiction, you may have a word length in mind or the idea for a whole book. You may want to write in journal entries or in one long paragraph, in letter form, or in essays that follow rhetorical patterns of thinking.
The exercises that follow will help you use the material you have from your life, research, and knowledge to write first-person pieces that move and inform others as well as focus or change your perceptions about what you have experienced.
Just Add Water: An Experimental Mini-Essay in a Can by Dinty W. Moore
Author of the memoir Between Panic and Desire and editor of BrevityMag.com, Dinty W. Moore, helps students work in creative nonfiction with this exercise:
Many writers habitually compose memoir-based nonfiction as if someone had once ruled "all childhood stories must be told in chronological order." Though there is obvious utility to relating events in the order in which they occurred, this tidy approach can also be very limiting. Often, it is the juxtaposition of events that gives one's childhood memories meaning, and sometimes the odd juxtaposition becomes a gathering place for discovery and fresh insight. Logic, in other words, is not the only way into the truth.
The following exercise forces incongruity. It also teaches the importance of detail—nouns and verbs, specific moments and particular things. Finally, the exercise encourages the writer to trust "chance" to a certain extent. Seasoned writers often marvel over some element or another that just seemed to show up, unbidden, in their writing, yet ended up being alive, surprising, and richer than where the author was headed. This, of course, is the unconscious reaching up and through the rational mind, but at times it seems random and capricious. If some oddity of detail or language appears in your writing, and it works, then keep it there, and be thankful. You don't have to know why!
The first draft that results from the eight steps listed below may result in a finished experimental mini-essay. I have assigned this to students who subsequently published the (revised and polished) version. But at the very least, it almost always generates rich and fruitful raw material.
Important Note: As hard as I know this will be to do, this exercise works best if you do not read ahead. Don't read step two until you've assembled your index cards and pencil. Don't read step three until you've completed step two. Trust me, it works.
Large index cards are best for this exercise, but they may not always be available, so separate sheets of paper will work as well. This can be done alone, but works even better with writing partners or small groups. You may want to set a timer—give yourself about five minutes for each step.
- Assemble four over-sized index cards (or four separate sheets of paper).
- On the first card: Describe a smell from your past. Don't worry whether or not it is a significant or important smell; all that matters is that it remains in your "memory bank" 10 or 20 or 30 years later. Describe the smell, the quality of the odor. Is it sour or sweet, smoky or clean, sharp or dull? Does it remind you of anything? Keep this to around four or five sentences.
- On the second card: Describe part of someone you love, but just a part. Stick to one physical aspect—your mother's hair, your Aunt Lula's elbows, your little brother's teeth. Be specific. Instead of "dad had rough hands," describe the texture of the palms, the shape of the fingers, the bruises or cuts, the caked oil in the seams. No more than six sentences.
- On the third card: Pick a snippet of conversation from your past, something you heard all of the time when you were younger. It can be significant—a parent's correction or sharp criticism—or seemingly insignificant—a dumb joke your older brother made every time you sat down to eat chili. It can be anything at all. The only requirement is that you heard it and that it remains in your memory bank, for whatever reason. Do NOT illuminate, describe, or elucidate. Just give us the quote: "Drink your milk. You want to have strong bones, don't you?" "I don't like milk." "Don't come crying to me when you're old and rickety."
- On the fourth card: Construct a disjointed list of 30 words, primarily nouns, or nouns with some slight modification. Each of these words or phrases describes a remembered something in your past. For instance, my list looks like this: "Ringo. Sled. Uncle Clem's wooden leg. Cooked cabbage. Howdy Doody. Bugs. Sycamore tree." In this instance, it is not important to give enough information for the reader to fully understand. Just make your list. No phrase more than four words long. Thirty words. (It often works best to write 45 words, and then cross some out.)
- When you have completed the five steps above, take the four cards and shuffle them in random order.
- At the top of each card, write a number 1 through 4.
- To the first card, add this title: "Why I Am Who I Am."
You have now written an experimental essay, in collage form. Read it out loud, including the title, and the numbers at the top of each card. Marvel at the unexpected connections and odd logic.